A community gathering sponsored by PACT contemplates the complexities of prescription drug addiction, an addiction which does not discriminate; people of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures suffer. 

The Hungry Heart PACT ‘Brings it Home’ with Screening and Dialogue Night

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Thursday March 06, 2014

Understanding the many faces and phases of addiction begins with a community conversation.

A young Vermonter wakes up and eagerly helps his family with daily farming duties. He’s always had an open and supportive family and lived a fortunate life. Then, everything changed. His mother started noticing a difference in his behavior. He stopped attending family events--and when he did occasionally attend, it was never for long. She discovered farming equipment and tools had gone missing. Eventually, the story unfolds; her once innocent and healthy son was battling a strong addiction to prescription drugs.

This is just one of the many stories shared in the Kingdom County Productions documentary, The Hungry Heart. The documentary addresses the state’s glaring opiate addiction problem by unveiling the recovering addicts’ perspective. The Hungry Heart illustrates the raw and emotional story of one St. Albans pediatrician, his addicted patients, and his process of helping them on their road to recovery.

Introducing this film February 10 was the first component of a two-part PACT (Parents and Adults Celebrating Teens) event at SBHS to bring a more real sense of awareness to South Burlington residents and students and to provide an opportunity to talk about it.  At the screening, director Bess O’Brien, Dr. Fred Holmes, and some of the recovering patients featured in the film were present for a moving and honest conversation. They truly brought the message home that addiction can happen to anyone. Another opportunity occurred at dialogue night on February 17, following a second screening of the film.

The ScreeningIn the film, Dr. Fred Holmes fosters genuine relationships with his addicted patients--young clients who were regular patients of his before he discovered their addiction. Dr. Holmes prescribes suboxone, a drug used to treat opiod addiction , but even more, Dr. Holmes provides them with a connection – one  they can confide in without judgement.

Contrasted with stories of both adults and youth who share their experiences about battling addiction, The Hungry Heart highlights the journey that all addict’s face, their darkest moments, successes, relapses, and their willpower to break the most difficult habit in their lives.

Since its St. Albans premiere in September, The Hungry Heart has touched viewers all across Vermont, and in other New England states, in community centers, town halls, theaters, medical centers, universities, and high schools. The South Burlington screening night’s unique opportunity to meet the director, as well as Dr. Holmes and some of the recovering patients in the film, took the message to another level.  Their personal perspectives provided an insightful and moving connection to the fragile lines that are crossed when addiction occurs following abuse of drugs prescribed to a patient for  legitimate medical use for pain or following surgery, or with the illegal use of prescription drugs. 

Dialogue Night

I am absolutely overwhelmed by that film,” City Councilor Pat Nowak began. “It brought it home. It’s our kids. It’s not them. It’s us.”

The rest of the participants at the roundtable discussion nodded. The Hungry Heart made it personal, and as UVM social work professor and State Rep. Ann Pugh noted, the issue became less of something seen in Law & Order, and became more clearly a local public health and community issue.

Current treatment facilities are swamped. Wait-lists are long. Rather than seeing it as a closed door, the group voiced that treatment would need to come in the form of community support. This requires washing away the stigma of those riddled with the disease.

“The more we stigmatize those with addiction, the less likely they are to seek treatment,” said Tracey Harrington.

Changing the stigma would require looking at the issue from a more inclusive perspective. As The Hungry Heart portrayed, susceptibility to prescription drug addiction does not discriminate: people of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and family structures suffer from the disease.

“One of the things we know research-wise is that for kids, having an impactful adult in their lives makes a tremendous difference,” Sally Tenney said. “The idea that every student and kid in the community has somebody, whether it’s a peer or faculty member or community member--that we make sure everybody has somebody.”

From the peer perspective, existing programs like the F.H. Tuttle Middle School’s K2K (Kid to Kid) program and SBHS Peer Leadership program make room for this connection. Students could be trained on how to handle a situation in which a fellow peer comes for help, and the mentor can provide the available resources.

“One of the turning points for me in the legislature was when we heard about a situation where a young person opened his phone, dialed 911 and left it on the chest of a friend dying of an overdose and left because he was concerned that he would be found liable,” said Rep. Helen Head. “We did try to address that by saying, ‘No, you would not be.’ You can call for a friend, you can call for help, and you yourself will not be liable.” 

Getting the people who need help most to come to these conversations is always difficult, said Mariah Larkin, PACTeen advisor. Approaches like The Hungry Heart screening, having parent support groups, introducing local resources like CenterPoint, or offering incentives like extra credit for students to attend these discussions may be a “one step at a time” tactic, but each step will be necessary. 

Solving the issue will be far from simple, but having an entire community pitch in to help create healthy relationships could be the salvation of a suffering neighbor.

“Nothing is more fundamental than unconditional love,” Michael Simoneau, a board member of the HowardCenter, said. He quoted Dr. Holmes: “We’re not treating addiction; we are treating self-esteem.”  

“Dr. Holmes was always able to find something positive,” Jason Cushner, coordinator of Neighborhood Learning Conversations and Rowland Fellow said. “The power of taking the positive position gives the message that we believe in them. Power of that belief said over and over again invites them to come back in and say, ‘I’m having trouble believing in myself.’ Little moments of belief go a long way.”

SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent