Stub Earle and Tyler Gillespie at the Fish Fry

Tyler Gillespie, right, found his “higher power” after hiking to Ritterbush Pond in the pouring rain on a cold winter day. After the mile-long trek, the sun came out as he drilled his first hole through the ice and dropped in a line. At that moment, Gillespie decided to ask for help with his addiction, which came from his sponsor — Stub Earle.

Photo by Caleigh Cross

“Alcoholism runs in my family, and I grew up with marijuana around all the time. I wasn’t aware of the other drugs my parents were doing until I was older.”

Even so, the family history of drug abuse had a profound effect on 29-year-old Morgan Hart’s life.

Now, she thinks Vermont needs to do more to solve the growing opioid epidemic.

Hart grew up in Richford and, even in a household where some drugs seemed acceptable, she was able to avoid addiction. That is, until her daughter was born.

After a Caesarean section at age 21, Hart was sent home with a prescription for Percocet — a mix of oxycodone and acetaminophen — for the pain.

After five days home, with severe post-partum depression, Hart began using the drugs to get high, and she “felt pretty good,” she said.

Soon, she needed the Percocet just to get through the day, and when the prescription ran out, Hart found other ways to get it.

“My dad had been put on pain meds for other surgeries, so I knew I could get more from him,” Hart said. “Then, I found my own dealer, and I took pills every day until I was 25 years old.”

But that’s not when her drug abuse ended, and other people in the county have similar stories of abuse and recovery.

Tyler Gillespie’s addiction also began with a prescription for Percocet.

His pain relief regimen started as a cure for a blown-out knee, and continued for over a decade.

When his surgeon, Dr. Bryan Huber of Mansfield Orthopedics in Morrisville, refused to give Gillespie more medication, he went to his primary-care physician for a prescription. When that no longer stopped the pain, he began selling his prescription for something stronger — heroin.

Both Hart and Gillespie have been clean for a year, and they’re hoping their stories can save a life or two. Neither recovering addict could have made it this far without support systems and people who were looking out for them.

Not everyone is so lucky.

In Vermont, nearly 100 people died of overdoses last year, and 106 died the year before.

From prescriptions to the street

At 25 years old, after almost four years on Percocet, Hart moved from Richford to Winooski. There, she was unaware of any Percocet dealers, and distance made it difficult for her to connect with her previous supplier.

Hart’s next fix — out of desperation — came from a guy in a bar.

“He said he had Percocet,” Hart said. “And he pulled out this white powder. It wasn’t a pill like I was used to.”

That white powder turned out to be heroin, and although Hart told herself she wouldn’t keep using it, she couldn’t stop.

Hart soon turned to injecting the drug, and continued on that path for two and a half years.

She stopped paying her rent and was evicted from her apartment. Sleeping outside in Burlington, she’d follow the dealers, making sales for them to earn some cash.

In 2015, after a few weeks without access to heroin, Hart became ill.

“I ended up in the (intensive care unit) for two days. I was malnourished and facing withdrawals,” she said.

It was that moment — when she hit rock bottom — that pushed Hart into her first rehabilitation facility, Maple Leaf Treatment Center in Underhill.

Maple Leaf put Hart on Suboxone — buprenorphine and naloxone — to relieve some symptoms of withdrawal with plans to taper off the dosage.

Nearing the end of a six-day taper, Hart, who’d been using drugs for years by now, was scared of what would come next. She walked out of rehab to find her next high.

A few months later, she returned to Maple Leaf to try again, but she’d soon leave. Sixteen times between July 2015 and April 2016, Hart entered herself into rehab, and 15 of those times, she walked back out the door after a few days.

Each time it was harder to get back in.

“It took a while sometimes, because there weren’t beds available. And by the time I’d call, I needed to be there five days before, but you don’t really want to surrender yourself,” Hart said.

That’s when her medication-assisted treatment team connected her with Treatment Associates in Morrisville, and after living on the streets for 18 months, Hart found a bed at Clarina Howard Nichols Center in Morrisville.

“I kept using on and off from October 2015 to June 2016,” Hart said. “Eventually I quit heroin, but I started to drink heavily.”

It took Hart over a year of continuous visits to Treatment Associates, a counselor at Lamoille County Mental Health and peer drug counselors at North Central Vermont Recovery Center before she finally reached sobriety in June 2017, just before she found out she was pregnant with her second child, who’s due in a few weeks.

“Since I have been clean, everything seems to be falling into place,” Hart said.

Still on a Suboxone regimen to curb withdrawals, Hart continues to go to Treatment Associates and Lamoille County Mental Health for support, and has started volunteering at the recovery center to help others who are in her shoes.

Hart thinks she’ll be on Suboxone for a couple of years, but doesn’t want to become dependent on it.

“My brother, sister and parents are all on Suboxone. My siblings are in programs too, but my parents aren’t,” Hart said. “It bothers me that I could become physically dependent on Suboxone, and when they wean me, I know I’ll get sick, but the problem with Suboxone is that some people take it for way too long. Some people also abuse it and use Suboxone as a crutch.”

Gillespie’s journey

After Gillespie started using heroin, even his 2-year-old son came second to his addiction, but it wasn’t until his best friend died in 2012 and Gillespie was busted for selling drugs in 2013 that he began treatment.

“After I got busted for selling pills, I did my time and after that, I went to a methadone clinic,” Gillespie said.

“They started me on 50 milligrams of methadone and by the time I left, I was taking 200 milligrams. They kept increasing my dosage, and my addiction was only getting worse.”

Gillespie continued to buy and use heroin, and the methadone prescription became his crutch when he couldn’t afford the heroin.

Gillespie soon left the clinic and started selling crack cocaine in Lamoille County, until he ran into a friend.

Tai Conklin let Gillespie move into his place. Gillespie stopped selling drugs but, unbeknownst to Conklin, he was still using.

When Gillespie began writing checks to himself from his boss’s account so he could buy more drugs, he realized he’d hit rock bottom.

“My boss, George Nash, found out. He told me to get help or he’d press charges,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie got help.

Becky Penberthy of the Lamoille Restorative Center helped Gillespie get into rehab at Maple Leaf Treatment Center.

At the time, Gillespie didn’t want to live, but said he didn’t have the courage to take his own life.

“Instead, I wished every time I got in a car that I’d crash and die,” Gillespie said.

When Maple Leaf’s program wasn’t a good fit, Gillespie went to Valley Vista in Bradford.

The last time he drank or used drugs was Dec. 20, 2016.

Gillespie saw Suboxone as just another drug, so he opted for Vivitrol, a nonaddictive, once-a-month shot that prevents the user from getting high off opioids.

“It doesn’t stop withdrawals or the want to use, but it was a safety net for me, because there is a huge chance of OD’ing on Vivitrol. You can’t feel the effects of the drug you’re taking, no matter how much you take,” Gillespie said.

After getting out of rehab, Gillespie found his “higher power” ice fishing on Ritterbush Pond in Eden, found a sponsor, Stub Earle of Eden, and is taking it one day at a time, but staying clean with support.

Endless recovery

The road to recovery never ends, and there will always be temptations.

At the end of the month, Hart will face another Caesarean section, which is exactly what started her journey to addiction eight years ago, and she is nervous about being put on a prescription opioid again.

Last month, Gillespie faced his fear and went through another knee surgery, which he’d been putting off for fear of relapse.

He set up a pain management plan with Dr. Bryan Huber, who’d perform this surgery as well, and made sure that Huber knew that he had an opiate problem.

Huber put Gillespie back on Percocet, but made sure his girlfriend held on to the bottle and gave him only his dose as prescribed, and only if needed.

Gillespie was able to extend his prescription for a week longer than he needed to, and tapered himself off.

After the injury is healed, Gillespie has been offered a job with an old boss, Donny Blake, and has returned to coaching youth basketball at Eden Central School.

More options needed

Hart and Gillespie agree that Vermont needs to work harder to prevent addiction as well as to help those in recovery.

Without enough space in rehab clinics in the state, both think that there need to be other options. After rehab, sober living facilities are a must, Gillespie said.

“Rehab centers are keeping people in their beds longer, because they don’t have anywhere to go once they leave,” he said.

Gillespie thinks too that methadone is not a solution to addiction.

“As a former addict who went through a methadone program, I saw it as a free high. I didn’t plan to quit,” Gillespie said. He feels the same way about Suboxone.

Addicts are trading one drug for another.

Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux is on the governor’s opioid council, which issued a list of strategies in December to help end Vermont’s opioid epidemic.

The strategies included giving more support to mothers with substance use disorders, and their infants, by developing a continuum of care from before birth to age 3; working to employ people in recovery; enacting school-based and community-based prevention programs; creating drug-prevention messaging similar to the stop-smoking ads; expanding medication-assisted treatment in prisons; strengthening recovery centers and recovery housing; and supplying first responders with naloxone, an overdose reversing drug.

“Recovering folks need more resources,” Marcoux said. “I’d be willing to give people a chance, if they are willing to put in the work. Those people who bury their heads in the sand and say, ‘Get out of my community,’ they’re just kicking the can, and that’s no good.”

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