Editorial: Opioid crisis a family issue

  • Jill Panto of Belchertown is shown with her son Christopher Besancon. She co-founded a family support group after he became addicted to opioids. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 5/24/2017 8:51:17 PM

The opioid addiction crisis is often framed as a public health issue, a law enforcement challenge, a clarion call for better treatment options for people enslaved by prescription drugs and street heroin.

At its core, the opioid crisis is also a family issue. Families — both traditional and community-built — can play a vital role in turning it, and the lives of the afflicted, around.

Two articles in the the last two weeks have shone a light on the work families of all kinds can do in helping tame the demons of substance abuse. In one, published in the May 23 Gazette, readers met Jill Panto, a Belchertown woman who works as town accountant but has dedicated herself in recent years to helping families cope with the often-arduous path from addiction to recovery and, too often, relapse.

Panto comes by her insights the hard way. Her son, Christopher Besancon, fell prey to addiction in his early 20s and has spent years struggling to break its hold. How strong is that hold? When Besancon was home for a visit at Christmas, his mother found the 27-year-old in his room in a deeply drugged state and had to use Narcan to reverse the overdose and likely save his life.

It was just the latest relapse, a plunge that made Besancon decide to live in a sober house in hopes of kicking the habit for good. “When I’m in my addiction, the way I affect other people in no way hinders my drive or my desire toward getting the drug I want,” he told Laurie Loisel, the story’s author, director of community outreach and education for the Northwestern district attorney’s office and a member of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition.

In addition to helping her own son, Panto has sought to support other families by helping to start SOAAR (Speaking Out about Addiction and Recovery) for those grappling with substance abuse, their families and friends.

Families come in different forms — even a landscaping business. Stephen MacDonald is just one of many people recovering from addiction who has found a job, a renewed sense of purpose and the kind of firm-but-supportive environment he needs at LandScapes, a Northampton design and build business owned by Craig Stevens.

“I’m happy,” said MacDonald, who credits his two years of sobriety in part to the workplace created by Stevens. “At 47 years old, I feel very blessed and grateful.”

Stevens is no stranger to addiction, according to a May 17 article by Gazette staff writer Emily Cutts. Now in his 50s, Stevens says that he struggled with a cocaine habit that by his early 40s had cost him his house and business and sent him to rehab. Sober now for nearly 17 years, Stevens hires mostly those recovering from drug addiction. And while he gives them a break, he doesn’t cut them much slack.

Show up for work on time. No cellphones or texting on the job. Stay on site for lunch. Do your work. And above all, stay sober. “I don’t want to be their therapist or their mentor, I want to be their boss,” he said. “It’s strict but … there is an awful lot of compassion.”

It’s that blend of compassion and boundaries that can help people shake chemical dependency and return to jobs, families and a sense of control over their destiny. Just as addiction’s ravages extend beyond the lives of individuals, so does the firm love of families — families of all kinds — help to carry them home.

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