The Front Lines of Addiction
Confronting the Opioid Epidemic
It would be easy to blame the growing tragedy of opioid abuse on the power of prescription painkillers. After all, for many addicts, that’s where it starts.
Lowell resident Keriann Caccavaro says “something clicked” the first time she took an OxyContin. “I had no idea what was in store for me,” she says. Caccavaro describes the next four years of addiction, homelessness and crime as “a vortex of hell.” She lived to tell about it. Thousands of others have not.
Why does this keep happening? How do we stop it?
There were over 4,000 opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts between 2012-2015, according the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control, in 2014, New Hampshire ranked third in the country in the rate of drug deaths. To better understand what is driving this public health epidemic, leaders in government, law enforcement, health care and education are turning to those who have passed through the vortex and come out the other side in hopes of understanding what drives these addictions.
The answer, we are learning, goes far deeper than the power of a pill. With 2016 on pace to be the worst year yet, changes are underway.
The government is addressing mental health and addiction services. Health care is adjusting how opioids are prescribed. Medical education is changing its curricula. And law enforcement is treating substance abuse more like a public health issue and less like a crime.
These are five voices from the front lines:
Keriann Caccavaro, recovery counselor, recovering addict ( shown top of page – photo by Kevin Harkins. )
“When you see someone who seems so hopeless in life, take a second to just say, ‘It’s OK. You’re going to make it.’ ”
Caccavaro was in her second year at Middlesex Community College, studying criminal justice, when she required a medical procedure and was prescribed a few days’ worth of Percocet for the pain.
A friend told her she was going to love them, and she did. So much so that she finished the supply in a day. With the Percocet gone, she tried an OxyContin and “something clicked.”
“I had no clue what was in store for me,” she says.
Caccavaro grew up in middle-class Winchester but struggled to stay out of trouble and started drinking as early as middle school. Looking back, she sees that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a lack of self-esteem, and the need for attention from her father drove holes in her life that her addiction would fill.
Her life and relationships quickly took on a singular focus — finding another pill. She became homeless, sleeping in a Lowell park or an abandoned house.
After stealing tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry from her mother in 2012, she was sent to a facility for women who were looking to assimilate back into society. The program showed her there was another way out. But her struggle wasn’t over.
When she left the facility, she relapsed almost immediately.
Over the next two years, she was in and out of detox more than a dozen times. She went into rehab programs with no real intention of getting sober. In 2014, she was arrested for being present where heroin was kept and, due to prior convictions, she was given a choice — 5 years in jail, or a new court program for addicts called Drug Court. At first, she chose jail, but two weeks later, she changed her mind. “To me, [the court] saved my life,” she says. Her sober date is June 3, 2014.
In the Drug Court program and later in Project Hope in Lynn, people took the time, she says, to understand what she had experienced. These programs gave her structure and taught her accountability as she rebuilt her self-esteem.
Caccavaro graduated from Drug Court in February, and today she works at Megan’s House, a home in Lowell that helps women transition out of substance abuse and into independence.
If you want to help someone dealing with addiction, Caccavaro says you need to look at the person, not the addict. “ ‘Keep it up.’ You’re doing so good.’ Those little words meant so much,” she says. “Just one person can change your whole drive.”