2016-09-22 / Front Page

‘I can’t stop’: Community forum addresses opiate epidemic

By ALAN BENNETT
Staff Writer


Mariah McKeown, center, a 2013 Biddeford High School graduate and recovering heroin addict, speaks to a crowd of more than 100 about her experience at a community forum on the state’s opiate crisis, held Wednesday at the Pepperell Center in downtown Biddeford. 
ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune Mariah McKeown, center, a 2013 Biddeford High School graduate and recovering heroin addict, speaks to a crowd of more than 100 about her experience at a community forum on the state’s opiate crisis, held Wednesday at the Pepperell Center in downtown Biddeford. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune BIDDEFORD — Recovering addicts, treatment providers, legislative candidates and the public converged at the Pepperell Center Wednesday night to share stories of addiction and recovery, and to discuss options for solving the state’s ongoing heroin crisis.

More than 100 people attended the community forum as speakers from Biddeford and beyond told their stories. Some have struggled with addiction, some work to treat it, and others deal with it on a daily basis.

Dozens raised their hands when Independent House District 12 candidate Matt Lauzon, who helped coordinate the event, posed the question to the audience: How many people have been directly impacted by the heroin epidemic?


Scores turned out for a community forum on the state’s opiate epidemic at the Pepperell Center in downtown Biddeford on Wednesday. Recovering addicts and members of the public shared their stories of addiction and brainstormed ways of addressing the crisis. 
ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune Scores turned out for a community forum on the state’s opiate epidemic at the Pepperell Center in downtown Biddeford on Wednesday. Recovering addicts and members of the public shared their stories of addiction and brainstormed ways of addressing the crisis. ALAN BENNETT/Journal Tribune Lauzon said he wanted to generate a dialogue between residents of the city to formulate ways of handling the opioid crisis, which as of Aug. 22 had claimed more than 113 lives in Maine, according to the state Attorney General’s office.

“I hope tonight is the start of something that brings us together,” Lauzon said, passing the microphone to the speakers, all of whom called for increased awareness of the crisis, treatment options for addicts, and increased public education and outreach programs.

“The state is spending so much money on enforcement. Enforcement’s a good start, but it’s not enough,” said Tim Sevigny, a Biddeford firefighter and paramedic. “We need rehabilitation, and we need education.”

Joining Sevigny were Lisa Dominicus, a volunteer at Portland Recovery Community Center for Scarborough-based Operation Hope, and three recovering addicts: Mariah McKeown, a 2013 Biddeford High School graduate; Brittney La Shier, a University of New England student; and Chris Wentworth, a Sanford native.

McKeown became addicted to heroin following her graduation from BHS, when she moved in with a boyfriend who used the drug. She thought she could reduce his intake of the deadly opiate by using drugs herself.

“I never thought I fit in, I never thought I had a set friend group ... which made me that more susceptible as a heroin addict, because I would’ve done anything to fit in,” she said. “The first time I did heroin, I overdosed.”

Months later, hooked on heroin and homeless in Manchester, New Hampshire, McKeown found herself overdosing in an alley behind a Dunkin’ Donuts, only to be awakened by strangers.

Her boyfriend, for whom she started using heroin, had left her for dead.

It took treatment in Florida, another relapse and further treatment in Portland for McKeown to become sober. She’s celebrating five months’ sobriety this month.

McKeown called for greater community support for the drug addicted, saying community efforts are the beginning of movements to help those who are struggling.

“Addiction is a thing that takes a village to get over,” McKeown said. “There’s no shame in reaching out.”

The stories of McKeown, Wentworth and La Shier overcoming their addictions struck chords of hope within the audience, who shared their own personal experiences with opiate abuse.

Residents also shared their knowledge about different treatment and recovery options with each other, listing off various centers, programs and names of doctors who are available to help addicts on the road to recovery.

And they offered advice to each other on how, as family members, they could help struggling relatives.

Biddeford resident Barbara Corbeil, a recovering alcoholic whose son and grandson are struggling with addiction issues, said families should be educated on how to help their relatives as they seek treatment.

“You’ve listened to all these people. You need help also, because you’ve got to keep dealing with it,” Corbeil said after the speakers concluded their talks. “It’s very easy for you to retract and start accusing. When you live with drugs and alcohol, you also have to get some help yourself. This is my third round dealing with drugs and alcohol; it’s not fun.”

Hope was also a notable theme during Dominicus’ talk, as she outlined her experience with addiction as a parent watching from the sidelines.

In 2010, Dominicus’ 31-year-old daughter was prescribed opioid painkillers following a medical incident, and soon became addicted to the pills.

“I knew something had changed, because we spoke every single day, and all of a sudden, I didn’t hear from her anymore,” Dominicus said. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m addicted, and I can’t stop.’”

Dominicus said her daughter attempted to speak with her doctor about her addiction, only to be told that she should “wean” herself off the drugs.

“That’s what we have, and that’s why we need to get the word out. And that’s why we need to work,” Dominicus said.

She stressed that addiction is misunderstood even among medical professionals, and that better education, outreach and treatment are necessary.

Dominicus said her daughter was able to seek help at Mercy Hospital, and as of Wednesday, had been sober for 41/2 years. She has also received her certification in drug and alcohol counseling.

Dominicus stressed to the crowd that recovery is possible, and that prevention can be achieved as long as communities come together to work for a solution.

“I’m going to sit here tonight, and the question in all of your minds is, ‘Is there hope, can we do this?’” Dominicus said. “This can be done, and it all begins here.”

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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