YORK — Stan’s story may sound familiar. Injured on the job years ago, the middle-aged man became addicted to pain medication, and so easily transitioned to heroin. He used, his wife used, his son used, “just to feel normal,” he said.
David, a young Seacoast resident, has already been in jail on heroin possession charges. “I was in a bad breakup, and I wanted to mask the pain. Heroin filled that void.” A father, he said his 10-year-old son would find David sick as a dog from drug consumption during their weekend visits.
From different backgrounds, at different ages, with different impetuses, but with the same desire to quit, the two men these days can be found in outpatient treatment at the Recovery Center at York Hospital. Seacoast Media Group is using pseudonyms at their request. They came of their own volition, and are in the early stages of a 6- to 9-month commitment to recovery.
The intensive treatment program has been a challenge but a godsend, they say, with counselors who “actually care” about them and prove it. In David’s case, they wrote letters to the court outlining his progress, which resulted in a suspended sentence on a recent drug charge. In Stan’s case, they found a veterinarian to put his dog down – giving him time to appropriately grieve the loss of a beloved pet whose illness had been triggering use. And both men say they are very grateful.
“I stand in the ashes of my former self,” said David.
The Recovery Center opened last April, offering medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to treat substance use disorder, the first in southern York County. MAT pairs intensive counseling and therapy with the FDA-approved drug buprenorphine, a prescription medication that acts to curb cravings and lower the potential for abuse.
MAT programs were specifically mentioned in Gov. Janet Mills’ inauguration speech as she chronicled her top priorities, which include greater funding for opiate addiction treatment. On her first day in office she signed an executive order to expand Medicaid services, which is expected to help low-income Mainers with addiction issues.
The Recovery Center program begins with an intensive outpatient treatment of four to eight weeks, graduates to an 18-week period of less intense treatment, and finally ends with the patient seeing a physician in his or her community who has received training to prescribe burprenorphine.
The staff set a goal of seeing 30 patients in the first six months, and has seen 24 thus far. Dr. Christine Munroe, a family physician and director of the center, said the center has met 85 percent of its target. More importantly, she said, client volume has doubled since the previous year when, as the hospital’s former treatment facility called The Cottage Program, it did not offer MAT.
“Adding MAT has demonstrated that there are many out there with substance use disorders; and when you make getting started in treatment easy during very tough times, people will seek help,” said Haram.
During the first phase of treatment, patients are attending three-hour group sessions three days a week in addition to one-to-one counseling, with regular medication checks. Buprenorphine acts to suppress opioid withdrawal symptoms and decrease cravings for opioids. The group sessions work to address underlying issues surrounding the addiction and provide coping skills to deal with them.
Both Stan and David have been through this first stage of treatment. They said they were skeptical at first about taking one drug to stop them from taking another drug, but they have seen the benefits. “I took their advice and I did it their way,” said Stan. “The fact is, I don’t get high. And every day is better. Right now, I’m at the point where I’m OK.”
“I didn’t want to take another drug, but at the same time I understood what they were saying and I felt like it was something else to solidify the foundation of my recovery. Knowing I’m on it, I know if I do use it will not do anything. It’s a deterrent.”
As individuals have come into the program, counseling sessions in both the first and second phases have expanded to allow for “flexibility to match individual client needs. As they stabilize and build more resilience in their recovery, it’s common for other issues – mental health issues, traumas – to become more evident,” said Haram. So, for instance, one group of people might need help dealing with an abuse issue while another is, say, dealing with chronic poverty.
“Our goal is to help as many patients as possible, so we will continue to tailor the program as we receive feedback and observe what we’re already doing,” said York Hospital President Jud Knox. “We’ll see if we have options for everyone who needs them.”
Both Stan and David said these sessions have helped them recognize triggers for them and give them skills so they won’t pick up the bad habit if they get into those situations again. And, in Stan’s case, center staff even took him back after “I slipped. My dog was getting ready to go. I wanted to stop my mind from racing,” he said. “But I was allowed to stay. They don’t punish you for a relapse.”
“It’s a chronic illness that has relapses and remissions,” said Haram.
“The thing is, at the end of the day the problem’s still there and using isn’t going to change it,” said David. He said he’s now been sober from all substances for four months, and from alcohol for a year. His counselors at the Recovery Center, “actually care. There was a couple of times when I got mad and walked out. The counselor walked out behind me and said, ‘What’s up?’”
“I was stubborn and I never asked for help. But it comes to a point where you have to. I open up more now. It makes me feel better,” said Stan.
Haram said he remembers when Stan first came in to the program. “He never looked up. There was no eye contact. But there came a day when he was completely different.” So impressed has Stan been that he’s told his adult son that he needs to be in the program if he intends to live at home. “He’s still here. Let’s hope it stays that way,” he said.
Now, seven months since opening its doors, the staff is ready to see its first couple of clients “graduate” from the center and begin the last portion of the program – periodic appointments with their primary physicians.
And with changes in the offing at the state level, the possibility exists for more consistent financial help. But Knox said the hospital has received many donations and held several fundraisers over the past year and while he’s pleased to see Medicaid expansion, “we have always been committed to providing care for everyone despite insurance or ability to pay.”
Haram, who has long worked to promote MAT in Maine, said currently less than 15 percent of all treatment offers access to MAT. “So in general, this new focus (by the governor) will help us a great deal.”
Stan and David said they are convinced the program was a lifeline for them. “This is a great asset to the community,” said Stan. “They care about the individual. I was determined I didn’t want to do it anymore, but I don’t know if I could have actually done it without them. I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s been great.”
For David, he sees all the motivation he needs to stay sober in the eyes of his son.
“It used to be that I’d get him on the weekend, and I was so sick I couldn’t do anything. He’d want to go home by Saturday afternoon,” he said. “Now I get him on Friday, and we have a great time together. When Sunday comes he says, man, I don’t want to go home. He’s changed as well. He’s much happier, he’s doing better in school. He needs his father.”
Interested in helping?
The York Hospital Recovery Center is holding an informational evening for those interested in becoming a “recovery ally,” supporting people in recovery from substance use disorder. The intention is to provide meaningful, nonjudgmental support, empathy and encouragement. Anyone from a concerned citizen, to a health care professional, to friends and family members are encouraged to attend. The community event will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 28 at First Parish Church, 180 York St. in York. A light dinner will be provided. Admission is free.
For more information or to RSVP, call 207-351-2385 or email email@example.com.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Recovery Center at 207-351-2118.