Panelists say recovery from addiction is possible
ROCK HALL — Speaking from firsthand experience, professionals and laypeople delivered messages of hope at last week’s drug awareness event in Rock Hall.
About 70 people attended the Oct. 25 get-together that was organized by Betty Ann Glenn, who identified herself as the mother of an addict.
Glenn said her objective was a frank and non-scripted conversation about the opioid crisis that has led state and national leaders to declare a public health emergency.
In Maryland in 2016, there were a record 2,089 overdose deaths. That would fill five 747 cargo aircraft, said Tim Dove, the local addictions authority for Kent County.
Nationally, the number of overdose deaths last year exceeded 64,000, more than the number of American servicemen and women killed during the Vietnam War.
Glenn’s hometown of Rock Hall is in the grip of the heroin scourge, with several reported overdose deaths in 2016 and one death this year.
Perhaps the most compelling speaker was Gabby Nordhoff, 14, who talked about what it is like to be the child of an addict.
“I haven’t lived with my parents since I was very young because they could not take care of me. Their main concern was drugs,” the Rock Hall teenager said.
She said she has learned that “you don’t chose to be an addict” and that “addicts will lie and steal and hurt anyone” to feed their habit.
Nordhoff’s father was only 38 when he died of a heroin overdose in May. She said her father had overdosed at least one other time but was revived after being administered Narcan, the opioid-reversing medicine.
Nordhoff said her father’s death led her mother to enter a treatment facility, and is now more than 90 days “clean.”
The panel of speakers included Raymond Truex, an accomplished neurosurgeon from Pennsylvania who related how he pulled himself out of the abyss of drug addiction.
He has been sober for 27 years.
“Drug addicts can recover,” Truex said. “Remember that an addict is a sick person with the potential to get well, not a bad person hoping to become good.”
While Truex grew up with advantages that not every- one has — a middle class background, educated family, involved and supportive parents — he deemed his story as “typical,” relating how feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness helped to sabotage the success he had achieved as a highly regarded doctor.
Life took a disastrous turn in 1986 when he was sued for millions of dollars in a malpractice case, his mother died and his wife left him because he was working insane hours and was never home.
“I was ill-equipped to deal with this kind of adversity,” Truex said matter-of-factly.
One night he accepted a young medical student’s invitation to smoke cocaine at a party. After the first drag, “I was hooked and I couldn’t go back,” he said.
Truex said in the ensuing six months he destroyed all the good he had done. He was living in a cheap motel, buying drugs on the street corner while wearing his medical scrubs, hanging out with people who carried guns and spending lots of money on drugs.
He was unkempt and late to work — if he showed up at all. He was fired. This was his rock bottom. “Everyone here probably knows a good person who has gone down this path,” Truex said to the audience.
He went to rehab and when he came out he landed a job helping others who were struggling with addiction, what he described as “the one thing I was qualified to do.”
Truex subsequently returned to work as a neurosurgeon and cancer specialist, retiring at the end of June after 50 years in the medical field.
For many years he has supported and advocated for physicians struggling with addiction.
“Because of the lifelong lessons I learned in recovery, I can handle success and adversity. I can handle life on life’s terms,” he said.
Dr. Ben Kohl related how as the director of Eastern Shore Psychological Services, he has seen the incredibly powerful grip that addiction has on individuals and their families and he also has seen what he described as “stories of hope, that recovery is possible.”
There are now some very encouraging programs in place in Kent County, Kohl said, including Kent County Behavioral Health, Recovery in Motion and Eastern Shore Mobile Crisis — as well as Eastern Shore Psychological Services, which has an office in Chestertown, providing mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
Times have changed for the better in how substance abuse is treated, the panelists agreed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, “we locked people up for drug problems,” Kohl said.
“We’re beginning to recognize that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this disease. It’s not the same punitive system it used to be,” he said.
Sentencing options for incarceration are being reduced, Kohl said.
In Kent County, there is the Post Adjudication Supervision and Treatment program, a quasi-drug court that offers an alternative to the standard incarceration and probation model and provides increased levels of treatment and more direct supervision.
There also is a movement toward harm-reduction programs that call for nonjudgmental, noncoercive treatments and provision of services. At the end of this process, the person might choose to accept a fuller treatment for an addiction. In the interim, perhaps some of the more serious consequences of addiction — incarceration, poverty, homelessness and illness — can be avoided.
Kohl said successful substance abuse treatment is now more available because harm-reduction programs are in place.
He said the concept of harm reduction accepts that drug use exists; recognizes the realities of stress, poverty, racism, social isolation and discrimination; and affirms that patients have a voice in the creation of services to assist in their recovery.
The norm is that substance abuse is a disease of relapse, Kohl said.
“It takes time to get a drug addict better,” Truex said, listing the chances of relapse at 70 percent if the individual has been clean for less than a year; 50 percent if he has been clean for one or two years; and 15 percent if he has been clean for more than five years.
Other factors in recovery are social pressures, financial stress, mental health challenges, duration of drug use and the age when the individual started using.
Dr. John Moser, another of the panelists, said he has prescribed Suboxone, which can relieve the symptoms of drug cravings and withdrawal.
It’s a controversial treatment, Moser acknowledged, but the advantages are that it keeps the addict under the supervision of a doctor and keeps the addict from committing crimes to support his habit.
Moser said he has had some successes and some disappointments.
In response to a question from the audience, Moser and Truex said the pharmaceutical industry — through marketing and downplaying the drugs’ addictive nature — has played a significant role in the opioid epidemic.
Both doctors also said that in the past, they were called out by hospital administrators and patients if they did not prescribe narcotics for pain.
All the speakers agreed that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, and that more money should be allocated for treatment and aftercare.
In a followup interview to assess the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, Glenn said she was pleased.
“The audience was engaged, asking questions. We’ve never had anything like that before,” she said.
Glenn also thanked the numerous Rock Hall businesses that donated food, beverages and desserts that were available throughout the meeting.
District Court Judge John Nunn, Circuit Court Judge Harris Murphy, Rock Hall Mayor Brian Jones, Vice Mayor Rosalie Kuechler and Councilwoman Beth Andrews attended, but did not speak.
Kent County Behavioral Health provided free training in the use of Naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan. Seven people took the training and took home a dose of Narcan nasal spray.
Dr. Raymond Truex speaks about his recovery from cocaine addiction, a story of hope that was related at an Oct. 25 panel discussion in Rock Hall.