Victor students hear from Gates officials and people in recovery about addiction and treatment options

In the middle of the busiest intersection in the town, a car just stopped.

Police Chief Jim VanBrederode said a call came in about a person slumped over the wheel and he immediately thought of heroin. Unfortunately, the scene is becoming too familiar.

“Here is a guy literally sitting in the middle of the busiest intersection in Gates,” he said. “He's turning blue. His eyes are rolling back in his head. We want to make sure he continues to breathe.”

The scene played out Thursday on a police video shown to seniors in the government class of social studies teacher Mike Myers at Victor Senior High School.

“Traffic is totally messed up at this point,” VanBrederode continued, recounting the incident as the video played. “There's traffic all over the place.”

First responders removed the unconscious man from his car and administered Narcan, a drug sprayed in one's nose that immediately reverses the effects of opioids like heroin and fentanyl, the most commonly abused. The man began to breathe and was taken away in an ambulance.

“As you can see, he has no clue what just happened,” VanBrederode said. “This is one that ended happily.”

Myers invited VanBrederode, Gates Supervisor Mark Assini and representatives of RecoveryNow NY to talk to his students about the growing opioid problem he said has claimed three or four Victor graduates in the last couple of years.

Myers said it hit close to home for him when the father of one of his daughter's friends died of a heroin overdose within the last year. He was also surprised when he had the same speakers in his class in September and the majority of his students raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who was addicted.

“Twenty out of 25 kids raised their hands,” he said. “I just see it as a major problem.”

The problem was becoming widespread, according to Assini, who said cars were crashing into snow banks, causing power outages with addicts knocking down poles while high or even shooting up, sometimes with children in the vehicle.

“This is happening everywhere,” Assini said. “The chief is dealing with this and he said 'enough.' He knew we couldn't arrest our way out of this.”

More than 200 people died in the Rochester region in 2016 — including 169 in Monroe County alone — from opioid overdoses, Assini told the teens. The numbers for this year are expected to be higher.

“We're at a point where this is an epidemic,” he said. “It truly is an epidemic.”

The good news is more were saved. Like the stopped man in the intersection, Assini said 460 people overdosing were revived with Narcan.

Assini said addiction is nothing to be ashamed of, noting the epidemic touches every American family, including his own. He said his sister was a long-term heroin addict.

Assini told the students it is important not to feel shame, that addiction is a disease of the brain and, like other diseases, needs to be treated.

Realizing the increasing scope and devastation addiction was having on the town and its families, Gates conducted a town forum a couple of months ago to discuss the problem. Assini said only a few people were expected to come, but the town was surprised with a standing-room-only crowd.

The stories were heart-wrenching, he said, mentioning one person who talked about the beautiful daughter he had lost while another talked about missing his brother.

“We realized this is such a big problem,” Assini said. “It is everywhere.”

A common thread seemed to be people asking where they could go or who they could talk to to find help — either for an addict, themselves or someone affected by an addict.

Teaming up with RecoveryNow NY, Gates cleared a space in its recreation community room and set up Gates to Recovery, a drop-in center for those battling with addiction or the people who know them. The center is open to everyone, not just Gates residents, Assini said.

“With the right people around you, you can make the change,” said David Attridge, a recovering addict and head of RecoveryNow NY, admitting he had a $1,400-a-day habit for more than a decade that destroyed his life and the lives of those around him.

He called addition a brain disease, acknowledging the first time a user takes something is a choice, but those whose brains are wired for addiction lose control and no longer have choice.

“If I go out on Friday and become that weekend warrior, you won't see me on Monday,” Attridge said. “You probably won't see me for months.”

In the 10 weeks since the Gates forum, Attridge said more than 50 people have gone into recovery. He started his recovery three years ago in New York City.

“We have a ton of families that just want to come in and talk,” he said. “One of the best things we can do is educate ourselves about this pandemic taking away or neighbors and families. This is not going to get any better. Right now, across the United States, it's like we're going through 9/11 every three weeks. That's how many people we're losing.”

Another recovering addict, identified only as Ashley, talked about coming from a family of alcoholics, being abused as a child and how she started drinking young, eventually becoming addicted to heroin at 19 when she met a guy who was a dealer.

Ashley said she has been kidnapped, raped and robbed at gunpoint, but all that mattered to her was getting her next fix.

Ashley also talked about losing custody of her children and how addiction impacts families. She had her son with her in the car during one of her overdoses in which she was revived through the use of Narcan.

She had taught her son to call 911 or his aunt if she did not wake up, and credits him with saving her life.

“I knew I had to get in recovery or my kids would be without their mother,” she said, noting she has been clean for nearly 11 months, is in supportive living and has part-time custody of her three children.

“I have gained so much I never thought I would,” Ashley said. “I have a family. I do Gates to Recovery every week. I look forward to that. Doing service work fulfills me. Service work, for me, is what keeps me sober.”

Service work is the support she and other recovering addicts give to those needing help; supporting them and each other.

“Never in my life did I think I would be in recovery loving my life because I hated my life,” Ashley said. “I just want people to understand addiction is nothing to be ashamed of.”

VanBrederode said a lot of people think his job is to arrest people and take away their fun, but it is about changing behaviors.

“When I see all this stuff going on, I say I've got to do something to stop this,” he said. “A lot of school districts want to bury this. It's not going away. This problem is so huge, we've got to be part of the solution.”

He said 90 percent of crimes are committed because people have a drug problem. He charges people like the man found passed out in his car because — one, it's against the law; and two, to serve as a kind of a sledgehammer held over their head, forcing them to see they have hit rock bottom and to get help.

He offered cards to the students with information to confidentially reach out to someone for help for themselves or anyone they know struggling with addiction.

“It's better to make a phone call than, unfortunately, see a friend be in a video,” VanBrederode said.

Top 10 reasons people abuse drugs

10. Experimenting

9. Alcohol isn't enough

8. Certain drugs are legal

7. Emptiness

6. A huge myth: “My doctor gave me a prescription, so it's safe”

5. Alcohol and drugs are easy to get

4. Self medication

3. Peer pressure

2. Trying to fit in

1. Masking emotions

Source: RecoveryNow NY