The middle-aged woman’s voice quavered as she stood and spoke at the open forum about opiate and heroin addiction at University of Maine Augusta’s Bangor campus on Wednesday evening.
She told the story of her brother, a long-time opiate abuser who took up heroin two years ago. He called her at 3 a.m. one morning last week, begging her for help. She took him to an emergency room, where they waited for more than six hours as he suffered from the violent symptoms of withdrawal.
According to the woman, the stigma surrounding “junkies” was strong in the waiting room, as the nurses kept coming to tell them that they’d have to wait until everyone with “more emergent” cases was treated. She ended up taking her brother back to his house so he could get what he needed to stop the withdrawal symptoms.
“If something isn’t done soon, I’m going to be burying my brother,” she said before sitting down.
There were many other stories similar to hers told during the two-hour long forum. The panel of speakers, who led the forum, listened intently and answered questions, while explaining what needs to be done in order to treat the opiate and heroin addiction problem that’s not only growing in Penobscot county, but throughout the rest of the state.
“It’s time to start seeing the patient as the community,” Patty Hamilton, Bangor’s health director, said. “It’s obvious that we have to band together.”
One of the other four panel members was Robert Fickett, from the Bangor Area Recovery Network. Fickett, who himself has struggled with opiate addiction, pointed out that perpetuating the stigma surrounding addiction will in no way help end the problem.
“The pathway to addiction doesn’t start in a dirty back room,” Fickett said. “It starts in doctor’s offices, dentist chairs, emergency rooms and grandma’s medicine cabinet.”
Dr. Noah Nesin, a panelist from Penobscot Community Health Care, concurred with Fickett’s statement, pointing out that the over-prescription of opiates has been a problem since the early 1990’s. According to Dr. Nesin, a big part of the solution is “making sure that prescriptions are prescribed responsibly.”
Bangor’s Police Chief, Mark Hathaway, also sat on the panel and spoke urgently to the audience of more than 100 people in the room.
“We have a clear and obvious addiction problem,” Hathaway said. “And we are desperate for a local detox option.”
Hathaway, along with the other panelists, explained to several concerned community members that jail cells aren’t the best solution for people going through withdrawals.
According to Hathaway, many citizens don’t understand that the police don’t “go after” addicts.
“We arrest people for engaging in criminal behavior,” Hathaway said.
Many community members of all ages stood to address the panel and asked questions about government funding, the accountability of pharmacists and the use of medication-assisted treatment for addicts.
One man asked if treating substance abuse with more substances was really the best answer, and why it wasn’t possible to just go through the withdrawals without any help. Dr. Nesin explained that for those who suffer from substance abuse, “it isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion.”
Nesin also took the time to clarify some commonly misunderstood concepts surrounding addiction. For example, one may not die from opiate withdrawal, but they may very well wish they were dead. The highest risk for death is immediately after detox, when accidental overdose and suicide is a real risk factor.
Nesin also pointed out that many addicts have experienced adverse childhood experiences, and that the more adverse experiences a child has, the more at risk they are for developing an addiction.
According to Nesin, it would be more appropriate to ask an addict “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?”
The ideas from the forum, which was sponsored by Bangor’s Public Health and Community Services, the Maine Community Foundation, the Maine Health Access Foundation, the Maine Medical Association and the Maine Opioid Collaborative will be shared with the Maine Opioid Collaborative task forces.
There will be another forum on Wednesday, May 4 at 5:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center. U.S. Sen. Angus King will be in attendance.