FARMINGTON - James Schlatter, assistant professor of English at Tunxis Community College, had a question for the crowd that filled the lecture hall.
“How many of you are currently, or know somebody, suffering from heroin or opioids?” At least half of the audience of about 100 raised their hands.
Schlatter led a forum on the crisis of opioid addiction recently, as part of the college’s Civic Engagement Institute. The institute is a new campus organization “committed to having our students become more civically engaged, not just in the school but in the community,” explained Rafaele Fierro, history professor.
“Nationwide more than 64,000 Americans have died from an overdose in 2016 alone and the numbers seem to be increasing,” Fierro said. “The Midwest and the Northeast have had the highest number of deaths related to heroin overdoses, and more than 1,000 people died in Connecticut last year as a result of a drug overdose, many of them related to heroin.”
Schlatter has made drug addiction part of the curriculum in his English courses, assigning his students a book called “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” by Johann Hari.
He said he first became interested in the topic when he lived in Mexico and saw the aftermath of the violence of the drug cartels. Since then the problem has become “not only more severe and strong but just more bizarre,” he said. “The drugs are getting stronger and more powerful, more slippery and more deadly.”
The forum brought together three people to share their perspectives: Sarah Nichols, a Bristol resident and Tunxis student with a personal story of addiction; Detective Joanna Blumetti, the primary opioid investigator with the Farmington Police Department; and Jamaly Rios, a New Britain resident and Tunxis graduate who is now a drug counselor.
Nichols described how in 2002 she was first prescribed pain medication for migraine, admitting that she did not follow the directions for proper use. In 2011 she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a painful chronic illness, and she began lobbying her doctor for something stronger. In 2012, an injury caused her still more pain.
She said her drug of choice for a long time was Percocet, but by the summer of 2012 she was prescribed methadone.
“Many of you may know that methadone is a treatment to get off heroin but it is also a treatment for pain management. It comes in pill form, and again I was instructed on how to use it and again that went completely out the window for me,” she said.
Her drug use escalated and for the first time she began to experience withdrawal sickness. Her doctors finally began to question her drug use and she began to question herself.
“It was really a realization that I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “In all that time I always fooled myself. I said I’m not an addict because I’m getting this from the doctor.”
Nichols eventually started a 12 step recovery program and has been clean for the last five years. “Seeing so many people raise their hands in this room in terms of how this has touched your life, this is insane. It’s wrong, and I’m glad we’re having this discussion,” she commented.
She said she had experienced abuse and trauma in her life and had previously tried to self medicate through food and compulsive shopping before turning to drugs. Though she had addictive tendencies she criticized the popular notion that some people seek a life of addiction, saying “no one I know has woken up and said ‘yeah, I’d really like to be a junky.’”
At one point, Nichols recalled, her psychiatrist had asked if she wanted to get into a Suboxone treatment program in Bristol to manage her withdrawal symptoms.
“It was like this pinball machine in my brain lit up – yes! That’s another drug, another opioid, I want that! But I decided not to go with that because it’s a very difficult drug to get off of. So I went through the whole process, like cold turkey. That was very unpleasant, but it didn’t kill me,” she said.
Rios said what works for one addicted person doesn’t necessarily work for another.
“Everyone is an individual and they experience addiction in their own way,” she said. “Different things drive them to do these specific drugs. Others had back surgery. I’ve had clients who were judges, nurses, people you would never think abuse drugs.”
Rios said it used to be common that doctors who picked up on an addiction would just hand the person a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet and send them on their way. Fortunately, the approach has changed. In Connecticut, once a doctor establishes that someone is abusing prescription drugs they have an intervention to get them treatment, but the quality of treatment often depends on how good the addict’s insurance is.
When people are stigmatized for having an addiction it can drive them deeper into that addiction, she noted. “So once we change our views on how we treat an addict, as a society, I believe we can do the healing together.”
Blumetti said when she started as a patrol officer 18 years ago, she would often go on calls where teenagers had overdosed. These middle class teens started with experimental drug use and then transitioned into heavier drugs, but their parents were in denial about it.
Then gradually it started to be adults who often started abusing pain pills prescribed for an injury, she said. “We’ve gone to overdoses for a 56 year old male, a 60 year old female. This isn’t a young person making a foolish life choice.”
It used to be the patrol officers who handled most of these cases, but recently the court system has mandated the police departments designate a detective to investigate these cases, because it’s become such a problem, Blumetti said.
Another positive change is that years ago if someone called 911 because a family member overdosed the drug user would probably be arrested after they recovered. Now the law says you can’t penalize someone for asking for help, she said.
On the downside, Blumetti said many addicts are now using heroin laced with fentanyl, which can be especially lethal. She was shocked to hear from the medical examiner’s office that now some people are seeking out fentanyl on purpose because heroin is no longer enough.
“We have protocols on how to handle fentanyl as patrol officers and detectives. Don’t touch it. Don’t inhale it. Most of the time we’re not even testing it, we’re sending it to the lab, to let them test it and risk their lives,” she said.
Rios blamed popular singers for glamorizing drug use and pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketing pain killers. There are a lot of components to the crisis, she said.
Drug abuse has long been a problem but the reason people are talking about it now is because it is affecting a higher social class, she said.
“Actually I’m grateful that now we have such a broader audience. In general it affects people that are affluent or educated, who know how laws and policymakers work, so they call their senators about it. They are actually doing something about it,” she added.
Students who attended the forum were advised to contact the campus Counseling Center or call 211 if they need assistance with a drug problem.
Future Civic Engagement Institute events include:
n Monday, March 5, 9 a.m., Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu will give a talk on “Getting Young People Involved.”
n Wednesday, April 4, 1:15 p.m., “Bridging the Gap: Religious Discourse at Tunxis,” with Mohamed Mountassir, Colleen Keyes and Rafaele Fierro.
n Thursday, April 26, 1 p.m., New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart is the guest speaker for “Political Challenges and Young People.”
All the events take place in the 200 Building, Room 201.
For more information, contact Rafaele Fierro at 860-773-1642 or .
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.