By Carl Mueller
Matthew Rogers spent six years in prison, both state and federal. He said he used to “run havoc” on the streets of Haverhill and Lawrence.
Today, Rogers is a source of inspiration. He is the founder of the Facebook group #TakingHaverhillBack, which offers hope for those struggling with addiction. It has almost 4,000 members in just two months of existence, and it’s just one of many opiate activist groups on Facebook and Twitter, all trying to make a difference through communal support.
Located in Essex County in Northeast Massachusetts, the city of Haverhill has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic. In 2014, there were at least 146 opiate-related deaths in the county alone and more than 1,000 died since 2000, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
In response to the public outrage expressed over these numbers Gov. Charlie Baker has created an Opiate Working Group comprising of health officials and experts. It will unveil its strategy in late May. Meanwhile, towns like Haverhill can’t wait, and its residents are taking matters into their own hands.
Last November, Matt Rogers’ older brother, Scott, who had been struggling with addiction, died. “I went to the hospital and, it’s weird, the doctor came out and it seemed like he was immune to it, like he was used to it. He told me that they tried, he had a pulse in the ambulance, but they couldn’t save him. I never thought that I would lose my brother,” Rogers said.
Rogers was angry; he wanted to personally find the dealer that sold to his brother. He began ranting on Facebook, directing his attacks at dealers who cut heroin with fentanyl, a deadly chemical 15-20 times more potent than heroin and covertly sold as a cheap alternative.
He soon learned he was not alone. “I started getting a lot of shares and friend requests, about 20 a day,” Rogers said. He quickly became a public figure and soon felt the responsibility to speak out. During a December 2014 candlelight vigil in Haverhill, the crowd asked Rogers to speak.
The Facebook group acts as an outlet for families, friends and addicts themselves to express their shared pain and desire for a better future. Members post words of encouragement, willingness to help and even personal experiences.
One of those who shared his story is Chris Shine, 31, a recovering addict and now administrator of the #TakingHaverhillBack Facebook group. He uses his story to encourage others to stay sober.
“Before I asked Matt if I could be an administrator for the Facebook group, I was telling my sister I need to find an outlet,” Shine said. “One thing I do know about, I know about all the drugs, suboxone, methadone, subutex, tremadol, johnnies. I know the ins and outs of drugs and I thought, ‘I wish I could start some sort of recovery thing,’ Then I saw Matt’s video, asked if I could be an admin and ever since then, I’ve been posting every day regarding my recovery,” he said.
Speaking as someone who shot heroin every day for years, Shine knows the impact words of encouragement and communal support have toward getting clean. “What people like, what people are really attracted to, is something that generates hope,” Shine said.
“If you came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to make change? Do you want to go to the State House steps with me?’ and I was an active heroin user, you probably wouldn’t hear from me for a few months. But if you said, ‘We’re going to have poetry night. Everyone is welcome. We can meet in the city, in the park. We can talk about recovery, I probably would go. We support each other any way we can.”
The hope generated from this particular Facebook page is becoming more tangible through #TakingHaverhillBack community events like bowling nights and cookouts. It also distributes bracelets throughout the city.
The group’s newly joined administrator, Lauren Saben was using heroin for six months. She said the group has an effect because it gives people the help they cannot get otherwise. “Recovery has to be an individualized approach,” Saben said. “Addicts always find an excuse, but if you want to stay clean you have to eliminate yourself from anyone who uses,” she said. Those struggling to stay clean often reach out to her and the other administrators looking for advice. “People need hope and that’s what I try to give them,” she said.
Rogers said that although he is not a professional, he gets personal messages each day pleading for help. “A lot of people hit me up and say, ‘Oh, I have a problem what should I do?’ and I just try to talk to them and that’s all you can do. I tell them to post it to the page because somebody will help you,” Rogers said. If he can’t help them personally, he said, the page gives people the platform to apply their experiences and background in order to help each specific case. It’s not detoxification, it’s not psychiatric counseling, it’s not rehab, but some say it can be just as helpful.
The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) said peer support should be a formal part of addiction rehabilitation.
According to SAMHSA, peer support systems provide emotional, informational, instrumental and affiliation support. Those suffering with addiction and their families can find empathy, shared knowledge, resources like transportation, and events like cookouts and softball games to separate themselves from their addiction. #TakingHaverhillback has “sober cookouts” planned for this summer.
In fact, peer support can be a mutually benefiting experience for both those receiving help and those providing it.
“This group helps me in many ways,” Shine said. “It is keeping me sober while I’m not at meetings and bored online. It has opened up my eyes in so many ways. Seeing total strangers or friends of friends on Facebook post in this group is absolutely incredible,” he said.
The effectiveness of peer support is something that Massachusetts recognized as lacking in the 2014 Opioid Task Force findings, citing the “need for peer support in the recovery process.” As a result, the state allocated $500,000 to “develop peer to peer support networks” in the summer of 2014, focusing on having recovering peers as guiding figures.
Furthermore, the state currently has 12 Recovery Support Centers. These centers are “focused on creating healthy communities that assist individuals maintain abstinence from drugs and alcohol after formal treatment has completed,” according to the 2014 findings. Subsequently, $1,050,000 was allocated for three new centers.
While this year’s working group discusses yet another course of action, those looking can find peer support through Facebook groups like #TakingHaverhillBack thanks to the efforts of community members like Matt Rogers, Chris Shine and Lauren Saben.