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Can We Stop Addiction from Unraveling Our Communities, Our Families, and Ourselves?

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Vermont author Brett Stanciu. Courtesy photo.
Vermont author Brett Ann Stanciu’s new book, “Unstitched: My Journey to Understand Opioid Addiction and How People and Communities Can Heal” (Steerforth Press, 2021), tells the story of strength and fragility, hope and loss, joy and sorrow. It is also about courage, endurance, and love in the face of ongoing confusion and frequent failures in dealing with addiction.

Compassionate and sobering, “Unstitched” shows how the national opioid crisis affects individuals, families, and Vermont communities. A skilled storyteller, Stanciu takes us with her on an emotional, eye-opening journey of discovery and self-discovery. She interviews people addicted to drugs and alcohol, families, recovery specialists, police, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, and other community members as she explores how deeply entrenched addiction is in our society.

“Drugs turn addicts into people nobody knows,” Hardwick Police Chief Aaron Cochran told her. “They don’t even know who they are themselves anymore. They’re willing to do almost anything to get high, regardless of who they hurt. The consequences don’t matter. Family members are not family members to them anymore.”

In 2018 Stanciu was living in Hardwick and working as the librarian at the Woodbury Community Library, where a series of troubling but minor break-ins happened. Right after a local drug user who was responsible for the breakins got caught, “He ran home and shot himself.” His death was far more disturbing than the break-ins, and Stanciu couldn’t get it off her mind. Attending a Vermont Department of Libraries addiction workshop (in which librarians were given Narcan to take with them) motivated her to learn more about it. Narcan is a nasal spray that can be administered to people who have overdosed and which often saves them.

The very day of that workshop Stanciu scheduled an appointment with a coach at a recovery center in Morrisville to learn more about what was going on in our communities. The recovery coach shared her personal experiences with opioid addiction and became the first of many people who would talk with Stanciu about their work or their addiction experiences or those of loved ones. These stories are both heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Stanciu’s descriptions of small town life, rural poverty, and desperation, and her own life engage the reader. She opens up about her own struggles with alcohol, her difficult divorce, and other challenges in her life, providing a lens through which she shows how good, well-meaning people find themselves in situations they never intended.

“… I realized that addiction is propelled not only by the hand that lifts the drink or fills a syringe but also by a plethora of powerful factors, including genetic composition and trauma,” she writes. “While addiction had always appeared to me primarily as the sad story of individual sufferers … I began to see how addiction spreads like a cancer through our society. Addiction is big business, fueled by a criminal network — from small-time dealers … to [gangs] — and wealthy corporations that profit from pushing powerfully addictive pharmaceuticals.”

“Who can possibly overpower vast criminal networks, often better funded than small-town police departments?” she continues. “Who can successfully stand up to the Sackler family or to pharmaceutical companies with their bottomless resources? Beyond that, no one in Vermont, let alone the nation, has a comprehensive plan for how to dampen the demand for these substances. Generational poverty, systematic racism, a widening disparity in wealth, and fragmented communities factor into this complex equation.” 

Poverty is a significant issue in the communities Stanciu writes about, but she shows that having money, health care, and even a loving family — rich or poor — are still not enough. Although many people try to ignore it, the crisis spans our communities. Stanciu and several of the people she interviewed emphasized that before our society can hope to successfully deal with addiction, we need to stop stigmatizing addicts and we need to have honest discussions.

Many courageous people show up in “Unstitched,” including Dawn and Greg Tatro, whose daughter Jenna became addicted to opioids while taking a 30-day prescription a doctor gave her while recovering from injuries. The Tatros talk openly about Jenna’s addiction, the six years she spent fighting it, the 20 times she went into treatment centers, and her death. Jenna died after taking a drug that was intentionally tainted, apparently by a gang that knew she was trying to get away from them and thought she knew too much. In their daughter’s memory, the Tatros started Jenna’s House, a nonprofit recovery center in Johnson that opened in the fall of 2021. The center focuses on building community, breaking down stigmas, and creating a support network.

“Addiction is terrifying,” Dawn Tatro said. “Nobody thinks that would happen in a little town like this. People don’t realize what’s going on right under our noses.”

“One thing I’ve learned,” she said, “is that we can’t begin to address this problem if we insist on hiding it.”

A comment from Greg Tatro about communities becoming unstitched and needing to be sewn back together inspired the book’s title.

“Unstitched” is as gripping as a good novel. Stanciu skillfully weaves together the complexities of addiction and the opioid crisis, and it’s hard to put the book down. She learned a lot during her journey, and her book is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how opioids and addiction affect all of us. 

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