Amid soaring opioid use, options for recovery
Zach Labelle is the Turning Point office supervisor for Bellows Falls, where Lama Tomás is a volunteer counselor. Both are recovering from substance use.

Amid soaring opioid use, options for recovery

Two Turning Point peer counselors share their stories about the many paths from substance abuse

BELLOWS FALLS — Opioid use has been on a steep increase in Vermont, with a 44% rise in emergency department visits for opioid overdoses between 2018 - a bad year in its own right - and 2021.

The average age for a first visit due to an overdose is 38, and 60% are male, and repeat visits are on the rise. Approximately 15% of those who have gone to an ER for an opioid overdose will have a repeat visit, 50% of those within four months. Women in their 30s make up the majority of repeat ED visits for overdoses.

Deaths, intentional or accidental, from opioid overdoses have also been on a steep climb. In just the first six months of 2022, 94 deaths of Vermonters have been reported from overdoses, with another 20 still awaiting final determination of cause of death.

Some 21 of those deaths have been in Windham and Windsor counties, with Rutland and Chittenden counties reporting the most deaths.

It is no surprise that the vast majority of deaths from opioids also involve fentanyl.

Those stark statistics might make it seem that all of Vermont's addiction treatment programs would be pushed to their limits with people seeking help to get sober.

But that's not what's happening. Many of the recovery programs in Vermont are very much underutilized.

While some folks might feel that addiction treatment choices are limited to Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and some form of residential treatment lasting from a few weeks to a few months, a number of programs with various approaches to treatment and recovery.

One of those is the free Turning Point program, which has a dozen or so centers around the state, including Brattleboro, with many more satellite offices.

At the Bellows Falls office, one of several satellite programs connected with the Springfield Turning Point Recovery Center, Office Supervisor Zach Labelle describes the programs and his journey, along with one of his main volunteers, a Celtic Buddhist monk, the Venerable Naomh Tomás Dorje Rinpoche (Lama Tomás). As with most of the staff at Turning Point, both men are in recovery.

A challenge, and an opportunity

Labelle said that he had been at Serenity House - a facility in Wallingford that offers treatment for alcohol and opioid-related substance abuse - about five years ago, where he was advised strongly to go to a transitional living facility as he progressed with his recovery.

“So I went to the Turning Point residential facility in Springfield,” Labelle said. “It had meetings on site, which was perfect for me. It had the ecosystem I needed. I'd never heard of recovery coaching before, and I thought, 'That's exactly what I want to do.'”

After 18 months in the residential program, Labelle got his own apartment near the residential program. He found work and was moving on with his life.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“When Covid hit, I lost my job,” he said. “But I used that as an opportunity to get in-depth training in coaching.”

The fit was as good as he could expect and has led him to an entirely new career.

“In September 2021, I went full time at Turning Point,” he said. “When the supervisor in Bellows Falls left, I was offered the opportunity to be supervisor.”

He called it “an honor” and his “dream come true.”

“Faces change, names change, but recovery doesn't,” Labelle said. “I get to grow in my chosen profession, working at a clinic I once was a patient at. Now it's a career that I'm super grateful for. Turning Point provided everything I needed to thrive.”

Among the parts of his job that Labelle enjoys the most is working in a hospital emergency department, where he is able to interact with patients dealing with overdoses. That initial contact with someone addicted to drugs can lead to life changes.

“There used to be a stigma associated with addiction,” Labelle said. “Now it's, 'Let's do our best to keep people alive until we can get things to click for them.'”

“It may take a few times, but we don't give up,” he said.

A long history

Lama Tomás's story is a bit longer. Now 77, his addiction issues began when he first used opioids at 15.

“That was the same time I started studying Buddhism,” he said. “But I still used off and on until 2010. I was even put on opioids for arthritis. During all of this, I still had a good career in medicine and medical sales.”

During those years, Lama Tomás continued to study and work with a variety of Buddhist teachers, from activist, author, and poet Thích Nhất Hạnh to the Beat poets. He used what he learned to help others. At one point, a former coworker told him what a great help he had been.

“I studied Zen Buddhism for 30 years, while still struggling with the disease of addiction,” he said. “When I realized I could have an impact like that when I'm fucked up half the time, I thought, 'What could I do if I was clean and sober?' So after 43 years, I began recovery.”

In 2010, Lama Tomás met his first major teacher and was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 2014. In 2015, he came to Saxtons River, where he joined the Anadaire Celtic Buddhist Center. He took vows in both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. In 2022 he was given a teacher's title, Dorje Rinpoche.

During those years, he also started a Buddhist Recovery group, the second in Vermont, and also lived and worked at a recovery center in northern New Hampshire. During much of the last decade he also lived in Panama for part of the year, surfing and working with people on the streets.

But Lama Tomás makes it clear: You do not have to believe in or study Buddhism to be in recovery at Turning Point.

“I teach Buddhism to Buddhists,” he said. “I teach Buddhist principles for recovery to addicts. Meditation in particular. We're a chart toward a solution, but that solution is inside you. Saint John of the Cross has one of my favorite quotes: 'There are many paths up the mountain, but the view from the top of the mountain is the same for everyone.'”

Multiple journeys to recovery

In addition to meditation, Turning Point teaches a number of other recovery techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, groups, and one-on-one discussions.

“We use evidence-based practices,” Labelle said. “There are multiple pathways to recovery, and everyone has a different outlook on it."

Despite offering meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and Family Assistance in Recovery, along with free one-on-one counseling, Labelle and Lama Tomás said that more people could become involved with the program.

The lack of participation is one indication of the power of addiction.

“My disease is run by two words, 'curiosity' and 'more,'” Lama Tomas explained. “When an opioid addict hears that someone nearly died from a dose, it actually draws them in. They want an experience as close to death as they can get."

Both men know on a very personal level the pain that comes in working with addicts - the loss of friends and family.

Lama Tomás's son Noah died of an overdose on Father's Day in 2018. Noah was 37, and himself a father. On one of his necklaces, Lama Tomás carries a small vial with some of his son's ashes in it.

“A reminder,” he says.

And just hours before publication, as The Commons was working on this article, Labelle was notified that a lifelong friend from high school just died of an overdose.

“He was a childhood friend in Burlington. We snowboarded together. We loved to cook,” Labelle said.

“Not everyone gets the gift of recovery,” he added. “I've not gotten used to it by any means. This one hit me and hit me good.”

One person who just discovered and began working with Turning Point in Bellows Falls said this about the experience so far: “I am new to speaking out about my addiction to alcohol and sedatives to sleep,” they said. “I heard about Tomás through a friend, and going to speak with him openly and honestly has greatly strengthened my desire to no longer believe that I cannot live free of having to use substances."

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