CHATHAM, NJ - When Cornell student athlete, Will Hartigan, finally began relieving his long-term anxiety by mixing pain killers and adderall, he thought to himself, “This is how I should feel everyday.”

Hartigan put the Chatham community in his own shoes as a struggling, young opioid addict at the “Opioid Crisis to Opportunity” presentation at Chatham High School on Tuesday night.

Yet, despite his indisputable addiction, Hartigan’s friends and family were initially unaware that he was consuming a lethal cocktail of opiate drugs and adderall every hour of every day just to operate; the same opiates that would kill a national total of 33,000 people in 2016, creating an American epidemic.

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According to licensed professional counselor and master addictions counselor, Patricia Aussem, the opiate epidemic arose in the last decade and a half due to increased prescriptions for painkillers by physicians. Purdue pharma pushed physicians to make pain “the fifth vital sign,” influencing a 400% increase in the number of painkillers prescribed by doctors nationwide between 1999-2014.

“The fact that I can live on a day to day basis without drugs is a miracle,” said Hartigan, who is now six and a half years sober. “I don’t think painkillers should be prescribed to anyone unless they have a terminal illness.”

Aussem explained that the majority of opioid addictions in the country have arisen out of physician prescriptions, often for operations as simple as wisdom teeth removals or for sports injuries. Patients get hooked on the painkillers, eventually turning to heroin, the cheaper and more accessible opiate. As addicts begin to use heroin more dependently, they become more likely to come across heroin laced with fentanyl, a deadly combination that has spiked the number of overdoses in the last few years.

In Morris County alone, 62 people lost their lives to opioid overdoses in 2016. Fortunately, Naloxone, better known as Narcan, has saved an additional 108 individuals from being added to that statistic, reviving them from fatal overdoses. Narcan counteracts opioids and restores the breathing and heart rate of individuals undergoing an overdose. With the epidemic rising, Aussem stressed the importance of getting training on how to use a Narcan kit, which is provided by CARES/Morris County Prevention is Key in Rockaway, New Jersey.

“The more you can learn, the more you can help your loved one with whatever situation it might be,” said Pam Garanger, who lost her college aged son to an opioid overdose.

The principal focuses of the presentation on Tuesday night were the importance of educating the community on opioids themselves, and how to seek proper recovery for an addiction. A common misconception widely held about opioid addiction is that most cases arise in a typical, party setting, and that the problem can be cured with a simple month of detox. Chatham mother, Melissa Crouse, an employee of Origins Behavioral Healthcare who has been in the field for 10 years, refuted this misconception.

“There is no stereotypical substance abuse,” said Crouse. “We have to treat addiction from a chronic illness perspective, just like we treat cancer and diabetes. Every substance use is different just like every cancer is different.”

As someone working with substance abuse in the field and who has experienced her own child struggle with opioid addiction, Crouse was adamant about the importance of approaching recovery in the right way. This approach starts with getting a thorough evaluation from a physician or therapist for the individual as soon as signs of addiction become visible. Following the evaluation, the individual and their family must commit to long-term recovery through residential treatment centers and intensive outpatient centers.

“Cancer patients wouldn’t go into treatment for only 30 days without going into remission,” said Crouse. Similarly, one can’t expect an addict to avoid relapse after only 30 days of detox, which does does not address any of the underlying issues as to why they feel the need to numb themselves with opiates.

"The current consensus in the addiction treatment field is that we need to provide an individualized treatment plan for every single patient to include a multidisciplinary team of medical, clinical, psychiatric, nutritional, and spiritual professionals to improve outcomes," Crouse said. "This is why at Origins Behavioral Healthcare we believe in longer lengths of primary treatment, we provide primary addiction treatment for 45, 60, 90 even 120 days and we see better outcomes than a 30 day model of treatment." 

Not only are addicts deprived of the proper treatment they need because of a lack of education on opioid addiction, but also because of the stigma and embarrassment that surrounds the subject. People are embarrassed to acknowledge the severity of addiction, and seek the proper treatment they need.

According to Crouse, the root of solving the opioid problem, in addition to educating the population, is to put an end to this shame. Recovery from addiction should be treated the same way as the community treats recovery from other long term illnesses -- with love and support for one another. Crouse mentioned that Chatham is a close-knit, supportive community, particularly when a family is struggling with a loss or illness. However, the shame that corresponds with substance abuse often hinders community support.

“Nobody is making dinner for you when your child has substance abuse because it’s such a stigma,” said Crouse. “It is a disease and we need to make a change.”

The Chatham community is quickly taking strides to achieve this goal of creating an informed and “stigma free” community regarding opioid addiction. The district is currently in the process of providing Narcan kits in all of the schools in the district, and finding a solution to educate students about opioid abuse more effectively, and at a younger age.

Additionally, for the first time in the event’s history, an informative stand on opioid addiction will be included at the Fishawack Festival on June 10th to provide the community with information and open discussion on the crisis.