In small, quaint towns like Guilford, national crises like the opioid crisis may seem a world away. However, perception doesn’t match reality. At a recent community forum, residents listened to presentations and testimonials covering the destruction created by, and prevalence of, opioids across the state and in some cases, in our own backyard.
Guilford DAY and Guilford Youth & Family Services sponsored a program, The Heat/Chasing the Dragon, for all high school students and a similar presentation for all parents or guardians of all grade 8 to 12 students at the Community Center on Nov. 6. Both programs started with a screening of Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, a documentary aimed at educating young people about addiction, followed by an interactive panel discussion focusing on the dangers of addiction and combating the abuse of prescription drugs and opioids.
The U.S. Attorney’s Heroin Education Action Team (HEAT) facilitated the panel discussion. For the community version, there was a “hidden in plain sight” display—a program developed the Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals that provides a model of teen’s bedroom for adults to walk through to try and spot the signs of drug use.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David C. Nelson said the opioid crisis is very much alive and well in the state of Connecticut. He said with the low price of drugs like fentanyl that seem to have an endless supply, more and more people are moving from prescription drugs to heroin and fentanyl.
“We are on pace in Connecticut for approximately 1,100 overdose deaths due to opioids,” he said. “That number means nothing until you put it in context: In Connecticut we will probably have about 100 homicides this year and about 300 fatal car accidents, so if you add those two together, it is still not even close to the opioid problem.”
So how did it start? Nelson said years ago there was a misconception that prescription painkiller oxycontin was not addictive and with many hospitals and doctors evaluated based on the pain levels of their patients, opioids like oxycontin were pushed out into the community at an alarming rate. With such a large supply of prescription painkillers now sitting in people’s medicine cabinets, Nelson said access to these drugs was, and is, everywhere.
“It’s just too dangerous to have this in your house,” he said. “We can’t do this anymore. We can’t have this mentality of, ‘Oh Ill just save it for a rainy day,’ because it is just too dangerous to have in our homes and around our children.”
Fighting the crisis is no easy task. Nelson said the U.S. Attorney’s Office is no longer trying to just take down major drug dealers, but is now arresting anyone caught selling opioids to get them off the street and just “try and stop the bleeding”.
“This is not something we can simply prosecute our way out of, this is not something we can simply rehab our way out of, this is not something we can simply scare kids out of. We are going to have to do all of those things all at once,” he said. “This is a situation where the ship is sinking and when the ship is sinking, you can’t just take one or two actions; you have to do it all together as fast as you can.”
So what does the crisis look like in Guilford? Deputy Police Chief Butch Hyatt said Guilford experiences about 20 overdoses a year—and that number is on the rise. Hyatt said the extent of the crisis in town is a matter of perception, but said the crisis is certainly here.
“The reality is the drugs are here, they exist even if we don’t see them, they are here in all shapes and forms and all walks of life,” he said. “The police get involved when something bad happens, and even then we are only seeing about 5 to 10 percent of what is really going on.”
How the drugs make their way to Guilford is complex and Hyatt said there are many factors contributing to if a kid becomes addicted—including the home environment, peer pressure, and genetic predispositions to addiction. While there is no clear solution to protecting kids from the crisis, Hyatt said the easiest way to start is to have a conversation.
“One of the top ones we talk about is you have to talk to your kids. You have to be active, engaged, interested, and involved in what they are doing, where they are, and who they are with,” he said. “If you don’t know the answers to those questions they are probably doing something you don’t want them to do.”
Local resident Sue Kruczek, a member of the HEAT team, shared her story of losing her son, Nick, to opioids in 2013.
“He was an extremely talented hockey player,” she said of her son. “As a freshman he was a starting center on the varsity hockey team, which is when we later found out is when our nightmare began. In the locker room just before his very first game, an upperclassman tossed him a little white pill to help him relax. He must have liked the way it made him feel because he later told us he never played a high school game sober.”
Kruczek spoke about the struggle of getting Nick treatment, legal woes, insurance companies refusal to pay for treatments, and how Nick eventually lost his battle with addiction.
“I knew something was very wrong,” she said. “I called the hospitals seeing if Nick was there and he wasn’t. I found myself pleading with God that he was in jail because the only other option could just not be happening. I went to his apartment and that is when I found Nick and that he had lost his battle with addiction, 11 days before he should have turned 21.”
Kruczek’s daughter Haley, an 8th grader, also spoke about her brother, describing her happy memories, and then the shock and pain of realizing she would never see her brother again.
“If you know someone who does drugs, no matter what kind, you need to tell someone and get them the help they need,” she said. “I wish I had been able to do the same for my brother because now my life is half of what it used to be and drugs are to blame.”