Former young addicts recall Northfield drug abuse

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“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

Those words are displayed on the front wall of the Main Street Moravian Church in Northfield, and they are the words that Pastor Amy Gohdes-Luhman used to open the Town Hall Meeting on drug abuse held in Northfield on Nov. 8.

The small church was filled with parents, educators, health professionals – people from all walks of life, drawn together by a common concern for the Northfield community.

The meeting, sponsored by the Northfield Mayor’s Task Force on Youth Alcohol and Drug Use and the Healthy Community Initiative, sought to address issues of addiction and recovery in Northfield.

The problem of drug abuse by young people in Northfield has been highlighted since 2007, when the then-police chief Gary Smith, in a widely publicized news conference, announced that 150 young people in town were addicted to heroin.

Since then, many programs to research and address the problem have been started, including regular forums for public dialogue such as the recent town hall meeting.

Partying and drinking

The program began with five people, four of whom were in their 20s, who either grew up or lived in Northfield, sharing their personal stories of addiction and recovery. The speakers identified themselves by their first names only.

The four speakers in their 20s cited middle school as the beginning of their substance use.

Leon began experimenting with marijuana toward the end of middle school. As one who had always had “lots of friends” and was always “one of the more popular kids,” he went to high school and sought out the most popular kids – “the ones who were partying or drinking.”

Mario, who also attended school in Northfield, was by contrast one of those kids who “didn’t really fit in,” he said. Of the friends he made and with whom he used drugs, he said that was the “one thing [we had] in common.”

Ryan, who grew up in Randolph, a small town outside of Northfield, said: “I never felt comfortable with who I was. People scared me. I sought acceptance.”

Swept under

Leon talked about the difficulties of the “transition from middle school to high school,” and how those problems continue today for many teenagers.

“Middle school is when you start going through emotional and physical changes,” which can be hard to deal with and make you vulnerable to starting drugs, he said.

“For some reason, it’s so accepted to go out and party, have a beer,” Leon said. “It’s not that I hung out with the bad kids in town. It was just everybody.”

“I think people are a little naïve about how big the problem is,” he added.

Part of the problem is that people don’t really talk about it.

While the speakers agreed that things have improved in recent years, the tendency is still for the issue to get “swept under the rug,” Ryan said.

“When I was 18, I remember coming in to Northfield and having drugs taken away from me by a police officer and then being let go,” Ryan said. “I should’ve been taken to jail, should’ve had legal consequences.”

Feeling worthless

An audience member, during the question and answer session, spoke up and said, “Community has a lot to do with it. There is a sense that we’re trying to hide it.”

When the community doesn’t want to accept that it has a problem, it is that much harder for addicts to break free of their addiction, because there is nowhere safe for them to go.

“It’s almost easier to reach out for help if you have an alcohol problem, because drinking is just more socially acceptable,” Ryan says.

“The shame you get from that – it’s terrible, and it just kind of feeds the problem,” Leon said. “You really do feel like you’re worthless for what you’ve got into.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Leon talked about his experience with a friend in trying to set up an adolescent Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in Northfield.

“Numbers were really low,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s too intimidating.”

All the speakers, sober today, received their treatment outside of Northfield.

Mario, who moved to Chicago to live with his dad, said, “Northfield wasn’t exactly the haven I had thought it would be, coming back.”

Getting away

Leon said he benefited from getting treatment at Hazelden, a treatment centre based in Center City, Minn. “It kept me out of Northfield,” he said.

“It’s hard to get your act together when all your friends are still doing the same thing,” Leon said.

For some, like Andrea, the associations are the strongest obstacles.

“Northfield’s a trigger,” she said. “Pretty much every block in this town has a story to me. Even now, it’s hard.”

At present, Northfield offers only out-patient rehabilitation care for addiction problems at Omada Behavioral Health Services.

A proposed halfway house in Northfield for women recovering from addiction should help to meet the need for in-patient treatment that enables patients to remain close to home, and yet maintain a necessary distance.

Leon, who has been speaking about alcoholism and addiction in Northfield for a few years, says that the situation has “improved a lot.”

It’s “a little bit easier now,” he said. But “we do have a lot of work ahead.”

Copyright @ 2009 Pressville