Sunday, June 17, 2018
Health

Bowen: Drug czar listens as victims discuss stigma of substance abuse

Molly P. is 30 years old and the mother of a little girl who just celebrated her first birthday. A former gymnast, she had her first knee surgery at 15. Her first painkiller followed immediately afterward.

Vicodin. Then another surgery and a prescription for Percocet. At 20, she was in a pain management clinic. It came with a script for Dilaudid. Ten years later, she is in a methadone treatment program run by Operation PAR.

"I am a gratefully recovering addict,'' she said. "It's a wonderful thing.''

Joan B. has been a recovering alcoholic for 33 years. She announced it publicly last week to a room filled with more than 80 people while simultaneously acknowledging, "I don't really like breaking my anonymity, but it's necessary.''

Michael talked about his substance abuse as well. He has been sober for 27 years.

"Millions of us out there are in recovery. We must share our stories with our neighbors and our friends. Be open about it and don't be ashamed,'' he said.

Molly was born and raised in Pinellas County, but now lives in west Pasco. She said her pregnancy got her into treatment. She wants to be sober for her child.

Joan has a role in helping people seeking sobriety. She works for Turning Point of Tampa, a substance abuse treatment center.

Michael also is known as "Director.'' He doesn't mind his last name being published. He is Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He is the nation's drug czar, a job created in its current incarnation by President George H.W. Bush and once held by former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez. Botticelli is the first recovering substance abuser to hold the job.

Last week, Botticelli sat on the dais in the West Pasco Government Center, talking and listening to community members about the scourge of chemical addictions. The 80-minute invitation-only forum was assembled by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and included a panel of Circuit Judge Shawn Crane, who oversees the Drug and Veterans courts; Doug Leonardo, executive director for BayCare Behavioral Health; Dr. Laura Bajor of North Tampa Behavioral Health, a 75-bed psychiatric hospital in Wesley Chapel; Pasco sheriff's Capt. Chris Beaman, head of the vice and narcotics unit; the aforementioned Molly, and Kelly Mothershead of Wesley Chapel. The audience included elected officials, health care executives, mental health advocates, educators, students and police officers,

During the session, there were accolades for Botticelli.

"I feel like I'm sitting next to a rock star,'' said Leonardo.

Bilirakis pitched a package of federal legislation that was scheduled to be considered by the full House of Representatives this week. There was agreement about the need for increased access to services and better education.

But, universally, people spoke about the stigma attached to addictions, rehabilitations and recovery. Think of the ugly public pushback in both Port Richey and in Hernando County when Operation PAR sought to open treatment clinics in those locations over the past several years and you'll have a good illustration of that stigma.

"People really need to learn, it's not a bad thing and not to shame those that are on methadone because they're trying,'' said Molly.

Mothershead lost her 26-year-old son to a drug overdose five years ago. A cook in a restaurant, he was injured at work and was prescribed oxycodone. He became a frequent visitor to pain clinics and tried rehab more than once. Another injury at work brought another prescription, even though Mothershead tried to warn medical personnel of his addiction. He was dead shortly afterward.

"You don't want people to think you have a child addicted to drugs,'' said Mothershead. "The same stigma is attached to yourself.''

Mothershead's mission is to change that. She speaks at middle schools and high schools about the dangers of addiction. She encourages parents to educate themselves about their children's behavior to learn the signs of substance abuse.

"They say, 'I would never do that,' and he's doing it in the next room. Once they're addicted to these drugs, they become a different person. They're going to lie to you and tell you what you want to hear.''

Her suggestion is to better involve the business community in drug prevention by educating employees about addictions.

"We have to educate,'' she said, "before it happens.''

Bilirakis asked Botticelli to visit because of the opiate epidemic. Florida drug-related deaths numbered 8,587 in 2014, a 3.6 percent over 2013, according to the most recent data available from the sate's medical examiners. In Pasco and Pinellas counties, drug-related deaths increased more than 7 percent to 479.

Mothershead's story, Botticelli said, "gives us pause for the work we have to do.''

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