When it comes to opiate addiction, treatment that leads to recovery rarely involves a quick fix. For many, overcoming addiction is a life change.
Skyler Browder sits in the student lounge at Community College of Vermont in Winooski.
“I love it here. It's awesome," Browder says exuberantly. "It's been really like – just what I need."
Browder’s path to addiction began with alcohol in high school, then she tried OxyContin, and when that drug became unavailable she turned to heroin.
“And even though I had a great upbringing – I had parents who loved me, I was educated, smart, totally athletic, played sports – all this stuff, I just, I couldn’t … even though I had glimmers of hope of what my life might be like if I could stop using, I could never stop," she says.
Browder says over the course of several years she detoxed – and relapsed – several times, and went to a 30-day inpatient treatment program.
She was clean, she says, when she became pregnant. And then she relapsed again.
“And I knew that when you’re pregnant you’re not – I’d heard you’re not supposed to detox off of opiates … So I called the Chittenden clinic – the methadone clinic – and I got on methadone.”
After her son was born a year and a half ago, Browder says she felt ready to taper off methadone.
“So when I did finally get off methadone, even though I did have some physical symptoms, you know, like my mindset was that of … I can do this without the aid of methadone,” Browder says. “And so the willingness to live in recovery and to live a different way, you know, gave me this whole new mindset of like, ‘This is what I want to do.'"
Browder’s life is now centered around her young son, who goes to daycare while she’s in school.
Browder says the key to her recovery is keeping it first and foremost in her life.
“I go to five support group meetings a week. I have a bunch of sober women in my life that I can talk to,” she says. "People who use drugs are not in my life anymore."
In rehab, Browder says, she was encouraged to change the "people, places and things" in her life. She says at first, she didn't.
"And I think that's part of why I kept relapsing," she says. "It's hard to let go of everything you knew."
Mark Ames coordinates the Vermont Recovery Network, which includes 12 centers across the state that give recovering addicts a place to support each other.
“If the people you’ve spent time with for years all use drugs, you’re going to return to using drugs,” Ames says. “This whole process of recovery requires that you change your nature ... If you spend time around people that are in recovery, you stay in recovery – that’s been the power of recovery."
On a quiet morning at the Turning Point Center in Burlington, a yoga session is underway in one small room, while others mingle outside in a large open space with comfortable chairs and sofas.
“Being able to go to a recovery center and have conversations with other people, going to a recovery center for a dinner, for yoga, for pool games, for ping pong – it’s about finding a social environment that isn’t a bar,” Mark Ames says.
Ames says Vermont’s system of having centers like these in every corner of the state is unique, and that access here is better than in any other state in the country.
He says everyone’s recovery is different, and many addicts use medication – methadone or buprenorphine – to help them stay off heroin.
“One of the things that’s been happening in Vermont is that they’re developing far more sophistication around how to look at people’s lives and what would be appropriate,” Ames says.
Officials estimate that more than 5,000 people are now in medication-assisted treatment overseen by the state. That doesn't include people who are getting treatment through private insurance.
Mark Ames says much of the research shows that the medication treatment works.
But he also says there’s a group of people out there who, like Skyler Browder, choose to move toward "abstinence-based" recovery.
“One of the things that we've been aware of in the recovering community, just watching people that have been on medication-assisted treatment, is that many of them after time get tired of having to go regularly to a treatment program to get a drug,” Ames says. “And they think that, you know, ‘I want to be free of this all.’ And they move to an abstinence-based recovery.”
Ames says people need to find the approach that fits them best. The bottom line, he says, is that recovery involves a lot of work in getting one’s life back on track.
“People develop bad work habits – they’ve got to get back into the employment world,” Ames says. “They've got to get back together with their families. There's nothing like stealing your mother's jewelry to ruin a family relationship. And that happens. And so, if you're going to get into recovery you're going to have to apologize to your mother and try to make restitution for jewelry you stole or whatever it is,” he says. “And that's part of the recovery process, is getting back your former life.”
After classes end for the day, Skyler Browder makes a quick stop at the grocery store before heading home. “I decided I wanted sweet potato fries tonight – so I had to get some sweet potatoes," she says, smiling.
Browder says an important aspect of her recovery is bouncing ideas off her sober friends – even on seemingly little things —such as whether to reach out to an old friend who’s still using drugs.
“Not even that I want to see them, but just to reach out and say, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ And running that by somebody first – because, you know, that can be a slippery slope. Because now, you know, I have a home, right?” she says contemplatively. “I have these things and, next thing you know this person is staying on my couch ... And that's a dangerous situation. You know, I can't put myself around people that are actively using.”
For now, Skyler Browder is finding her way through recovery – and, she says, living like a "regular Vermonter."
“I go to school, I have a kid. I go grocery shopping. I come home at night,” she says. “You know, I'm not like anybody special. I just happen to be a person in recovery. But I'm not any different from any other 25-year-old single mom who's just, like, trying to make a better life for themselves,” Browder says.
Browder's story shows that it can take many steps back before moving forward into recovery.
For some, it may take only one try, while others go through dozens of detoxes and multiple treatments.
The challenge, experts say, is for people to get to a place where they can take responsibility for their recovery, and to find enough support to keep them there.