Those left behind: He lost his best friend to opioids; now he’s a recovery specialist

  • Joseph Laliberte at Swift River, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Cummington, where he currently works as a recovery specialist. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joseph Laliberte at the gravesite of Mitch Ouimette in Southampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/25/2019 10:07:47 AM

SOUTHAMPTON — Joseph Laliberte and Mitch Ouimette became fast friends in middle school, brought together by that powerful combination of proximity, sports and school. Throughout their time at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, their friendship flourished. Mitch, he says, was a powerful athlete in multiple sports.

“Everybody knew me and Mitch,” Laliberte said. “We were always with each other.”

His best friend died as the result of an opioid overdose in September 2017. Since then, not a day has gone by that he doesn’t think about Mitch, Laliberte said one day this summer. He sat at a picnic table in the pavilion at Conant Memorial Park, ringed by towering pine trees, not far from a court where the two friends spent many hours playing basketball.

“When you lose someone really close to you, you probably think about it every day until it’s your time,” he said. “It will never feel right.”

But there are other reasons Laliberte, 21, thinks about his friend so much. Mitch’s death spurred him to make changes in his own life and career. He recently entered the field of substance-use treatment and recovery support. Laliberte also started consciously developing healthier habits that he feels have improved his coping skills: He joined a gym, took up hiking, started nurturing positive relationships and generally focused on staying busy with positive hobbies.

Unhealthy substance use was something Laliberte had witnessed up close in his own family — a relative is now in recovery. In high school, he and his friends took it up in ways that initially seemed social and fun. But that substance use grew to a point he found troubling.

“It all just hit me at once that I’d been lying to myself,” he said. “I saw patterns in my friend group, including with Mitch, that made me think we were headed down the addiction path.”

In his senior year of high school, Laliberte sharply curtailed his use of substances, later stopping entirely. He also became concerned enough about his friend’s use of substances that he and other friends talked to Mitch about it. These conversations became a source of tension.

“He would come at us,” he said. “It never worked.”

A distance sprang up between the friends. For eight to 10 months, they didn’t see one another much, and then when Laliberte learned that his friend had entered a treatment facility out of state to deal with his opioid use, he was relieved and thrilled.

“It was the best news of my life,” he said. In the summer of 2017, after Ouimette returned home from treatment, the two renewed their friendship.

“It felt like everything was back to normal. It was just like before drugs had messed everything up,” Laliberte said. “I felt like I had my friend back — we all did. He looked good. He was doing so much better.”

‘We need pain in our lives’

But then Mitch relapsed. Not long after his return from treatment, he overdosed and died. Laliberte found out when his girlfriend, who learned of their friend’s death via social media, telephoned him to deliver the sad news — she wanted to make sure he didn’t find out that way as well. Laliberte was shocked, heartbroken and unsure of what to do next. He spent time with the friends they used to socialize with in high school, all stunned at their friend’s death when he seemed to have been thriving after coming out of treatment.

“It really goes to show when you get out of rehab, it’s a slippery slope,” Laliberte said. 

Laliberte said that was a time of reckoning for him and other friends of Mitch, some of whom curtailed or stopped their use of substances.

At the time, Laliberte was driving a forklift on the night shift in a factory. He was so traumatized by his friend’s death, he quit the job.

“I couldn’t handle working nights at the same time I lost my best friend,” he said. After that, he floundered for a while, for a time working a cleaning job, until he heard about an opening at an addiction treatment center. Though he’d had no professional experience, he felt he had plenty of personal experience, and he stayed up all night filling out the application.

“It was a hard night writing that cover letter. I just wrote about everything I’ve been through,” he said. It turned out to be a clarifying experience: “I truly feel like this was what I was meant to do,” he said.

Since then, Laliberte has thought deeply about his own experiences with substances, as well as about the addiction he witnessed in his own family and that of his best friend. 

“You just get addicted to the feeling of no pain,” he said. “As much as I enjoyed avoiding feeling the pain when I used, we need pain in our lives. Pain is what makes us grow as people. When you’re masking the pain with drugs or any kind of substance use, it’s going to hold you back, and you’re not going to grow.”

Those experiences now inform his work. In July of 2018, Laliberte began working as a recovery specialist at Swift River, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Cummington. He is looking forward to enrolling in community college and hopes eventually to get a master’s degree in social work.

“I truly feel like this is what I was meant to do,” Laliberte said.

And there’s a way that he feels his friend’s presence still, he said: “I feel like Mitch helped me get the job.”

Laurie Loisel, a former reporter and editor for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is director of outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. Loisel wrote these stories for the Gazette in her capacity as an employee of the district attorney’s   office.




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