SKOWHEGAN — Ruth Perkins was on a cruise with her husband and cousins in St. Martin last April when she got the call from her daughter saying Perkins’ son, Lance, had died.

“She just said, ‘Mom, Lance is gone,'” Perkins said. “I could have jumped into the ocean and let it swallow me up. I was just devastated.”

Perkins, 55, said she didn’t know her son had been a heroin addict and was shocked to learn that he had died from an overdose. She knew Lance, a waiter in Boston, was an alcoholic and that he was staying at a sober living house, but she didn’t know anything about his drug problems.

In the eight months since her son died, Perkins, who works as a housekeeper at Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield, started to educate herself on opioid addiction.

The result has been a new chapter of the nationwide support group Nar-Anon Family Groups in Skowhegan aimed at helping family and friends of loved ones dealing with narcotics addictions.

“I’m a person that in order to heal myself, I can’t sit still,” Perkins said. “I’ve investigated a lot about heroin. I know the side effects. I know how everybody does it. I know the ins and outs. I’ve learned that the community is getting to be overwhelmed with heroin addicts and overdoses.”

There were 174 overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2015, a number the Office of the Maine Attorney General refers to as a crisis. In 2014, there were a record 208 overdose deaths, according to the attorney general’s office.

Groups like Nar-Anon are an important resource for families and an important part of the response to the state’s growing addiction problems, according to health and law enforcement officials in Somerset County.

“It’s a great resource for family members and friends, because oftentimes they’re dealing with the disease that is addiction as well and really can get stuck because they don’t know what the loved one is going through,” said Rob Rogers, a substance abuse prevention coordinator and counselor at Kennebec Behavioral Health in Skowhegan. “A group like this allows them a place to be with other people going through similar situations, allows them to really look at how to take care of themselves as well and avoid enabling behavior. It’s a really valuable tool to have in the community.”

The experience that each family has with addiction is different, Rogers said.

“It could be not knowing what’s going on with their family member or understanding that addiction is a disease,” he said.

“The question is often, ‘Why don’t they just stop?'” he said. “But with addiction there’s a re-wiring of the brain. It’s not that easy. If people could just stop they would.”

Perkins hopes to bring awareness to more families about the dangers of opioid addiction and help them to see some of the signs that she may have missed with her son.

ALWAYS WORRIED

Lance Perkins had abused alcohol from a young age — since he was about 16 according to his mother — and it was something her family always had to deal with, she said.

At the same time, he was an outgoing kid who was involved in his community and helped build a skateboard park in Skowhegan.

Perkins said she tried to get her son to go to counseling and avoided having alcohol in the house. She would also try to keep him home to keep him from drinking, but “the minute I would turn my back he would be into alcohol,” she said.

When he was in his 20s, Lance moved to Boston, where he worked as a waiter. In 2013 he was on the Food Network show “Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell” while working at Salvatore’s Restaurant.

Even while her son was in Boston, Perkins said she worried about his alcoholism. “I would always be wondering, ‘Is he sleeping on the streets? Does he have something to eat?'”

She said she believes his drug use may have started as an alternative to drinking.

“I think he always knew people could see the liquor effect — the slurred speech, the hangover the next day,” Perkins said. “With heroin you get that high without the side effects. It was a cover up, an easier way for him to deal with whatever demons he had.”

Looking back over the last year, Perkins said she thought that maybe her son was trying to get the help he needed to stop, but she didn’t realize it at the time. When he came home for Christmas in 2014, she noticed he was lethargic and tired, something she attributed to traveling and working two jobs, but looking back she now thinks it was probably a sign that he was using heroin.

He also made a comment about having to be revived with Narcan, a drug that can be used to reverse an overdose, but Perkins said she didn’t know what it was and dismissed the comment.

“I wasn’t educated,” she said. “Now I look back at it and I know he was telling me, point blank, that he was doing this.”

ULTIMATELY POWERLESS

Perkins said that if not for her actions, both educating herself and starting the Nar-Anon group, there are days when she wouldn’t want to get out of bed.

Nar-Anon can be a good starting point for families to figure out how to help a loved one with an addiction, said Ann Dorney, a doctor at Skowhegan Family Medicine.

Dorney is also a former state representative who in 2014 worked to get a state law passed allowing first responders to carry and administer naloxone, which is the generic name for Narcan. It counters the effects of opioids and can be used to reverse an overdose.

Dorney said she has had several patients, including Perkins, who have lost children to overdoses.

“It’s almost every day you have someone who is talking about this in their own families,” she said. “Sometimes the person isn’t interested (in quitting). Sometimes they don’t have insurance or can’t find a treatment center that will take them. They need to know who the counselors are in the area. They basically need to know where to start a lot of times.”

Nar-Anon meets once a week, from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays, at the Federated Church in Skowhegan. As with other support groups that stem from the Alcoholics Anonymous model, they follow the traditional 12 steps of similar groups for sharing their experiences and finding hope. It is similar to Al-Anon, an anonymous group that helps family and friends of alcoholics.

Nar-Anon Family Groups says the worldwide movement aims to help those who “know or have known a feeling of desperation concerning the addiction problem of someone very near to you.”

Much of the focus, according to Perkins, is on letting family members know that as much as they want to help their loved one, they are ultimately powerless when it comes to making decisions for that person.

“We all know (addiction) has a great emotional toll on families,” said Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, who said that in Somerset County, excluding Fairfield and Skowhegan, there were four overdose deaths that law enforcement responded to in 2015. At times emergency medical services also respond to reports of overdoses without assistance from police, he said.

Rogers, the substance abuse counselor, said groups like Nar-Anon are part of a “coordinated community response” that can indirectly help people with addictions while also helping their families and friends.

“I think by family members and friends having a better understanding of the disease and having some services available for themselves, they’re then better able to support the person needing the help,” he said.

Nar-Anon, like all 12-step groups, urges its members to remain anonymous. Anonymity is “the spiritual foundation of all our traditions,” according to the group’s website, which also urges members to “always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, films, Internet and other forms of mass media.”

But Perkins said she feels it is important to speak out and let others know that there is no need to feel ashamed if a family member is battling addiction.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a child who was addicted,” she said. “I don’t have anything to hide. I want to help people. I want them to know they’re not alone out there.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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