Fed Up with opioids

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MANCHESTER — As rallies commenced across the country Thursday demanding a federal response to the opioid epidemic, community members rallied on the Factory Point Town Green to urge a coordinated community response in Manchester.

The rally, coinciding with International Overdose Awareness Day, was organized by "Fed Up," which formed in response to the impact opioid addiction has had on the Manchester community.

"We gather today as a community to talk about this problem. To break the stigma. To challenge each other to join the fight against this horrific epidemic," said Fed Up founding member Wendy Galbraith. "This epidemic affects every one of us in some way. Together, we can work towards solutions to bring about awareness, action, support, and hope."

Throughout the rally, the town green was populated by booths from a plethora of community organizations, support groups, rehabilitation centers, and spiritual outlets.

"There's kind of a stigma within Vermont communities," said Turning Point Center Executive Director Kenneth Sigsbury, who was recently appointed to the Governor's Opiate Coordination Council. "That being said, it seems as though there's a larger stigma within the Manchester community about opiate addiction and heroin use."

The center, while based in Bennington, serves the entire county as a resource hub for those seeking treatment for addiction.

Manchester and surrounding towns have not remained untouched by the opiate epidemic, though its impact can be difficult to discern for those not immediately affected.

"I define chemical addiction as a disease of intimacy," said Craig Smith, clinical director of the Valley Vista Treatment Center in Bradford. "Profound disconnection from others around you. From the possibility of what desirable, rewarding, and fulfilling relationships can be about. No less terrifying, a disconnection from who you really are."

For some the legacy of addiction is passed along through generations.

"I come from a long line of addiction," said a recovering addict identifying herself as "Kimberly." "I didn't really have a support system. I had nobody to look up to, nobody who had any sort of real morals or ethics or values."

For others, opiate addiction represents an unexpected road block in an otherwise ordinary existence.

"I come from a good family with good work ethic. I'm 43 years old and the disease did not discriminate," said "Paul," who became addicted to opiates following a back injury from his work in construction. "My disease will never be cured, but it can be arrested on a day to day basis."

"So many people are unaware of the epidemic it really is. It can affect anyone from any walk of life," said Dee Chicoine, of Serenity House in Wallingford. "We ourselves have lost several in the past couple of weeks to the disease of addiction."

Without first hand experience however, it can be difficult to understand the realities of the disease.

"Although I'm in recovery myself and I have been for over three years, I was really naive about the realities of addiction," said "Victoria," an addict in recovery who now works with the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative.

While in recovery, Victoria sought solace in a relationship with a fellow addict. That solace was short lived, however, when her partner fatally overdosed nine months later.

"That was the most heartbreaking thing that I've ever had to endure, and it still is really difficult," said Victoria. "Unfortunately, that's what it took for me to open my eyes to the severity of a disease that I suffer from."

"I've lost a close relative to heroin overdose," said Pastor Rebecca Sommons, of the First Baptist Church in Manchester, which is working to implement a faith-based support system. "We're really trying to make a change so people don't fall into traps that they can't get out of."

Organizers hope that in the weeks and months following the rally that the Manchester community can become more unified in opposition to the opioid crisis that continues to take local lives.

"My feeling is, instead of everyone staying in their own lane, that prevention, treatment and recovery have to work together," said Sigsbury. "I don't think we can fix it, but I know we can make it a lot better."

"I think that coming together as a community rather than pushing it under the rug is the only way that we're going to make a difference," said Kimberly Jones, of Green Mountain Narcotics Anonymous.

On a larger scale, the group hopes to foment a political effort to implement more effective strategies to prevent addiction. Vermont House Rep. Linda Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, said she is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

"We need our vision to be grander. We need to make our vision be more profound," said Sullivan. "Our objectives have to have action that produces something that is actually going to be productive, and that is a very difficult thing to do."

Sullivan announced that she plans to introduce a bill that would strengthen Vermont's regulatory infrastructure when it comes to opioid prescriptions, in addition to augmenting educational prevention strategies.

"Most of our issues, obviously from all of the stories we're hearing here, do not start with people just using needles because they want to get themselves injected with some cheap heroin," said Sullivan. "Over the next four months I plan on finalizing this bill, going out there, and asking for your support."

Most, if not all, of the organizations present at Thursday's rally shared the common goal of creating awareness in the Manchester community.

"We hope that an awareness comes out of this of what is happening in Bennington County around opioid use, and what resources people can rely on if they see it touching them in their lives," said Maryann Morris, executive director of The Collaborative. "I see already that some people are here for this particularly, but some people are wandering in and picking up information."

"I hope that is creates awareness that addictions touch so many families, families of every kind in our community," said Jill Egbert, of United Counseling Services. "I hope it creates more knowledge and more possibilities for people."

This sentiment was shared by the multiple members of the Manchester Police Department who joined community members in solidarity on the town green.

"I'm hoping that this lets people know that there is help out there," said Officer Chris Mason. "You just have to go out and find it."

That awareness is urgently needed, according to local experts.

"We're in a triage state of mind right now, because we are losing an entire generation to this disease," said Sigsbury. "We have to wake up."

"I hope that this community doesn't lose anybody in the next year," said Smith. "But I also know that this community pulling together can increase the probability that those who need help will be emotionally and spiritually supported in getting the help that they deserve."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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