As a cadet at West Point, the Rev. Janet Brown injured her thumb while training for the 1984 Olympics. She was prescribed pain medication, a simple answer to her physical affliction, but one that did little for her emotional turmoil when it cost her the chance to compete.
Then came the abuse: painkillers, alcohol and cocaine.
At 22, she sought treatment and turned her life around. In 2005, she founded the SpiritWorks Foundation, a nonprofit community center in York County that offers addiction recovery coaches, support groups for addicts and their families and youth programs for recovering addicts and those interested in avoiding drugs altogether.
“I’ve been in addiction recovery for 30 years,” Brown said. It’s a story of perseverance she hopes others in a similar place might also share. “By being able to do that, I give family members a tremendous amount of hope.”
Every day, more than three Virginians die from overdosing on opioids, including prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and morphine, as well as heroin. With opioid abuse on the rise nationwide, organizations such as SpiritWorks and Colonial Behavioral Health, alongside area police agencies, lead the charge to combat the epidemic.
“The further that you get into drugs, the further that your whole lifestyle changes,” said Cindy Levy, adult outpatient services coordinator at Colonial Behavioral Health.
Drugs affect your ability to handle stress, perform at work and manage basic necessities, such as paying rent and buying food. Opioids can start off benign enough, often as painkillers prescribed following injuries or routine surgeries. But Levy warned they can be habit-forming.
Colonial Behavioral Health treated 663 individuals with substance abuse issues during the fiscal year that ended in June. Levy said about 20 percent of those cases involved opioid abuse, roughly double the number the organization saw five years ago.
Levy said part of the reason the issue has ballooned to its current state is because early painkiller research undervalued its addictiveness. The subsequent widespread use of painkillers can lead to dependency, and when the legal supply runs out, those afflicted might buy the medication from illegitimate markets or turn to heroin for a fix.
In 2012, doctors prescribed painkillers 259 million times — that’s one prescription for every American adult. Because of their legal uses, it can be difficult to assess the scale of abuse in a community, said Maj. Greg Riley of Williamsburg Police.
“It’s really hard to tell how prevalent the problem is,” Riley said. “Certainly, we’ve had some calls for service in the area and made arrests for people with possession of certain drugs or opioids.”
While criminal acts, such as falsifying prescriptions, can be obvious, separating genuine use and abuse proves particularly challenging.
“Sometimes those lines get really blurry,” Riley said. “It’s difficult to separate real uses and those who abuse.”
The department has been promoting awareness of the issue, building on years of no-questions-asked drug take-back programs. All city officers are also certified first responders, which helps when they respond to an overdose. Riley also said the department is pushing to equip officers with Narcan — a nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose — although that plan is not yet finalized.
In 2016, James City County police received more than $2,000 in grant funding for the purchase of the spray. York-Poquoson police are similarly outfitted with the treatment spray and nearly 100 percent of its officers are trained to use Narcan or Evzio, a similar nasal spray, said Deputy Shawn Dearhart of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office; patrol deputies keep spray in their cars during all shifts.
Confronting the problem
Levy’s experience tells her opioid abuse is steadily rising, although she lacks hard statistics to back up her observations.
In response, organizations such as CBH are ramping up their efforts.
Spending time with others of a similar addictive mindset can worsen the situation, as fellow addicts might enable further abuse. But it can also be helpful when a group of peers encourages each other to overcome the addiction, Levy said.
Six months ago, CBH created a chronic-pain-management support group; a second one is already in the works. It recently launched a suboxone clinic to help treat those addicted to opioids using suboxone, which blocks the effects of opioids on the body. It provides some pain relief while also treating withdrawal symptoms, which Levy said makes it a particularly effective addiction treatment.
The organization runs two intensive outpatient programs, which address general drug abuse. Levy also gives presentations on the issue, including one last month at the College of William and Mary in front of students taking a class on addiction in the community.
Medical care and treatment services only offer temporary answers to the problem, which can involve a life-long struggle between recovery and relapse. That’s why Brown founded SpiritWorks — it’s an effort to foster long-term relationships and support.
“My original thought was that we could be a place that would catch people as they were making those transitions,” she said.
That thought stemmed from watching people she knew exit treatment, only to relapse later.
“Treatment ends and so at some point, people are going to return to their community,” Brown said. “We are the people in the community who are doing the work. We will always be here.”
She said regulars visit SpiritWorks daily looking for emotional support. Others will call or show up on a whim, looking for resources regarding treatment centers or interested in the organization’s ongoing groups, such as one for parents whose adult children are battling addiction.
“Most services end at 5 o’clock. What are you going to do at 5:01?” Brown said. Weekends can be especially challenging. “That’s when people with addiction really need the services and support.”
SpiritWorks aims to keep clients in touch with peers and coaches for around-the-clock help. It’s deeply personal for many of the organization’s employees and volunteers, many of whom are recovering addicts, such as Brown.
SpiritWorks provides an opportunity for Brown and others to pay it forward by those embroiled in addiction. Although Brown battled addiction, she said drugs are significantly more potent today and with that, the problem becomes significantly worse. She gave the example of one modern heroin incorporating elephant tranquilizer.
“Drugs are different,” Brown said. “This is not your parents’ heroin.”
Brown also said the issue is growing in the area, although it’s different from the same epidemic in more rural areas and inner cities, where addiction is more likely to run in families for generations.
In the Williamsburg area, addiction typically begins with something such as an injury that leads to a painkiller prescription, which in turn serves as a bridge to more illicit drug use. The upper-middle class young adults here didn’t grow up watching their parents shoot up, she said. Here, the problem primarily sees teenagers finding painkillers in their parents’ medicine cabinets and older adults succumbing to the pills’ habit-forming tendencies.
Brown also emphasized emotional pain that too often goes unaddressed, including trauma from places people don’t normally look. That might include an injured athlete dealing with the inability to play for the remainder of the season, or for life, similar to what Brown personally encountered during her time at West Point.
“They did nothing to treat my emotional pain,” she said. “Pain relievers work really well for that kind of pain, too.”
Possible solutions for a complex problem
Riley, Levy and Brown each offered ways to combat the opioid problem.
“I’d just really recommend that anybody who is prescribed medication of this type be very careful about how they take it,” Riley said, adding that people should work with their doctors and take the medication as prescribed.
If addiction becomes an issue, he said it’s important to recognize that it requires professional treatment.
“There are many ways of treating pain, and it is not true that pain equals pain medication,” Levy said.
Levy suggested counseling to accompany the use of medication, and acupuncture therapy to facilitate pain relief. Relaxation techniques, exercise and socialization can also help significantly. People can learn to use Narcan and other emergency responses, emphasizing that it’s also important to call 911 and involve medical professionals.
Brown said it’s important to properly dispose of unused medication through drug take-back programs, such as one located at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, alongside disposal kits found at SpiritWorks, the Williamsburg-James City County Health Department and some pharmacies. People can also share their knowledge with others.
“I really believe that we in the greater Williamsburg community are poised and positioned to turn the tide,” Brown said. “Now it’s time to focus on what we do have and what we can do.”
Need help or want to help?
•Addiction Recovery of Virginia: 371-2938
•Alcoholics Anonymous: 253-1234
•Colonial Behavioral Health: 220-3200, 1657 Merrimac Trail
•The SpiritWorks Foundation: 903-0000, 5800 Mooretown Road
•Farley Center for drug rehabilitation: 280-1194, 5477 Mooretown Road, admitting staff available 24/7
•Narcotics Anonymous: 499-1443
•Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance: 229-6651
For more information and resources, visit drugabuse.gov.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.