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Mike Faher/VTDigger and The Commons

Skip Gates speaks about addiction in Bellows Falls. Gates’ son, Will, died in 2009 of a heroin overdose while attending the University of Vermont.


Advocates preach honesty in opiate fight

Bellows Falls forum looks past ‘just say no’ to a message of authenticity with children and young adults

BELLOWS FALLS—When Brandy Cheney tries to convince kids to stay away from opiates, she has a secret weapon: Brutal honesty.

Cheney, a recovery coach and youth advocate at Turning Point in Springfield, offers her own story of addiction, arrest, and recovery to students as young as 8 years old.

Like others who spoke here at an April 5 community meeting on opiate issues, Cheney preached the importance of telling children and young adults the truth — and reaching far beyond the “just say no” message of the past.

Kids often reciprocate, Cheney said, with tough questions of their own — questions about family problems; the effects of certain drugs; and what it feels like to put a needle in your arm.

“I think it’s important for them to ask those questions. Because that shows me that this is what they’re already learning about, and this is what they’ve already heard,” Cheney said. “So I can change that perspective — even though they say it’s cool, it’s really not, because this is what I did with this drug.”

“It’s being real with them, and using my life experience and my personal story as a way to motivate them to say no,” she added.

The 70 or so people who packed into the basement of the Rockingham Free Public Library didn’t hear much good news about Vermont’s battle with heroin and other opiates.

An ongoing struggle

Former Gov. Peter Shumlin made the issue a top priority more than three years ago, and the state has invested in innovative treatment options. Nevertheless, Vermont continues to struggle with overdoses and a shortage of resources for treatment and long-term recovery.

Even positive developments often are accompanied by serious caveats. For example, Capt. John Merrigan, special investigations commander for the Vermont State Police, told the crowd that “we don’t buy a lot of prescription drugs on the street anymore.”

That’s a good thing, officials said, since prescription painkillers have served as a gateway drug for many heroin addicts.

Merrigan said proactive conversations with doctors and hospitals have helped cut down on overprescribing. And some say “drug take-back” collection events also have decreased the amount of painkillers in circulation.

Ultimately, however, Merrigan believes cheaper heroin is the main reason behind the trend.

“When I first started in ’99, we were paying $30 ... or $40 a bag [for heroin],” he said. “It’s $6 a bag in Bellows Falls today. And I, and any one of you, can go and get it.”

“If you know where to go,” he added, “it’s now easier to get than a six-pack of beer.”

Heroin was the main focus of the Bellows Falls meeting, which started with a screening of The Opiate Effect, a short film focusing on the 2009 overdose death of 21-year-old University of Vermont student Will Gates.

Skip Gates, Will’s father and a Maine resident, told attendees that his son was a precociously intelligent child who turned into a charismatic, articulate young man; a champion skier; and a strong student who was majoring in molecular genetics.

“He’d be the very last guy you’d ever assume would get mixed up with something like heroin,” Gates said.

Man on a mission

About a year after Will’s death, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Vermont contacted Gates to see whether he would consider participating in an anti-drug education campaign. That campaign led to the making of The Opiate Effect, and Gates has spent much time since then spreading his message.

“We certainly need vigorous enforcement,” Gates said. “We need available, affordable rehabilitation services. But we also need education. And that’s where I come in.”

For Gates, education means honesty. For all the public discourse about drugs, he believes young people have been done a “grave disservice” by a lack of real, frank discussion.

“We need to have the courage to tell people the truth,” he said. “We need to tell young people, for instance, if you do use this drug, you may feel better than you ever have in your life.”

At the same time, Gates said, “they need to know that some folks ... are addicted the very first time they use. And as they use more and more, they’re completely unable to stop.”

Being able to stop using is just the first step, said Michael Johnson, executive director of Springfield Turning Point. Johnson told the crowd that his organization has begun offering “recovery coaching” for addicts in the Bellows Falls area.

After initial treatment, “they’re not cured,” Johnson said. “It’s not the end. It’s the beginning.”

Johnson also talked about the importance of preventing drug use. And he returned to the theme of the evening — honesty — in lauding Cheney’s innovative work with children.

“She’s honest,” Johnson said. “These kids do have a chance, but they need to know what can happen — that one time can be the last time.”

Cheney said she works with kids “because adolescence is where I struggled the most.” Alcoholism ran in her family, and she says she was a full-blown addict and alcoholic by age 12.

Phases of addiction

She went through several phases of addiction and found “rock bottom” after a drunken-driving arrest by Bellows Falls police in 2014. Cheney, 26, said she’s been sober since that summer and has dedicated herself to helping adolescents “make their own decisions about alcohol and drugs.”

“I educate them,” she said. “I talk about the brain. I talk about every substance — what it can do to you, the effects on your body ... anything I can possibly tell them so that they’re able to make the right decisions, like I didn’t.”

Bellows Falls-based Greater Falls Connections has the same aim. Community Outreach Coordinator Deb Witkus said it’s important to use an “authentic and honest” approach with young people when talking about substance abuse.

Noting that childhood trauma is a key factor behind later drug use, Witkus talked about targeted prevention efforts. That includes a “trauma-informed” youth program that is starting called “Friends for Change.”

“It’s going to keep kids off the street,” Witkus said. “It’s going to empower them to start talking about different futures.”

For those involved in the day-to-day work of preventing, treating, and recovering from addiction, the future is unclear. Cheney worries that “this drug epidemic that we’re going through right now, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

“It’s super hard. It’s very discouraging a lot of the time,” she said. “But it’s the days where I have someone come in and say, ‘This is what I did today — I got my license back, I got a job.’ That encouragement from people who are sober is the reason that I do the work that I do. And it’s the reason that I’m alive today.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #403 (Wednesday, April 12, 2017).

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