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With overdose deaths at all time high, more hope for NH recovery

Sunday, July 05, 2015
Investigating drug deaths has become an increasing part of the daily routine in the state medical examiner’s office.

In 2014, drug overdoses killed a record 326 people, and as of July 1, the New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s office has confirmed 132 drug deaths and counting.

“Those kinds of numbers are eye-popping,” said Dr. Thomas Andrew, New Hampshire’s Chief Medical Examiner.

Drug deaths have surpassed traffic deaths, suicides and homicides in New Hampshire.

“The only thing they’re not surpassing is natural deaths,” Andrew said. “When you transition from doing 40-50 drug deaths a year to 300, obviously that changes the face of what you’re doing.”

Everyone agrees the situation is dire, but in New Hampshire, the tools to fight what many state officials have called an ‘epidemic’ are scarce. The New Hampshire Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services estimates that more than 100,000 people in the state suffer from addiction, which is clinically known as substance use disorders, but they have resources to treat 12,000 of them.

When facing a lack of state resources to help stay sober, recovery advocates — many of whom are in long-term recovery themselves — are taking matters into their own hands.

Recovery centers are springing up around the state with support from private money and donations.

“I see a lot of soldiers on the ground willing to do work if the resources are available,” said John Eldredge, co-founder of Dover-based Bonfire Recovery Services, a transitional living house for men starting out their recovery. Bonfire opened its doors last April.

In the basement of a brick building along Canal Street in Manchester, advocates are just opening up the state’s first official recovery community center.

They envision the Manchester operation — run by statewide nonprofit Hope for New Hampshire Recovery — as the launch pad for a statewide network of community centers that will support not only those recovering from addiction, but also their families and friends.

Recovery centers are meant to help people who have recently gotten clean through treatment, maintain sobriety over the long-term.

As soon as staff turned the phones on, people began reaching out for help. Last week, administrative assistant Karla Gallagher got a call from a grandmother looking for resources to help her grandchild, who struggles with addiction.

The Manchester center has already begun telephone support services. Last week a volunteer made calls from a desk nestled in the center’s beige resource room, checking in on those who have recently left treatment. In mid-July, the center will begin running recovery meetings every business day at noon. The model is peer-driven, where people in long-term recovery coach others just beginning the transition, on how to live successfully without drugs or alcohol.

“We’re here to help people sustain their recovery, which is always the greatest challenge,” said Cheryl Coletti, a board member on Hope for New Hampshire Recovery.

From where he sits in the Medical Examiner’s office, Andrew said treatment and recovery services are crucial to stemming the “rising tide” of death he calls “relentless.”

“What I see is ... it’s really quite literally the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I’m just cleaning up the mess after the fact. The problem has to be addressed at introductory levels.”

Recovery Is Key

When it comes to substance abuse, there’s a big difference between treatment and recovery, advocates say. Treatment is the process of detoxing from drugs and alcohol.

Recovery is everything that comes after. It’s the long road that takes lots of little steps, tons of support, and for some, the help of a higher power to stay clean.

If you’ve spent the past 10 years fixated on heroin, cocaine or alcohol, there’s a serious learning curve for living life without, according to those in long-term recovery.

“Take your most favorite thing in the world to do, and just imagine someone says you can’t have it for the rest of your life,” says Cheryle Pacapelli, director of recovery policy and advocacy for New Futures. Pacapelli is also in long-term recovery, she’s been sober for more than two decades.

Getting clean for those in full-blown addiction usually requires an intensive 28-day residential program. But being monitored by full-time staff in a drug-free environment is one thing, recovery advocates say.

What happens when those same people, just days into their recovery, get pushed back into the real world, where the corner store sells beer and a drug dealer is just a phone call away?

Addiction doesn’t just go away overnight, advocates say. It takes months, sometimes years, of re-learning how to live life free of drugs and alcohol.

“We look at them like street thugs, but they have a disease that has to be treated and cared for, for the rest of their life,” Pacapelli said. “If the expectation is that we don’t want people to use, we have to provide people with (the) option.”

Talking About Addiction

Addiction still carries stigma, but many in long-term recovery are starting to speak openly about their past drug and alcohol use.

The good news? The recovery community in New Hampshire is built on peer-to-peer support, with those who are in long-term recovery helping those who are just starting out.

“There are experts on recovery, and it’s us,” says Dean LeMire, a case manager at Bonfire House who is in long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol, including heroin.

Where others see the most desperate cases, “we see opportunity and we see hope,” LeMire said. Counseling men who are seeking a way out of their addiction is one of the important ways LeMire maintain his sobriety.

“I’ve never felt as alive as I do when I’m sitting one-on-one with somebody (and) I know I’ve been there,” he said.

Still, the social blemish surrounding addiction persists.

“The perspective of the public still seems that people who are affected by substance use disorders should cut it out,” said John Eldredge, one of the co-founders of Bonfire House. “We are making a little bit of a shift, but we have a long way to go.”

Recovery advocates believe everyone has a stake in the issue. Whether or not you know anyone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, substance abuse costs New Hampshire $1.15 billion per year in lost worker productivity, public safety expenses and healthcare and criminal justice costs, recent studies have shown.

Advocates say the stigma will lessen as more share their stories. They also want to convey a message of hope.

“I’m passionate about recovery,” Eldredge said. “I know it’s possible, I know people can get well.”

Allie Morris contributed to this report.

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