MANCHESTER, NH – Darcy Ess stood in the middle of the Radisson Hotel ballroom to tell her story, the one without a happy ending.
“On April 4, 2014 we got that knock on the door, and we lost our son that day to an overdose of heroin/fentanyl,” said Ess. “So, why am I here? Why did I feel it was important to drive down to Manchester from Belmont today?,” she paused, to compose herself.
She came to save someone else from the pain she is living with, by telling her son’s story.
Her son Camren died at the age of 23. Narcan wasn’t enough to save him – mainly because the people he was with that day spent the critical minutes after he overdosed cleaning up their paraphernalia and making themselves scarce before calling 911, to avoid arrest.
Ess said her purpose in coming to the forum was to remind everyone that while they are having the conversation about the heroin crisis, not to forget to talk about gateway drugs, the ones that got a hold of her son before he knew what they would do to him. The ones that led him to death’s door.
“Our children are not becoming heroin addicts overnight. They started with smoking, they started with pot, they started with drinking – which is huge,” Ess said.
She has been lifting her own voice – to school officials, police officers, before state lawmakers and fellow parents – to make sure that her son’s death was not in vain.
She wants to see more funding for education in schools, and for recovery programs, a common theme throughout the two-hour Manchester Police Department Forum on Heroin, held Tuesday night.
When Chief Nick Willard organized the meeting, he had no idea exactly what he would hear, or how many would come. But the standing-room-only crowd of close to 400 arrived early and stayed until the end. After a dozen or more people asked their questions, more than a dozen more people who wanted to speak were left standing in line for the microphone, as the 7 p.m. meeting came to a close.
A woman named Crystal stood holding a small boy in her arms – her grandson. She said her son was an addict, and in jail – rearrested two days after he was released. She asked the panel of experts what is being done to help get more resources in place to help addicts like her son through the small window of hope that occasionally encourages them to try and get clean.
“Is anything being done to help that?” she asked Willard directly.
“No, there’s nothing being done, and that’s the problem,” said Willard. “That’s our frustration.”
Antwan Thomas stood and introduced himself as the father of two sons, one a sophomore in high school and the other a sophomore in college. He said the streets seem to be teaching his sons more about heroin than he is, and that’s not the way it should be. They are also watching what’s happening to their city through constant news reports and social media accounts of overdoses, drug busts and the politics of a drug crisis in a state that is 49th out of 50 when it comes to recovery and treatment options.
Thomas said he is troubled by the rate of heroin deaths in Manchester – about one per week at the moment. He said as a basketball and college referee he travels around the region, and sees what it’s like in other cities and towns, and there’s one question he can’t resolve.
“Why our city? What is it that’s scared our city and scared our children so that we’re having this conversation? Why us? What is the trend? Are we over populated? What is it? Help me to understand that?” Thomas said.
Willard said he isn’t certain, but perhaps it’s because Manchester is talking out loud about it, while other communities still aren’t. What he does know, said Willard, is that since he has begun to speak with more frequency about the need for action, he’s been hearing from people all across New Hampshire who feel the same way.
It’s not just a Manchester problem, he said.
“We need to educate, we need to understand, we need to advocate,” Willard said.
Moderator Scott Spradling asked Willard to describe what’s been going on with Manchester police in the daily battle against heroin.
“Our drug unit alone has confiscated over 27,000 grams,” Willard said. “If you take 1 gram as approximately 5 hits, so 5 times 27,000 – and each one of those hits are potentially fatal… they’re on the front lines and combatting it.”
A steady flow of heroin gets to Manchester from Mexico by way of Lawrence, Mass., and so even while police are making significant drug busts, the supply and demand continues to be the problem, said Willard.
“We need to shrink the addiction pool, we need to get people out of their addictions,” Willard said.
Mayor Ted Gatsas began the forum by saying that he has been making the rounds to different meetings and support groups, learning the depth of the problem – from what entices young people to try such a deadly drug, to the pain and suffering of their families.
“It’s time for some loud action,” Gatsas said.
A panel assisted Willard in fielding questions, including Manchester Fire Chief James Burkush; Timothy Soucy, MPH, REHS Manchester Health Department; Chris Stawasz, General Manager of American Medical Response-NH/ME; Mary Forsythe-Taber, Executive Director, Makin’ It Happen Coalition for Resilient Youth; Melissa Crews, Hope For New Hampshire Recovery; and pharmacist Wayne Dutch, PhD.
Audience member Tracy Bachert, PTO president at McLaughlin Middle School, talked about her own son, who she said got involved with heroin in college and is now in jail. She is an active advocate for drug education in schools, extending to parents, starting in the fifth grade. She shared an abbreviated list of warning signs parents should be aware of, signs that there is drug use going on.
Signs she wishes she’d noticed before it was too late for her own son.
“Some of the things we didn’t notice were small pieces of foil all over the house. I had no idea what it meant. Spoons missing, finding spoons in their room – they’re not eating ice cream. Baggies, little bags ripped to shreds, X-acto knives or the blades from X-acto knives. The foil sometimes had charcoal on it. We didn’t know what it was; that’s from smoking it, because they’re not ready yet, or too afraid to use needles,” Bachert said.
Falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, or being awake at unusual times, cut-up straws, empty ink pen cases, changes in hygiene habits, noticing missing items that are missing because they’ve been pawned or sold to buy drugs.
Bachert is working with some other mothers to get this information into the hands of families as one method of prevention.
“These are just some of the signs. Not everybody has these issues, but by the time we figured it out it was too late, and it’s been five years. His son just turned 5, and now we don’t know what to do, because we can’t get him into rehab, because there are none available,” Bachert said.
Stephanie Bergeron is Development Director for Serenity Place, an addiction treatment center in the downtown that has continued to adjust itself to the needs in the community, driven mostly by funding, or lack thereof.
Bergeron stood to speak, saying she was glad to hear talk of solutions. In her experience she has run up against too many barriers to treatment, due primarily to lack of funding in New Hampshire, which threatens to shut down operations for the longtime recovery center and leave countless people in limbo.
It’s a life-and-death situation that leaves them languishing somewhere between the pit of addiction and the small windows – that are too few and far between – that lead to recovery.
“We all know what the problems are,” she said. “We need solutions.”
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