Destructive pasts, constructive futures shared

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BRATTLEBORO — Many go to the Latchis Theatre to take a break from reality by slipping into a fictional movie or attending a cultural event.

On Thursday night, seats were filled with community members who came to hear the real-life stories of those in recovery from substance use disorder during "A Beautiful Journey."

Jedediah Popp, a board member for Turning Point of Windham County and brainchild behind the storytelling event, thanked the crowd for coming out to spread the word that "recovery is possible" and help "trade discrimination for dignity."

Community members helped storytellers craft what they would say at the Latchis. The idea, Popp said, was to share not only their isolation and despair but the hope that led them on a path to recovery.

"There's a million war stories I could share but there's only one story of recovery I have to share with you folks tonight and that's the most important story," said Sara Moses, who is now a recovery coach working in the emergency department at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and a recovery support specialist at the Phoenix House in Keene, N.H.

She described a childhood in which her grandparents took custody of her after her mother battled with an addiction of her own. Moses still ended up experimenting with drugs.

"I knew everything that was at stake," she said. "I said to myself, I can handle it. I'm smarter than that. You know? I wasn't. I'm just as vulnerable as the next person."

A soccer injury led Moses to prescribed painkillers and she experienced domestic violence.

"At this point, addiction had its full grip on me and I didn't know how to get out of it," she said. "I was too ashamed to ask for help and I didn't think I was worthy of their help."

Moses eventually joined a methadone program in Brattleboro and found a network of support in Windham County.

"I don't know how many times [Popp] grabbed me dog food when I couldn't afford it at the time and my pups will be forever grateful to Jed for that," she said. "I have family here. They might not be blood but that doesn't matter."

Moses said she looks forward to what the future holds "because re-creating myself has been a blessed journey and I'm having so much fun doing it.

"And every day, people ask me, 'What's it like?' It's like being a kid on Christmas morning every day," she said.

ADDICTION AND HOMELESSNESS

Darlene Derby, who recently became certified to serve as a recovery coach, described a life of addiction and homelessness, where several of her children were taken from her custody because she could not care for them. She recalled a traumatic childhood event in which she nearly died from drowning that led to her feeling unloved. She ended up bouncing around foster homes after getting in trouble with the police. She later turned to heroin and crack cocaine, and served time in prison after her residence was raided by police.

"The last time I used drugs, I overdosed," she said, having been homeless and panhandling on the streets of Brattleboro at the time.

Derby had a vision in June 2017.

"It was very scary," she said, choking up with tears. "I was hurt and depressed while I was out. I saw my grandbaby standing over my casket. I said, 'God, if you let me survive this, I'll never touch drugs again.'"

Derby reached out to the Brattleboro Retreat, entered a program to receive medical-assisted treatment and attended meetings. She now serves on the board governing the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and volunteers at the Turning Point recovery center. And she sees her children and grandchildren all of the time.

"It feels good to be loved again," she said. "I finally feel like I'm home again."

Derby wanted attendees of the event to know help is available.

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"You just have to accept it," she said.

ESCAPING FROM REALITY

Vanessa Santana, a recovery coach who also works at the hospital, described an upbringing in which she did not know her father, and her mother did not love her, and experimenting with alcohol and marijuana helped her escape from reality. She found herself in places she never thought she would end up and she slept on park benches.

"I didn't seem to care," she said.

Santana said when she was prescribed opioids, she felt a sense of peace she could not find elsewhere. When she ran out, she experienced withdrawals so she began "doctor shopping" and looking for them on the street. She said the drugs were so expensive, she pawned belongings to avoid feeling sick.

Facing the threat of being forced to put her children up for adoption, Santana decided to go to a treatment center. She said she could not understand how a group of people at a 12-step meeting were "so happy and grateful" when she hated herself and wanted to die. But she kept going to meetings and described getting her daughters back as "the most serene moment" in her recovery.

"They come everywhere with me," she said. "They're a huge part of my recovery."

Santana said her history and obsession with drugs proves addiction is not a choice but a disease.

"This disease robbed me of so much but mainly it robbed me of the person I was always supposed to be," she said, calling recovery "never-ending work" that requires changing behaviors and connecting with the community.

A SILVER LINING

JR Layne, a recovery coach, said he drank alcohol for the first time at the age of 13. His friend's parents had gone away so they took a bottle from their liquor cabinet.

"I got horribly sick and it was a debacle and I loved it," said Layne, who described feeling empowered for the first time.

He said the voice telling him he was ugly and not worthy went away. He continued drinking and drugging for about 35 years.

Layne said he "left a trail of carnage and destruction" wherever he went, getting arrested in every community he lived.

"There's a silver lining," he said. "All the trauma and all the emotional pain that I've endured ... all the years of hating myself and being lost ... and not being accepted anywhere has led to this time, where I can help you understand and have empathy for this disease. And it is a disease, right? So that as a community of non-addicted people, you have more understanding of what we're going through so you can do your part in helping us heal. Because this is a community disease. now. It's not just my problem."

He encouraged community members to fight stigma against substance use disorder.

Layne has found "a family" or strong support network in Bellows Falls. He said his children will now be able to see him as a role model.

Sara Chard, a recovery coach, said her three children started using drugs in "very different ways."

"I'll probably never fully know why," she said, later noting that they are all in recovery now. "There's absolutely no way to explain the absolute panic you're in when you know undoubtedly your child is in harm's way and can die at any time. The stress is off the charts. My personality changed. My emotions were all over the place."

Her way of coping was to conduct "extensive research" and share her story. She reported finding people and organizations more responsive than in years past.

Chard learned how to use Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses. She now trains others on how to administer the medication. She said it "gives people a chance to get into recovery."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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