6 Years Into His Recovery, Scott Pavek Calls For Policies To 'Keep People Alive'

Jan 8, 2019

This week marks five years since then-Gov. Peter Shumlin focused his entire State of the State speech on addiction. For Scott Pavek, the last five years have been spent in recovery and speaking in an increasingly public way about addiction, recovery and policy.

Pavek is 27 years old, lives in Burlington and works at UVM. In recent years, he's become a vocal advocate around addiction, especially on social media. Back when he was 16 and a high school student in Barre, he was introduced to opioid painkillers by a friend.

"It was a matter of taking that pill that first day and coming back to the residence that night to acquire more," Pavek said. "It was a pretty instantaneous connection between me and opioids."

Listen to Scott Pavek's conversation with VPR's Henry Epp above. 

After high school, Pavek wound up in Arizona, working as a dishwasher and using opioids.

"All the time I wasn't in the dish pit I was out on the street doing what else was necessary to keep drugs in my system and, on occasion, food in my body,” Pavek said. “And so that decline ultimately left me completely isolated, alone, doing things that I couldn't have fathomed doing when I was a kid, and just watching my health decline until I was ready to die."

Pavek ultimately went into several stints of inpatient treatment, then came back to Vermont, where he said recovery was often isolating. But now, he tweets frequently about addiction, recovery and policy, articulating a viewpoint focused on people who have what he calls "substance use disorder."

Below are some excerpts from Scott Pavek's interview with Henry Epp:

On What Government Should Do To Help People Into Recovery

"There is no one way to get into recovery, but we know that there's a few prerequisites — the first of which being you have to be alive," Pavek said.

"So when we talk about getting people into recovery, I think the one basic thing we can do is keep people alive. If we do more to open up pathways of harm reduction, we give people another chance of living another day while in active addiction and getting another opportunity down the road to enter treatment and then maybe another opportunity to enter recovery."

Policies He Believes Can 'Keep People Alive'

"I think right now we've got a small window of opportunity to flood the state with drug-checking supplies, like fentanyl test strips, that will still have some utility. That utility might be gone in 2020 if the drug poisoning crisis continues unabated," said Pavek.

"In addition to that we have more radical ideas: Things like overdose prevention sites and prescription heroin. When we think about addressing an overdose crisis that is driven by drug poisoning, prescription heroin makes sense and would keep people alive.

"If that doesn't seem politically feasible, I would encourage people to consider the perhaps less-radical idea of simply saying: 'You don't need to use alone when you feel compelled. How about you come to an overdose prevention site?' ... It could be referred to as a safe injection site — I say overdose prevention site because I like the consequentialist frame."

On The Shift In Public Perception Of Addiction In The Last 5 Years

Pavek said he's seen a shift in how addiction is viewed and discussed in recent years.

"In the focus on stigmatizing language or how we're talking about people in substance use disorder, that's definitely a change I've seen the past five years," Pavek said. "Where previously in treatment, you know, I met people who described themselves as 'junkies' and treatment providers who described people, maybe tongue-in-cheek, as 'junkies.'

"And understanding just how damaging even a small word like that can be to someone's identity and sense of self-efficacy, that's a big change we made in the past five years that I think is underemphasized. We need to understand just how important and powerful our words are."

This is part of a series of interviews airing on VPR this week to mark the five-year anniversary of Shumlin's State of the State speech on addiction. Check here for more stories throughout the week.