SHIRLEY -- Congresswoman Niki Tsongas was one of several speakers at a recent Addiction Crisis Forum sponsored by the Societal Heroin Addiction Awareness Resource Project, or SHAARP. Other speakers included a panel of recovering addicts with personal stories to tell.
Held at St.Anthony's Parish Hall, the turnout included parents who had lost a child to a heroin overdose. Mary Ann Prince, a founding member of SHAARP, lost her 25-year old son in May, 2014.
When Travis told her he'd been using heroin, Prince told him, "Don't worry, we'll get you help."
He did get help, at a military rehab, Prince said. "He was clean."
Not long after Travis died, she attended the funeral of another young man from Shirley who died of a heroin overdose, her childhood friend Debra Flagg's son Taylor. It was a turning point, she said.
Inspired in part by her son's plea to "help my friends," Prince said she was urged to take action by Father Edmond Derosier, pastor of St. Anthony's Church, who said he'd buried too many young people already and it was time to fight the "scourge" that claimed their lives.
Assisted by former Shirley Police Sergeant Alfreda Cromwell, who reached out to her early on, Mary Ann and her husband Gary Prince and others from Shirley and surrounding towns formed SHAARP. The fledgling group received a pledge of support from state Sen. James Eldridge, Prince said.
SHAARP's mission is to raise awareness about addiction and remove the stigma that makes it hard for addicts to seek help and easy for society to ignore the problem.
At the forum, Tsongas said it's important that those hit hardest by the opioid crisis speak out in ways that lawmakers will hear. "We're dependent on hearing these stories," she said. "It's a great benefit."
But funding is key. Knowing that rehab beds are scarce, she said places like Lowell House do "great work" that must continue and that the Federal Government "does have a role" in making that happen.
Legislation such as the "Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act," for example. The bill authorizes funding for programs, education, treatment and intervention. "We find the dollars and appropriate funds where needed," Tsongas said.
She recalled a veterans conference where the topic of body armor came up. It's essential for protection but heavy and can cause "multiple small spine fractures that are very painful," she said. In lieu of surgery, doctors might give soldiers prescription painkillers. But is there a link to addiction? The jury's still out on that, Tsongas said. "We need more data."
But it's a point well taken. SHAARP member Jackie Esielionis said that after recent surgery, her doctor prescribed an ample supply of a potent painkiller. Reluctant to buy so many pills, she asked the pharmacist if she could split the prescription. She was told no, it's illegal for controlled substances.
Tsongas agreed that some aspects of the law could be revisited. "It's a work in progress," she said.
Father Derosier, as Emcee, introduced a slide show. Viewed in silence, it featured men and women from the area, most of them young and smiling. They all died from drug overdoses.
When the lights came back on, a panel of survivors stood up to speak. Amy Shack, of Shirley; U.S. Army Sgt. Matt Leland, Jacqueline Wynn, of Medford and Robert Demeo, of Boston.
"I don't know why my face isn't on that wall," Shack said. "Those were all my friends on that video."
Leland was Travis Prince's sergeant in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was also his close friend and confidante. He spoke for a long time, sketching a portrait of his life and how drug abuse derailed it.
Leland said he had four kids and had owned two successful businesses when, at age 38, in combat zones, he first tried "recreational drugs...to relax."
Introduced to painkillers earlier, after an auto accident, he'd tried physical therapy for ruptured discs but after wearing hefty armor and jostling in Army vehicles over bad roads for a year, "my back gave out," he said. His doctor prescribed meds that "masked the pain" but didn't cure it. Back home, in "excruciating pain," he doubled the dose. Soon, he was taking 100 mg. of Percocet a day.
Both he and Travis came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, Leland continued, spotlighting his slant on how returning warrior's can cycle out of control. "You're a hero, on top of the world," but can't cope with "real life issues," he said.
Dependent on legal drugs, he wondered, with a wife and kids, how to sustain his daily life. A job, for starters. "My resume works, but I have problems" most employers won't tolerate. "So as your addiction grows, you can't work...you've had surgery so there's no pain now but withdrawal is hellish," he said.
One day, he took "a pile of pills" and put a gun in his mouth. But the 45 had a safety catch and didn't fire when he squeezed the trigger. Next came a fresh start, a new job. Clean for six months, he got the tragic news about Travis. It set him off. When his 300 pill a day habit got too pricey, he switched to a street drug. "Heroin's cheaper," he said.
Clean again now at 45, he questions "why I'm still here" when so many others are not.
The bottom line is "we're all opposed to drug abuse, but you can't legislate sobriety, or peace, or pain," Leland said. "We need to stop judging and start helping," he concluded.
Former Shirley Police Sgt, Alfreda Cromwell, one of SHAARPs founding members, gave the closing remarks. She thanked the speakers for their bravery, perseverance and for sharing their stories. One of them is her niece, Jackie. "I'm so proud of you!" she said.
Stigma, she said, must be recognized for what it is, hurtful and harmful. She defined the term, straight out of Websters Dictionary. "A mark of disgrace..." in this case associated with addiction.
There should be no stigma, she said. "These are our loved ones, people in our community."
When their problem is stigmatized, it prevents people from getting help, even health care, she said. "It's wrong!"