While heroin overdoses continue to occur in Falmouth, there are addicts who have struggled through what some specialists call a disease to regain a healthy lifestyle.
Nelson, an Upper Cape Cod resident in his 20s, began to find his way back to society on the Bell Tower softball field, as well as on the basketball court behind the Miller House on Woods Hole Road, after a bout with heroin addiction, jail, a relapse, pleas from family members and a past recovery coach. He realized that he needed help to get healthy and sought treatment with the help of other people.
Nelson is now in an outpatient program where he lives on his own, a program provided by Gosnold of Cape Cod after he spent seven days in detoxification treatment in late winter this year, a month in Gosnold at Cataumet—an intensive recovery program—and another month and a half at the Miller House, a less intensive but still structured recovery program provided by Gosnold.
“I’m happy where I am now,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “Overall, I’m enjoying life without the use of drugs. That’s the main goal.
“My long-term goal is to get my captain’s license, then to take people charter fishing, get my own place, get married, and have kids,” he said. “When I was in active addiction, I did not think I would ever be able to do that. I didn’t think I could do it without using drugs and I didn’t think I could do it while on drugs. But now I know I can. I have confidence in myself that I can do this.”
He told his story in early June, two months after Governor Deval L. Patrick called the heroin epidemic a public health emergency and the same week in which the governor announced a $20 million plan to upgrade treatment for opioid addicts.
Nelson decided not to share his full name or town because of the stigma that could jeopardize his future.
He first received help from Gosnold for his addiction in 2013 when he went to detox and spent time in Gosnold at Cataumet. He decided then not to seek further help at the Miller House, which he said was a mistake.
After six months living alone in his Upper Cape home, he fell back into addiction. He said that he was away from the communal support that Gosnold offered. He wanted to go back into recovery, but he could not bring himself to quit using heroin.
“That was probably the worst time of my using experience,” he said. “I wanted to get back into recovery but I couldn’t. I got trapped into active addiction. I was using against my own will. That was one of the worst feelings.”
Nelson said that as his addiction worsened, he would use heroin to feel normal. “It triggers the same part of the brain that tells you that you need food to survive, or you need water to survive. You need drugs to survive,” he said.
With help from his mother and William D. Abbate, a recovery coach with Gosnold, Nelson went back to detox. He said he needed a push from someone.
During the seven days of detox Nelson’s body recovered from the physical addiction to heroin, which is the first step. He preferred not to get into the details of those seven days.
After that week, he returned to Gosnold at Cataumet.
“After seven days, your brain is still a mess,” he said. “You are still really obsessing. A lot of people think that addiction is more physical, but once you get past the physical addiction, that’s when the war really starts.”
Lori J. McCarthy, director of clinical outreach for Gosnold, said that addiction to heroin changes a user’s brain chemistry. She said the brain takes longer to catch up after a patient’s body physically recovers from heroin use. For some it is longer than others.
“The more education and research we do, we begin to understand that your brain has been hijacked,” she said. “Addiction is a chronic illness. It’s a disease. Most people,” she said, “use drugs to feel normal.”
At Gosnold at Cataumet, the staff help patients regain their mental health with a rigid structure. Patients remain on the Cataumet property for one-on-one counseling, group counseling, psycho-education, mindfulness training, psychiatry, yoga, volleyball, basketball, and a gym for other exercise. The program lasts 30 days.
Nelson said that both stays at Cataumet “forced” him through the obsession of heroin but that at the conclusion of his stay, his head was still “foggy.”
“My endorphins were still pretty low and I didn’t have the confidence,” he said.
Instead of heading home after his second stay at Gosnold at Cataumet, he sought further counseling at the Miller House.
That is when he said that he started to enjoy life. “I was going to the gym every day, hanging out with friends... I was halfway back to society, but the same time going to a safe place.”
The Miller House is similar to Gosnold at Cataumet in that patients attend counseling meetings and other therapies and exercise but their time is less structured. They can leave the Woods Hole Road facility after checking in with a staff member.
Ms. McCarthy said that one important aspect of this stage in the recovery process is discovering healthy habits like maintaining weekly or daily exercise as a way to regain a more normal and healthy lifestyle.
“In active addiction, you are not part of society. You don’t feel connected to anything normal,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It’s a socially and emotionally isolating illness.”
“We offer different activities that stimulate the brain and release natural endorphins,” she said.
Any community event, whether it is a team building activity like softball games, the Falmouth Road Race, whale watching, group skiing trips, an equine program offered for women at the Emerson House—another Gosnold facility for women—Ms. McCarthy said officials at the treatment program embrace.
“We are seeing such an impact,” she said. “Any community event that you are present at and enjoying is a new thing for someone in early recovery and it is really powerful.”
When a patient eventually leaves a treatment facility, they have these activities to turn to when the they feel the nag of addiction.
Nelson now lives in an outpatient program in Falmouth and is part of a local softball league that meets for games weekly. His team consists of friends who have been through Gosnold programs as well as Falmouth residents who have not. Last week, Nelson had a couple RBIs to help his team win two games.
He said that he continues to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and will sometimes come across someone in recovery who has “slipped-up” and turned back to drugs.
“I tell them there’s no way your going to succeed and use drugs at the same time. I was in the same place for a while,” he said. But he said there is hope and he is proof.
“I tell them I’m happy with my life now.”