It was a night of gut-wrenching testimony; standing ovations; hugs and tears. Friday night, well over 200 people filled the Oak Bluffs School auditorium to attend “Breaking the Silence,” an event organized by Lori Robinson Fisher of Edgartown, and share their concern about the growing heroin epidemic that is claiming more and more lives on Martha’s Vineyard.
Billy Pfaff, founder of “Heroin is Killing My Town” (HKMT), was the featured speaker. But the most compelling story of the night came from a young Island woman.
Emily Wells, 21, of Vineyard Haven stood at the podium at Friday night’s event and spoke candidly and sometimes nervously about the destruction her addiction has wrought on herself and on her family. Dressed sharply in all black, there was nothing about her appearance that remotely suggested she was a longtime heroin addict.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to hurt and break my loved ones’ hearts,” she said. “Nobody says, ‘I want to be a prisoner in my own head and I want to put myself through torture,’ but that’s what heroin does. You don’t get a day off from heroin. There are no loopholes.”
Ms. Wells said she’d been abusing substances since she was 15. By 17 she had attempted suicide, been arrested twice, and lost her license after an OUI conviction. She sold her car for drug money. She stole from everyone but her family. Her addiction led her to dingy motels and crack houses.
She moved to the Island four years ago, hoping to kick her addiction. For a while, her plan worked. She was working as a veterinary technician and had her own pet-sitting business. She had her own place, and even bought a new car.
But she started using again.
“Before I knew it, I was watching people overdose in my bedroom with needles in their arms,” she said.
For a while she managed to keep her jobs while keeping up a $200-a-day habit. “Nobody knew, nobody had a clue that I was a heroin addict,” she said. “I became a con artist and a master manipulator. I had burn marks all over my body from nodding off with a cigarette in my hand.”
Ms. Wells estimated she’d been to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital emergency room 10 times for drug-related treatment. “I’ve been in more hospital beds this year than I’ve been in my own bed,” she said.
She’s overdosed twice, most recently when she overdosed on fentanyl she had smoked in a parking lot on State Road. Friends tried slapping her and pouring water on her, but could not revive her. Then providence intervened as an off-duty paramedic just happened to walk by, and was able to resuscitate her with Narcan.
“I woke up on a stretcher with friends looking down at me with tears in their eyes,” she said. “The paramedic told my friends I wasn’t going to make it, yet here I am.”
Ms Wells said her treatment options were limited because of her health insurance restrictions, so she looked online for an inpatient program that would take her on a scholarship. The only response she got was from an insurance scam in California.
‘Like a person, not trash’
Last month, after hearing about yet another overdose death on the Island Ms. Fisher contacted Mr. Pfaff. Mr. Pfaff organizes interventions and gives assistance in finding a bed in a detox or inpatient rehab facility, at no charge. He draws from an expansive database of addiction-treatment providers he’s accrued over the two years HKMT have been active.
Mr. Pfaff, who lives just north of Salem, was on-Island less than 48 hours after receiving Ms. Fisher’s call. Before he arrived, Ms. Fisher put the word out on “Islanders Talk,” a Facebook page which she created and maintains, with over 6,500 members, that he was coming.
“When I heard Billy was coming to the Island, I wrote to him and he immediately wrote me back,” Ms. Wells said. “He sat with me the following day for two hours. By the end of the conversation, we agreed to meet up the following day in Woods Hole, when he could place me in a hospital.”
But the trip to the hospital, the name of which she and Mr. Pfaff declined to give, ended with her discharged the next morning and on the street of a strange town, feeling like she’d been treated “like trash.”
Ms. Wells said the doctor who had initially treated her finished his shift, and his replacement decided she didn’t belong there. “He saw my address was Martha’s Vineyard, and he thought I was rich, and he told me to go get treatment out of pocket at a place closer to home,” she said.
Ms. Wells was discharged with a recommendation to get psychiatric help and a directive to go to the Psychology Today website to look for providers. The discharge papers also recommended “Don’t do drugs or alcohol.”
Ms. Wells told the rapt audience that she called Mr. Pfaff and he was at the hospital in 10 minutes. She spent the next 48 hours under his supervision, staying clean, while he helped other addicts and their families.
“He had two phones with him that were constantly ringing,” she said. “I’ve been clean and sober since Billy picked me up [in Woods Hole]. He gave me hope. He treated me like a person instead of trash. I’m so grateful to be here today. I was given a shot at living life, and at the end of the day, that will always be my choice.”
The packed room erupted with the longest and loudest of what was to be a series of standing ovations that night.
Mr. Pfaff stressed one simple thing every Islander can do to reduce the casualties of the opiate epidemic — keep tabs on his or her own medications, and keep them under lock and key, if necessary. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an addict say that they got started when they were young, with drugs from their parent’s medicine cabinet,” he said.
“I see a ton of hope out there,” Amy George, representative from Spectrum Health Services, said. “There are a lot of success stories. Even though we’re in western Massachusetts, we’re a resource for Martha’s Vineyard. Get in touch with us.”
Spectrum’s flagship treatment center is on a 25-acre parkland site in Westborough. With 240 beds and three levels of care, it is the largest substance abuse treatment facility in New England. Ms. George said Spectrum can work with all kinds of insurance, including MassHealth, as well as with people who are uninsured.
On Monday, Ms. Wells told The Times that she’s received all positive responses since Friday. “People have been so supportive, it’s really amazing,” she said. “It really gives you strength.”
Ms. Wells told The Times that she smoked and snorted heroin but never injected it. “I’m a vet tech, and I knew I’d be good at it, and it really scared me,” she said.
Now Ms. Wells is detoxing on her own, with the help of a friend’s leftover Subutex pills. She has an agreement with her family that she will take a urine test once a day. She has blocked her dealers and enablers on her cell phone. She does not leave the house without an escort, and she goes to outpatient treatment once a week at Wellspring Counseling in Maine.
“I’m confident in staying clean,” she said. She added that the hardest thing about staying clean is that heroin leaves the pleasure center in the brain in shambles, and “everything is a chore.”
She knows there are tough days ahead, but she hopes with the aid of the right psychiatrist, she’ll overcome the mental health issues that are the root of her addiction. Then she wants to go back to work.
Call to action
Speaking to The Times on Monday, Ms. Fisher said she was very pleased with the strong turnout. “It shows how much people on this Island really care about the situation,” she said. “It also made it clear that you can’t tell a drug addict when you see one. It could be anybody, your neighbor, your child, or your mother. Heroin doesn’t discriminate.”
Although several members of the Oak Bluffs Police Department attended, Ms. Fisher was critical of what she described as the slim turnout of Island town officials Friday night.
Ms. Fisher said there is now a “Vineyard Support Network” Facebook page where Islanders can volunteer to help or can get help for themselves or loved ones. Islanders who want to get involved can also write to islandepidemic.com. She said she is also reachable via private message on the Islanders Talk Facebook page.
Mr. Pfaff can be reached on the “Heroin is Killing My Town” Facebook page or on his cell phone, 844-437-6465.
Ms. George can be reached at the Spectrum New England Recovery Center at 508-792-5400, extension 7157.
Help is also available at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, which recently launched Ripple, a program for families and friends of loved ones who are battling addiction.
For a complete overview of recovery options for Islanders, call Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, 508-693-0410, and ask for substance abuse counseling.