×

Stories of addiction featured at Hampshire Regional forum

  • Lisa Pineo, Derrick Cotnoir and Jim Ouimette share a laugh during “Taking Action Against Addiction,” a forum Tuesday evening at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dr. Ruth Potee speaks during “Taking Action Against Addiction,” Tuesday, at Hampshire Regional. High School. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jim Ouimette, of Easthampton, speaks about his son, Mitch Ouimette, during "Taking Action Against Addiction", Tuesday at Hampshire Regional High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dr. Ruth Potee speaks during "Taking Action Against Addiction", Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 at Hampshire Regional High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@dustyc123
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

WESTHAMPTON — When Jim Ouimette stepped to the mic at Hampshire Regional High School on Tuesday, it was in a sorrowfully slow tone that he told the crowded auditorium about the September overdose death of his 19-year-old son, Mitch.

“We need to start talking about this,” he said of addiction. The crowd of around 200 students, parents, school staff and community members was quiet and still, listening to his story of loss and regret.

Ouimette was one of four participants in a forum on addiction at the school which, like all schools across the country, is seeing the consequences of an opioid epidemic that continues to worsen. Opioid, cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses increased by 35 percent — from around 49,000 to around 66,000 — nationally from May 2015 to May 2017, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It was against that backdrop, and of course the death of Mitch Ouimette, that the school held its “Taking Action Against Addiction” panel, which began with a presentation from addiction medicine physician and expert Ruth Potee.

“This is the biggest audience I’ve ever had,” Potee said proudly. “I’ve never had so many teenagers.”

One of those teenagers was ninth-grader Maggie Rubeck, who was there with her mother, Melanie. Her basketball coach encouraged her to come, she said.

“To get educated,” Rubeck said when asked why she came. “So hopefully this doesn’t happen with my children.”

Potee, who works in Greenfield, began her presentation detailing how addiction messes with the brain’s reward center, and how the American medical system fails to adequately treat addiction patients.

“The more we spread knowledge about this illness in society, the better,” she said. She discussed factors that can increase the risk of addiction, like genetics, childhood trauma and age of first use, and she gave frank advice about the kinds of conversations parents should be having with their children.

One of those dialogues between parents and their children, Potee said, should be about any addictions in the family. If children know they’re more predisposed to develop an addiction, she said they can take steps to decrease that risk, like delaying their first use of a substance as long as possible.

“Your kids can handle this information, they are smart,” she said, encouraging educators and parents alike to have frank conversations with their children as early as fifth grade.

Derrick Cotnoir, an addict himself who is in long-term recovery, shared his own struggle. Lisa Pineo, who is the substance abuse director at the nonprofit behavioral health agency Clinical & Support Options, gave audience members information about what kind of resources are available to them.

Spotting the signs

For Ouimette, on reflection he said there were signs that his son Mitch was using. He sees them now, he said, but at the time he didn’t put them together as indications of an addiction: Mitch destroyed several cars, lost a few jobs, and was argumentative with his mom and sister. He distanced himself from friends, his personal hygiene declined and he started sleeping more.

“As I reflect, I kind of had some blinders on,” his father said. But his son also did his best to keep his family from discovering his habit, Ouimette said. “He was pretty good at hiding it.”

To the other parents in the audience, Ouimette spoke about other signs they can look for, like spending extra time in the bathroom — possibly from opioid-induced constipation.

“It’s something that, if you’re aware of it, it’s there,” he said.

Eventually, Mitch’s mother and sister found pills of his, and Ouimette said that shattered any doubts he may have had. The family confronted him, and he went to a rehab program in Mississippi. After a month and a half there, returned home and entered an aftercare program in West Springfield.

“And he did great for probably three weeks, four weeks,” his father said. But then Mitch started using again, and Ouimette said he struggled to show his son trust, while at the same time wanting to control his behavior.

“As a parent, I don’t know how equipped we are to do that,” he said of striking the right balance. “You can’t put them in a bubble.”

But Ouimette referred back to Potee’s presentation on addiction, and said he recognized some of the risk factors associated with addiction, including family history.

He said it is important to talk about those things with your kids, and that people should reach out to friends, or those parents’ friends and teachers, if they think someone they know is struggling with addiction. They should do so, he said, even if it makes them feel like a snitch.

“It’s just not worth losing someone,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.