Talk explores nature of addiction and recovery

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BENNINGTON — Like other cities and towns around the country, the community of Bennington has been hard hit by the opiate epidemic. The conversation about how to begin to heal those wounds continued on Thursday, as Dr. Nels Kloster discussed the nature of addiction, the history of the epidemic, and what the road to recovery can look like.

The talk, which was delivered to a full room of about 50 people, was the final installment of the Community College of Vermont's 2018 Spring Speaker Series. The hour-long presentation was followed by a question and answer session, in which many gave voice to their frustration in dealing with a medical system that has been unable or unwilling to help the people they care about recover from addiction. The talk was entitled "Addiction and Recovery."

Kloster is the founder of Bennington's Hawthorn Recovery Center, and is the medical director for the methadone clinic in Brattleboro and the Serenity House residential treatment center in Wallingford.

Kloster said that there is no single reason that people become addicted to substances, that nature and nurture both play a role. "You can imagine, if I have a terrible DNA package to become an alcoholic, but I happen to be born into an Amish community, I like wearing black and white, I like looking at the backside of a horse, my environment is going to protect me from my risk of alcoholism. By the same token, if I'm born with an amazing resistance against drug issues but if I happen to be born as someone who grew up in a crack house, I'm most likely going to wind up using drugs."

In the same sense, the road to recovery is different for everyone. Kloster stressed that those struggling with substance dependencies shouldn't be stigmatized for not being able or willing to stop, pointing out that, for one, withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly difficult to cope with. "If you've got a really bad flu, and I tell you that I've got a cure for that flu, and you can either go to bed for six days or a week or you can take this pill and make the flu go away, you're going to take the pill. I described it that way once at a talk I was giving, and I was followed up afterward by a woman recovering from opiate addiction, and she said, 'You're kind of right, but I want you to multiply that by ten.'"

"We're not talking about a bunch of lazy people," he said. "We're talking about people who have got to the point where their bodies have changed, their brains have changed, and now they're in the hunt to feel normal, and the way to feel normal is by using these substances." Doctors and loved ones, he said, need to be cognizant that dependencies take years to form, and that tapering off those substances can also take years.

When it comes to treating substance dependencies, Kloster says he prefers a behavioral approach to start. If that doesn't work, he turns to less toxic medication, which in the case of opiates might be suboxone, which he described as a half-strength opiate, and if that doesn't work, more toxic medication, which for opiates could be methadone, itself a full-strength opiate, would be considered.

"Rehab is not the end-all-be-all," he said. "To tell the truth, the majority of people are able to be treated with lesser levels of care."

The ultimate goal, he said, was to extend lives.

"You're not going to get people to stop using right away," he said. "So, is there a way to stop them from killing or harming themselves?... When they're ready to make changes, you're there to help them make changes." He said that too many abstinence-based programs end with people graduating from the programs and then going home and overdosing.

"For me," he said, "the ultimate goal is for you to have a good life."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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