Addiction forum asks `why don't they just stop?'

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BRATTLEBORO — A dozen local drug overdoses last Fourth of July sparked headlines throughout New England.

"The astonishing spate," one newspaper editorialized, "is cause for a deep reflection on the state of the nation."

Some people, however, are wondering about something else: "Why don't they just stop?"

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"I understand all these questions, but my response used to be a sarcastic `Gee, thank you, I hadn't even thought of stopping — problem solved,'" says Brian Condon, who recalls drinking to "self-medicate" against anxiety and panic attacks before figuring out how to quit five years ago. "It's simply not that easy."

That's why Condon and several other former substance abusers turned peer recovery supporters addressed a crowd of 50 people Wednesday night at a Community Opioid Response Committee program titled "Why Don't They Just Stop? Ways to Think About and Talk About Addiction" at Brooks Memorial Library.

"Addiction and recovery are very personal experiences," Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point of Windham County, said before relating how she grew up in an alcoholic family, drank to numb anxiety and depression and, through struggle, has succeeded in staying sober the past two decades.

While some people see a margarita or marijuana joint as a take-it-or-leave-it temporary high after a long day, others are turning to alcohol and drugs to dull the chronic pain of instability, insecurity, loss and loneliness in the absence of a solid home or work life.

Ella Thorne-Thomsen, a Turning Point colleague, explained that's why she used heroin until quitting five years ago with the help of the craving-calming drug methadone.

"When you feel useless already, the choice to use isn't hard to make," Thorne-Thomsen said. "I knew how to feel better for a little bit. It wasn't until I had other things in my life to look forward to that I could pull away from those substances."

Some townspeople, frustrated with news of drug dealing, overdoses, downtown panhandling and community-wide burglaries, have called for a strong-armed crackdown. But law enforcement leaders say that's easier said than done.

"My stance is we're not going to arrest our way out of a problem," Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said. "We have to get drugs off the street. But we have to know the difference between those who need our help, those who make a bad decision and those who victimize others."

Fitzgerald drew applause when he explained how police no longer simply arrest offenders but also advise them of local recovery options.

"These are the resources available — what can we do to help you?" he said police now ask.

Balancing compassion and "tough love" can be a tightrope, said Dr. Geoffrey Kane, chief of addiction services at the Brattleboro Retreat.

"It's important that we not judge people, but it's also important that we hold people accountable," Kane said. "There's a lot to be said for a middle ground where there are limits and an ability to regroup."

Jedediah Popp recalled growing up the youngest of seven children in a family struggling with poverty.

"That first moment I drank and smoked pot and tried cocaine and used heroin and picked up a crack pipe," he said, "my life got better and better and better each time."

Until it didn't.

"I lost everything," Popp continued. "I remember taking rent money and going to the dealer's house. I was evicted and evicted, but I never said, `Hey, let's pay the rent so we have a place to stay.' I kept using because I didn't know anything about recovery. There was one thing that I didn't try, and that was getting connected with people."

Clean almost five years, Popp now help others free themselves from addiction.

"When I was in grade school, I never saw anyone raise their hand and say they wanted to be a drug addict or an alcoholic," he said. "It's something that's hard to understand unless you've been through it yourself."

That sparked one last audience question: "Where do we draw the line as a community?"

"I don't have an answer," Popp responded, "but I think it's really important to be having discussions like this. I say hi to every person. That's where my conversation starts."

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