FARMINGTON — It was several years before Katie Little realized she had a problem. As a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, she thought it was normal to get drunk before writing a paper or heading off to class.
It was only when she enrolled in a course about addiction, part of the university’s Addiction Rehabilitation Certificate program, that she began to put the pieces together. It was a Thursday night and Little and her classmates were talking about going to a bar after class.
“And I stopped and thought wait, I’m in an addiction class on a Thursday night and what I’m looking forward to is going back to my dorm room and getting totally wasted. I think I have a problem,” Little recalled.
Today Little, 29, of Scarborough, is 13 months sober and hoping to use her experience to help others on campus and beyond. On Wednesday she and her classmates in the school’s Rehabilitation and Families course hosted “Addiction in Our Community,” a series of events geared toward learning about the extent of addiction problems on campus and in Farmington and providing a forum for students and community members who might be struggling with their own addiction or that of family members or friends.
The program comes as Maine grapples with a deadly opioid epidemic blamed for most of the state’s record 378 overdose deaths in 2016, a 40 percent jump over 2015 and the fifth straight year in which the state recorded increases in overdose deaths. Last year, Maine residents also voted to legalize recreational marijuana, a move that has left many towns wondering how to handle a potential influx of the drug.
In their desire to see more education and advocacy on the subject, the class of UMF students organized Wednesday’s event, which included an open forum for students and community members, a safe space for those who wished to share their personal struggles in private and an expert panel of speakers. The students also are working on a survey designed to measure the extent of addiction problems on campus and in wider Farmington.
“One of the things they were thinking about is what does our community need, meaning UMF community and the community of Farmington, need to help people with recovery?” said Kim Lane, the students’ professor.
At the open forum, three of the course’s students led discussion as other students and community members spoke about their impressions about addiction, their struggles to confront family and friends about drug and alcohol use, and fears about the effect marijuana legalization will have on their town.
One Farmington resident who declined to be identified spoke about the anxiety that prevents some from starting conversations with their loved ones.
“I think it’s fear. It’s the what do you do? You back off because you don’t really know what to do,” she said.
The woman, who was in her 70s, also spoke forcefully against marijuana legalization, saying that even as someone with Parkinson’s disease, she has declined to use the drug because of its potential effects. She urged others in the room to resist proposed marijuana social clubs and dispensaries in Farmington.
The day’s event culminated with an expert panel that included Waterville police Chief Joseph Massey; Farmington police Detective Darin Gilbert; UMF President Kathryn Foster; Jason Grundstrom-Whitney, an alcohol and drug counselor at the Riverview Psychiatric Center; and Jim Mello, a drug and alcohol counselor, clinical supervisor and UMF professor.
The panel members answered questions and presented an array of perspectives on addiction. Massey and Gilbert spoke extensively about the shift that has taken place in how law enforcement not only treat but also view the addicts they come into contact with.
“Today we are at an epidemic level of addiction to opioids and we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” Massey said. “We have to view it as a disease, as a disorder just like alcoholism. If you don’t view it in that realm, more often than not we’re going to blame the addict for making a bad choice.”
Massey said law enforcement agencies have made progress as they have broken down barriers between their work and the work done by counselors, clergy members and others who come into contact with addicts. Over time, he said, officers have come to rely on that coalition of providers to support addicts and get them through “their darkest moment.”
The Waterville and Farmington police departments run Operation Hope programs, which focus on getting addicts who are seeking help into treatment. Gilbert said his department hadn’t seen many people taking advantage of the program, though he hoped as word spreads, that might change.
“We’re here. We want to help,” Gilbert said.
All the panelists described their personal contacts with addiction. Grundstrom-Whitney and Mello both prefaced their comments by saying that they were each in recovery. Grundstrom-Whitney described how quickly his life unraveled because of addiction.
“I was an all-American athlete and ended up in a dumpster within a year and a half in San Francisco,” he said. “A lot of the preconceptions that we have about people, we like to try to break those down, because it affects all communities and all people.”
Several students directed questions at Foster, asking how the university will change to address the problem of addiction on campus. Foster urged those present, including professors and practitioners, to speak with her about the kinds of additional services and approaches the university could take to deal with the issue better. She noted the school had hired an additional counselor but could continue to do more.
The panel also spoke extensively about the role the pharmaceutical industry played in the current epidemic, with several noting it is nearly impossible to watch television or read magazines without coming across pharmaceutical ads. Foster called for greater investigation of the industry.
After the event, Lane said she hoped her students learned that the nature and extent of addiction changes over time. In the 1960s and ’70s, the panelists said, they were seeing marijuana and hallucinogens. Today they are grappling with heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids. As providers, she said, students in the addiction course might face all new challenges.
She also wanted students to see that addiction “is a disease of isolation.” It is only through conversation, building of support systems and connection that communities can begin to tackle the problem.
For her part, Little said she thinks Wednesday’s events were a first step in that direction.
“I think we’re finally starting to talk more about it ,and I think tonight is the start of a big conversation on campus,” she said.
Kate McCormick — 861-9218