Great Barrington — They came together to support each other through the crisis of addiction, whether struggling themselves or watching in despair as loved ones circled the drain.
The D.O.P.E. (Discussing Our Personal Experiences) group began when recovering heroin addict and Edge correspondent Jennifer Wheeler started it on Facebook last December, a group that now has 601 members from a cross-section of the Berkshires.
Wheeler has moved, however, but a core group is staying on to provide outreach in a community — and region — with a raging opioid crisis that mirrors a national epidemic due to a variety of factors that include over-prescription of narcotics and cheap street heroin. They want to make people aware and also find resources and solutions.
And they want to break down the stigma of addiction, for that drives it further underground and blocks help and recovery.
“Connection breaks the walls of stigma down,” said Caroline Wheeler, Jennifer Wheeler’s mother, who is now organizing the meetings.
D.O.P.E. meets the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. All are welcome, and ideas and help are needed.
At last Tuesday’s (September 27) meeting at Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Berkshire South Executive Director Jenise Lucey, marker in hand, got busy writing down goals and suggestions by the group so far and added more. Berkshire South’s Youth Development Manager Emerson Badessa is also on the outreach committee.
Some suggestions included regular radio and newspaper press, attention from local politicians, talking to high school students, and working on treatment options in South Berkshire County, since right now most recovering addicts must travel to Pittsfield for treatment.
Another suggestion is to work with local groups like the Opioid Task Force, and to keep in touch with local officials. Member Kingsley Little, for instance, spoke at a recent Great Barrington Selectboard meeting about the urgency of the problem and lack of local treatment options that make recovery an even more grueling process.
Little’s son, for instance, must travel to Pittsfield early each morning for treatment before he turns around and drives to Connecticut for work.
The group is looking for more volunteers. And Lucey noted that once a structure and plan of action was in place, “town leaders and important people in the community will come.”
D.O.P.E. is a wonderfully tender but safe place, where talk is straight.
“Do you tell people?” one mother of an addict asked another about whether she talks openly about her son’s addiction.
“Yes,” the other mother said. “But there’s the question of respecting privacy.”
She spoke of the challenges of stigma and the changes to her own perception, when once, for instance, she overheard someone refer to a heroin addict as a “junkie.”
“You could be talking about my son right now,” she said she thought to herself.
In noting how turning this opioid ship around will take serious manpower, someone mentioned the chief of the Gloucester [Massachusetts] Police Department, now famous for its compassionate approach to dealing with addiction. The department’s “Angel Program” steers addicts into rehab rather than churning them through the criminal justice system.
“The chief has a huge volunteer base,” he said.