LACONIA — Andy is on his way to prison.
After pleading guilty to conspiracy to drug sales, Andy was sentenced to 3 1/2 to 7 years with 2 years suspended in the New Hampshire State Prison. He self-surrenders on February 2.
But Thursday night, Andy, who has been clean and sober for 20 months, wanted to share his story at a Stand Up Laconia meeting as part of his agreement to speak at schools and his desire to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Stand Up Laconia is a growing coalition of people in the city and the surrounding area who are trying to address drug and alcohol dependency. Stemming from conversations at Better Together meetings, the task of Stand Up Laconia is to identify prevention and treatment programs to help people, determine the obstacles for accessing these programs, and find a way to overcome them.
The 30 or so people attending Thursday's meeting at the Middle School spent most the evening working in small groups. Andy landed at a table with "P"— a woman whose nephew is currently incarcerated and who has had a hard time finding a residential recovery program for him after his release, "F" — a young woman who has been clean and sober for seven months and is a Dean's list student in college who wants to be an accountant, a local firefighter, and a gentleman who has been part of Stand Up Laconia since its inception.
Both "F" and Andy think one of the best resources they have found is Alcoholics Anonymous.
"You can find AA everywhere," said Andy, who also admitted his real drug of choice is alcohol.
Andy was initially indicted for one count of heroin sales — death resulting. He said that when he learned that he was complicit in a young man's death, he confessed all of his drug use to his wife, who threw him out of the house and subsequently divorced him.
With nowhere to go and a desire to become clean and sober, he went to an old friend who runs the Riverbend Commnity Mental Health in Meredith and entered their treatment program. He became a counselor but said his buddy was forced to let him go after his decision to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge.
He also noted his own personal physician helped him tremendously but understands that's not an option for many heroin addicts.
He was in Riverbend and sober for two months when he heard the Meredith Police were looking for him and he turned himself in.
Despite having to serve 1 1/2 years in prison and having his marriage dissolve, Andy considers himself one of the luckier ones.
He said his 20 months of sobriety have forced him to remember what he lost and, what he still has. He has his health, something he feels he would have lost if he continued down the same path.
"I've lost 60 pounds and I work out at the gym," he said, noting that he thinks he'd be dead now if his drug and alcohol use had continued.
He said his children have been very supportive but still regrets the loss of his 27-year marriage. He said he is also embarrassed by having his name and mug shot in local newspapers, both of which covered his case exhaustively.
"It's my fault," he said, noting that sobriety has made him realize that.
On his eight of 12 steps of an AA step program, he said he is at the part where he has to make amends. He said writing to his ex-wife was going to be tough.
After his prison sentence, he wants to go to various high schools and talk about drug abuse. Contributing to Stand Up Laconia is part of his plan for discouraging drug and alcohol use, especially among young people.
"F" agreed with Andy about AA. She said the people in AA tend to be older and more professional than those who attend Narcotics Anonymous.
She said many of the people who attend NA are "still using" and for her the best trick she's learned to keep herself sober has been staying away from other users.
"My relapse was because I was hanging out with my old crowd," she said.
She credits Genesis Behavior Health, the regional mental health agency, for helping her the most. She said she attended an intense outpatient program that met three time a week for three hours per day over a four month period.
Since then she's had one relapse triggered by a job loss and a loss of health insurance. She said she's also served jail time as a result of her addiction.
"F" said that she doesn't have any mental illness, as many users do, and without that component there are very few programs for people who are addicted to drugs.
She said the Lakes Region General Hospital tried to help by giving her some pamphlets to read during one of her visits there, but she said she was too "dope sick" to read them.
Both described heroin and opiate withdrawal or "dope sick" as "the flu times 100."
"F" said one of the most frustrating things to her is the people who try to help addicts have never "walked in the shoes" of withdrawal and staying clean. She said she's grateful for Stand Up Laconia and the rest of the programs in the community and feels her role to play is explaining how difficult it really is to stay clean and sober.
"P" said one of the biggest obstacles to helping her nephew stay clean and sober is the lack of residential drug treatment programs in the area — and money.
She said she contacted Riverbend in Meredith but was told that sending her nephew to a place that was close to home is not recommended for recovery.
"He's too close to the people who he used to be friends with," she said.
"Every (residential program) I looked at was $3,000 to $5,000 per month and they were in Maine," she said. "How can I be there for him if I'm working 40 hours a week here."
Andy agreed that her nephew shouldn't do his recovery in his backyard. He said he went to Riverbend because his friend ran it and he was older and not familiar with the other people who were there.
Everyone talked about DARE, the substance abuse prevention program aimed at middle school-age children. "F" said it was an "okay" problem but said kids get tired of the "just say no" concept. They all said children need to be told to just walk away and not get involved with the people who are offering drugs or alcohol.
"Peer pressure is huge," said "F" who said she has to stay away from the people she knew when she was using.
"Middle school is too late," said Andy who has two adult children. "We need to get to kids in elementary school.
He also suggested that making it real to children is very important.
Other positive resources mentioned by the group were the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, any kind of physical fitness or sports programs, and the Nathan Brody problem.
Stand Up Laconia meets next at the Middle School on Thursday, Feb.19, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
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