DELHI — A recovering heroin addict received a standing ovation Wednesday night after tearfully recalling her journey to sobriety during a Community Heroin and Substance Abuse Awareness Event at Delaware Academy Central School.
Educators, law enforcement and community members stood up and clapped for Abby Clark of Delhi, who told the audience that, in March, she will celebrate her fourth year free of drugs.
The young woman was one of five panelists who spoke to the 50 or so audience members gathered inside the high school auditorium.
“This is a disease,” superintendent Jason Thomson said before the panel discussion began. “We want to educate the community with accurate information and get the proper word out. And we want to be able to point to our local resources, for those who need them. Education is key.”
The event sought to educate on what is widely known as “the heroin epidemic,” pinpoint area resources, and put a human face to the issue, organizers said.
“There is so much moral judgment when it comes to this type of addiction,” said David Ramsey, an addiction specialist in Delaware County. “People say, ‘But I took him to church when he was growing up,’ or ‘He knows better!’ But addiction sweeps all of that right off the table. An addict is not operating from a place where they can make good decisions. They’re operating like a chemical robot. ... This is not about strength of character or lack thereof.”
Wiping away tears, Clark said she can attest to that. Another panelist, Mary Rosenthal, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council of Delaware County, put a hand on Clark’s shoulder.
“I was an empty shell,” Clark said. “In order to support my habit, I started stealing. I gave my son to a family member to raise. I could not be a mom. I could not even be a person.”
After doing time at the Delaware County Jail on burglary charges, Clark began to slowly put the pieces of her life back together, she said. She attended and completed Delaware County Treatment Court and was the 69th graduate of the program, she said.
Several years later, her family suffered another blow with the death of Clark’s stepfather, she said.
“Heroin slowly crept in and took him over,” she said. “Do not shove this epidemic under the rug. It could be the person sitting next to you.”
Chris Kemp, director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services of Delaware County, said just .05 percent of the Hamden center’s admissions in 2004 were for opiate use. In 2016, opiates accounted for 40 percent of admissions.
“This is something we had not seen in Delaware County — ever,” Kemp said. “Since then, we’ve seen a significant rise in hepatitis C cases because of heroin use.”
Delaware County Undersheriff Craig DuMond said his agency knew there was a serious problem in 2012 when there was a 297 percent increase in felony drug arrests. Opiate addicts don’t always look the way you’d expect, he said. They are teachers, lawyers, police officers — successful people.
Tools that have helped the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office in the battle against drugs include an anonymous tip line to report drug and dealer activity, DuMond said, and the presence of a drug recovery coach at the county jail who works with inmates and helps them find services for when they’re released.
DuMond said the only disappointment he had Wednesday night was in the lack of people who showed up to the event.
“This room should be full,” he said, and several people in the audience audibly agreed. “But if each of you go out and tell someone else, we can get the word out and make a real difference.”
Thomson said this was the first of several meetings planned. A Delhi Community Action Response Team meeting is scheduled for Jan. 18 at the high school, he said, and community members are encouraged to attend to see what they can do to help.
“It’s an ongoing educational process,” Thomson said. “We’re doing everything we can to combat any issues that are out there. We have to keep it in the forefront. We have to be cognizant of it.”