As treatment pathways and recovery organizations continue to grow throughout the Seacoast, so too has the number of locals questioning their effectiveness as high-profile overdose deaths are reported throughout various community channels.
According to local recovery leaders, that doubt isn’t just found in toxic social media commentary about the opioid crisis. It has crept into local meetings and programs. In turn, they say it’s creating a traumatizing ripple effect that undermines support systems while propagating falsehoods about a misunderstood aspect of substance use disorders (SUDs): relapse.
“It’s definitely a struggle to understand why or how someone comes to a setback or relapse,” said Lynn Fuller, the state’s family support coordinator. Fuller has two sons in long-term recovery and their addictions inspired her to create a family support group in Farmington called Circle of Hope. “We have to remind ourselves our people are not cured (just because they’ve been in treatment).”
Recurrences of substance abuse happen throughout all stages of recovery because being in recovery is a never-ending learning process for many, according to individuals like John Iudice, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor and program director of Addiction Recovery Services, which has locations in Portsmouth and Salem
“I think as a society we’re very impatient (and) rush to judgment,” said Iudice. “And it’s even modeled by a lot of our leaders, and that just promotes addiction. It promotes divisiveness, it promotes stigma (and) it promotes ostracizing people, which is just going to isolate people and increase addiction. So as a society, learning to be more patient and learning to stop and try to understand what’s going on with a person before we assume we know everything about how bad they are, that’s going to promote recovery.”
Support, the gateway to healing
Triangle Club Director Autumn Allen said support is the starting point for preventing relapses and de-stigmatizing setbacks. She believes natural support systems are the most important piece in the recovery process next to addressing underlying traumas that contribute to an individual’s substance abuse.
Stable housing, supportive workplaces, education about coping strategies, social interactions where anyone can speak openly without judgment – by giving individuals better access to these things, Allen said the community can better prevent SUDs and help people in recovery withstand the types of stressors that undermine recovery.
“Until we can help people heal, they’re going to continue to relapse,” said Allen. “As a society, I think we expect people to just know how to live (with addiction), but… it takes time and it takes a lot of energy.”
There is no one-size-fits-all, but Allen said a more welcome approach, regardless if someone is using or abstaining, would go a long way. She said it would show people in recovery, and the community as a whole, an individual who relapses isn’t a hopeless cause.
“When somebody relapses and they walk through those doors,” Allen said, tearfully gesturing to the Triangle Club’s facade in Dover, “it’s a celebration. There aren’t many places that offer second chances, especially to (substance users). And we hear it all the time – ‘If they just didn’t use, they wouldn’t have a problem.’ Well, that’s not fixing anything.
“Anytime there is a relapse, or an overdose that results in death, it’s a retraumatization for everyone who comes into these halls. There is a sense of mortality that is glaring you in the face, but for some individuals it also (makes them question), ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I trying so hard to stay sober if so-and-so couldn’t make it?’”
It’s common for the media and recovery organization literature to promote the successes of individuals in recovery. It can show others they too can succeed. One such example is Safe Harbor Recovery Center’s Ryan Fowler. Seacoast Media Group featured Fowler in a story last Friday as he thanked the Hampton firefighters who saved him after three overdoses. However, Fowler said there are unintended consequences of this type of publicity that can further engender the shame that prevents people from disclosing recovery setbacks.
″(It) puts an individual with SUD on a pedestal and makes it very difficult to reach out for help when they struggle,” he said, acknowledging individuals highlighted in this way are often young people in early recovery. “Early recovery is about learning humility