Affecting and affected by the community of Natick, opioid addiction, though a symptom of a large-scale problem, often confers shame and blame on individuals and their families. Natick’s Opioid Task Force, led by Katie Sugarman, hosts a monthly resource center with workshop topics and resources related to addiction, treatment and recovery, in the hope of breaking through stigmatization to offer real help.
“Educating about addiction is important, said Sugarman, “to help change the culture of stigma in our community. Stigma prevents people from talking about addiction and mental health, which are often linked with each other, and causes many individuals and families to withdraw from their communities of support. We know that when left alone, addiction can overtake a person’s life, but when a person is connected to others, their chances of attaining recovery increases significantly.”
The Opioid Task Force convenes members of the Natick Public Schools, municipal leaderships, the fire department, social services, the health department, and groups such as SOAR Natick (Supporting Our Addicts Recovery) who provide emotional and social support through the rocky road of addiction. In assembling resources for support, information and Narcan (naloxone hydrochloride injection, which blocks effects of opiates in response to an overdose), the Task Force launched a many-pronged effort to prevent, treat, and respond to opiate addiction in our community in a non-judgmental way. The number of overdoses in Natick has increased every year since 2014, with 25 this year, as of September. Many of them have been fatal.
One factor that has contributed to the burgeoning problem is that pharmaceutical companies, in the late 1990’s, began heavily marketing Oxycontin to physicians as a pain reliever with a low potential for addiction. Healthcare institutions, at the same time, began assessing success based on ability to manage patients’ pain. According to Sugarman, “Accreditation and reimbursement were heavily tied to patient surveys that included questions about pain management. Most prescribers had little training on pain management. So to have this new focus on pain management occur at the same time that there was aggressive marketing of Oxycontin and other new semi-synthetic opioids led to what we now know was a significant over-prescribing of opioids.” In a matter of months, a person prescribed opioids can become addicted and then make the switch to heroin because it is cheaper.
One recovered addict, who will go by the initials J.C., described his experience shooting heroin. “I would do anything to get more. If I didn’t, I would be on the floor, shaking and sweating. I physically couldn’t walk unless I had it in me.”
Heroin binds to opioid receptors in the brain and gut. “The more you fill [the receptors],” J.C. said, “the more they grow. Then you need more. If you want a slice of pizza and you don’t get it, you might be disappointed, but you’ll get over it. You don’t have pizza receptors in your brain.” The danger in getting clean temporarily or being incarcerated is that tolerance for the drug decreases, yet the user returns to the same amount, overdosing. If the drug contains Fentanyl, this can be especially dangerous.
Opioids refers to substances such as morphine and codeine that contain natural opiates as well as synthetic or hybrid opioids like heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, Percocet, and others. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which can be lethal in very small amounts. It has been found laced in heroin, cocaine, marijuana and edible drugs.
The Natick Police Department has increased support for people suffering from addiction by visiting them, usually at their home, two days after the police respond to an overdose. “We respond in uniform,” said Lieutenant. Rossi. “The reason I feel so strongly about wearing my uniform is that we need to break the stigma of police being ‘out to get you.’”
People who call 911 to report an overdose are protected from arrest by the Good Samaritan Law, which does not allow for enforcement of drug possession laws. “The last thing on our mind is charging someone when we are trying to save the life of a person,” said Rossi. “We do not want to be seen as the enemy as we all battle this together. We want to be part of the solution, and part of that is getting people into recovery.”
Sugarman recommends locking up addictive substances such as prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco in the home, talking with young people about addiction, and modeling healthy coping methods. “None of us have to be perfect or have all of the answers, but our young people are more likely to be resilient when we take the time to listen to them and offer to help them think through tough situations together. Most importantly, do they know that we value them for more than their successes in the classroom, on the playing field, or in their college acceptance letters?”
When questioned about adverse childhood experiences which may have increased susceptibility to addiction, J.C. replied, “I can’t complain. We had everything under the Christmas tree.”
In other words, within the value system of consumption culture, the source of the problem is obscured.
You can learn more about Natick’s Opioid Task Force at the Natick Acts website, www.natickacts.org.