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Column: The brave faces of recovery



For the Valley News
Saturday, April 27, 2019

Laryssa graduated early from high school, got a job and was able to pay for her own car and her own apartment. It wasn’t easy an easy route for her. She’d been sexually and emotionally abused at home and, at the age of 13, turned to alcohol and marijuana as an escape. That made her cool in the eyes of her peers, she learned — a reputation many teenagers would want to maintain. But when she got pregnant, she stopped drinking and smoking.

“I had it all,” she recalled recently.

It didn’t last.

After giving birth to her first son, Laryssa (who asked that her last name not be used) was prescribed painkillers. She eventually developed a dependence on them and later started using heroin. Heroin eventually led to other substances. “One would stop working, and I’d have to move to the next more potent substance just to escape my reality,” she said during a recent interview at Upper Valley Turning Point in White River Junction, a meeting place for people in recovery that is operated by the Second Wind Foundation.

After her second child, Laryssa eventually came to the devastating realization that, because of her addiction, she couldn’t care for them. The Department of Children and Families got involved. It took the last bit of willpower she had left, she said, to give up her children.

“I didn’t know I’d have to choose what would be best for my kids, (and that) it wasn’t me.”

Although Laryssa recounts painful memories like these directly, with intensity and seriousness, she is friendly and optimistic and often wears a bright, contagious smile framed by her burgundy hair and blue-gray eyes. We spoke with her at Turning Point to hear a personal account from someone who has gone through the depths of substance use disorder — commonly known as addiction — as part of a project for our public speaking class at Dartmouth College.

Laryssa and the others we met at Turning Point said the community helps keep them from feeling “alone in (their) vices.” The cozy space hosts several groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Refuge Recovery, which is a mindfulness meditation group, and All Recovery, which is for individuals struggling with any type of substance use disorder. The people we met came from all walks of life. If we’d seen them outside the context of the meeting place, we would have had no idea what they had in common.

They all share the constant struggle to stay in recovery, and also the constant burden of society’s stigmas. They receive little empathy because most people misunderstand addiction as a choice — that it’s somehow the fault of the person with substance use disorder. The truth is, as Laryssa told us, “Everyone has a vice. … Some of them just happen to be illegal.”

Laryssa explained how she conceptualizes choice: “I chose to pick up (pot and alcohol) the first time (and to) start partying with people early on,” she said. But soon “addiction takes the choice away from you.”

And for far too many, addiction also takes their lives.

According to a recent CNN report citing an article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the mortality rate from synthetic opioids in 28 states more than doubled every two years from 1999 to 2016. Indeed, the Upper Valley is an epicenter of the crisis, as “New Hampshire and West Virginia saw the biggest drops in life expectancy, of more than a year, due to opioid deaths.”

Sheila Young, executive director of the Second Wind Foundation, said the stigma inflicted by those who haven’t experienced substance use disorder is a big part of the problem because it makes it far more difficult for those in our area who are suffering to reach out and ask for help.

Laryssa eventually met another man and was able to stay sober for a while. They got engaged, but she relapsed shortly before their wedding date. The wedding fell through, and she was lost again. Then, for the first time, she started using needles to escape her guilt about the past and eventually wished for death to end the pain.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of her story.

“When I found recovery and recovery found me, I had to talk about it and address everything swept under the carpet — to get over the carpet,” she said. She’s been dedicated to the process for several months now, continues to address her past and is very open in talking about her recovery. She is grateful for her “A-Team” of recovery role models at Turning Point, who helped her see that even in recovery she could still have fun, and showed her what “hard work, determination, dedication to sobriety could look like.” They gave her hope, and continue to support her through the lifelong process of recovery.

Although Laryssa spends most of her energy looking to the future, she reflects poignantly on her past. When she chose to have kids, she said, based on everything she knew at the time, it was a good choice. She never imagined having to give them up: “For me it was traumatic, but it was a blessing for them.”

We found it valuable to look at substance use disorder the way we look at skin cancer. The likelihood that an individual will suffer from either is influenced by an individual’s genes and, to a certain extent, by that individual’s choices. However, it seems that skin cancer — also influenced by how much time one spends in the sun without protection — is as much or more a result of choices within an individual’s control than is substance use disorder. Furthermore, any choices that an individual does make to use substances are often heavily influenced by a need for emotional escape or social pressure.

Speaking with Laryssa and sitting in on a meeting at Turning Point was inspiring. It infused in us a new sense of empathy and respect for people in recovery and their bravery in facing the challenges of substance use disorder.

Kenneth Y. Zhu and Bryton L. Moeller are students at Dartmouth College. They wrote this piece as part of social impact project for their public speaking class.