Heather Thurlow, left, and Celeste Yakawonis shared stories of their addiction during the Community Forum at Auburn Middle School on Wednesday. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

AUBURN — When Dr. Michael Kelley gets to talking about the opioid epidemic, you can hardly blame him for using a string of superlatives.

The Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Services at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, when Kelley got started in 1997, there were 34 drug overdoses in Maine the whole year. Fast forward to 2017, and the number of opioid overdoses was up to 418.

In 1997, 201 babies were born drug-affected in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Twenty years later, that number rose to roughly 1,000.

“It has been an unbelievable epidemic,” Kelley said Wednesday night at a community form on the matter. “The statistics are so staggering.”

The problem, Kelley will say before he’s done speaking, is gigantic. Huge. Tremendous.

Three dozen people turned out for the Community Partners Engaging in Community Conversation forum at Auburn Middle School. Among them were medical professionals, police, educators and people who are addicted, who came to speak plainly about their addictions and the impact it has had on everyone around them.

“This,” said Celeste Yakawonis, of Turner, “is everybody’s problem.”

The numbers certainly bear her out. According to the latest estimates, roughly 20 percent of people who are prescribed opioid painkillers — hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl, for example — will go on to abuse them. Of those who abuse the drugs, an estimated 5 percent will move on to heroin, which is cheaper and in many places, easier to get.

According to recent drug studies, 80 percent of heroin users started out by getting a prescription for painkillers for a legitimate medical issue.

Nobody denies these days that opiate abuse has become a crisis. But there was a time when the medical and pharmaceutical professions argued that painkillers weren’t addictive, if used responsibly.

“The mistake we made,” said Kelly, “was thinking that they were really benign and not a big deal.”

Now that 70,000 people nationally are dying of opiate overdoses — nearly double the number of those dying in car wrecks — the trick for the medical community is how to treat people who are addicted. Kelley said that he has patients who drive six hours or more to get to St. Mary’s because it is one of two hospitals in the state that offer drug detoxification help. And while St. Mary’s can help people through hellish acute withdrawals, that detox is only a small part of the battle.

“People think that when you get sober, you’re all done,” said Heather Thurlow, a recovering alcoholic who works with Tri-County Mental Health Services in order to help others with addiction.

The problem, Kelley said, is that the brain is changed through the abuse of the drug. It no longer produces the chemicals required to make a person feel happy and content. The risk of relapse is huge because the drug of choice is literally the only thing in the world that can provide any sense of relief.

“That first month is horrifically hard,” Kelley said. “We’ve got to get them through that.”

Kelley and others on the panel insist that addiction is more disease than character flaw. Addiction is 45 percent inheritable, experts say, just like most major diseases. The relapse rates for addiction are similar to those for afflictions such as diabetes and hypertension.

Addiction, said Kelley, “is far more than a choice. These are diseases, and not necessarily faults of character.”

Glimmers of home

There are hopeful signs, the experts say. The stigma of addiction is on the decline, in large part because of the fact that opioid abuse is so prevalent these days that almost everyone knows someone who has a problem. And with more people willing to talk about the issue, more is being done to address it.

For police, who deal with addiction-related problems every day, including overdoses, getting a crisis worker to ride along on patrol has helped enormously.

Lewiston Police Officer Joe Philippon heads the department’s new “Project Support You,” which provides follow-up services for people who police encounter during their patrols. The program involves a crisis worker who rides along with a police officer to help those in crisis, including people suffering from addiction.

The project, Philippon told the group Wednesday night, has already paid dividends. Since September, police have seen no repeat overdoses from the same person, a phenomenon that used to be common.

In Auburn, where police have already responded to 15 overdoses in 2019 — one of them fatal — Police Lt. Anthony Harrington said the department has begun a program to map the locations of drug overdoses in hopes of pinpointing problem areas and getting help to those in need quicker.

The numbers associated with the opioid epidemic are dropping, if ever so slightly. The number of drug overdose deaths in Maine has dropped for the first time in several years and the number of babies born drug-affected was down for the first time in more than a decade.

It’s small progress, those on the panel agreed, but it’s something. People are becoming more aware of the complexities of addiction, they say, and that means more people are willing to help in any way they can. And new rules have been put in place to regulate the way doctors prescribe painkillers.

Years ago, Kelley told the group, his 17-year-old son broke his leg in an accident. When he went for treatment, a doctor sent the boy home with a prescription for 90 Vicodin. Under the new regulations, that would be unheard of: Painkillers for things like broken bones are generally prescribed for no more than three days now, and they are prescribed to teenagers only in the worst of circumstances.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier was there for the panel discussion. So were a handful of people representing Maine lawmakers and the heads of a variety of local agencies who have joined the effort.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, said he gets riled when he hears someone refer to anyone suffering from addiction dismissively as one of “those people,” or some similar term of derision.

“I AM one of those people,” said Yardley, an alcoholic in recovery for the past 31 years.

Jesi Michaud, chief clinical officer of Tri-County Mental Health Services, said more forums are planned as the group continues its efforts to educate people on matters of addiction. And according to Kelley, it’s efforts like these that will make the difference if the opioid epidemic is ever to be contained.

“Every person in this room is chipping away at it a little bit,” Kelley said. “We weren’t doing that 10 or 15 years ago.”

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, shares his own story of addiction during the Community Forum at Auburn Middle School on Wednesday. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

Heather Thurlow, left, and Celeste Yakawonis share stories of their addiction during the Community Forum at Auburn Middle School on Wednesday. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

 


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