Circle of Hope: Families of Washington County drug addicts find they’re not alone

At a time when opiate addiction rates were beginning their skyrocket ascent in one of the hardest-hit counties, in a state that would see the greatest rate of painkiller use in the country, Ann Gilmore was trying to protect her son. But it was too late.

“I have a son who’s an addict,” Gilmore, 55, of Machias, said. That statement comes with the guilt of being a parent unable to perform magic. It comes with shame. It comes with anger, sadness and worry.

Her son is now 30, and the family has been struggling with his addiction for about 10 years. Gilmore calls it “hell on Earth,” especially because of the feeling of hopelessness associated with trying to protect someone she loves. “I can’t do anything,” she said.

But she could do something to ease her own pain and perhaps help others. So last April, she started an informal group for families of people struggling with addiction. They meet every Wednesday in her doctor’s waiting room to simply share their battles.

“I just knew as a parent the struggles I went through, and I just wanted to give these people an opportunity to say what they’ve been through. It just sort of all fell into place,” she said. “People don’t understand how horrible this is for the families.”

Gilmore and two other women meet regularly. They know there are many families in Washington County affected by substance abuse and invite them to stop by Dr. Cynthia Sammis’ office at 53 Fremont St. in Machias from 6 to 7 p.m. They may call ahead at 255-3530.

Opiate addiction affects more than the person using drugs. Families bear much of the pain. Between 2006 and 2009, the number of outpatient hospital visits related to opiate abuse nearly doubled, increasing to 35,950 from 19,739, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Adult prescription drug misuse is greatest among those ages 18 to 25.

Ann Gilmore, 55, of Machias talks about the drug addiction problems facing her son as well as a help group she started in her community. BDN| Brian Feulner

Gilmore said she and her husband first learned of their son’s addiction problems when she received a call from their bank. Their account had been overdrawn. He had been using their checks and forging their signatures, she said.

They covered the loss but asked him to leave their house. In the coming years, Gilmore said she tried to provide for her son — such as getting him a vehicle, so he could get to work — but he always asked for more. He sometimes told her he would be attacked for not paying what he owed. She didn’t want to fuel his addiction, but she didn’t want to see him hurt, either.

“This is how they get you: ‘They’re going to beat me up,’” she said.

Eventually, he and others did time in prison for breaking into a camp and stealing drugs. When he got out, he violated probation and ended up spending more time behind bars, she said.

“Sometimes I could just roll up in a ball and die or go to sleep,” Gilmore said. At the time, she thought, “I don’t have anybody to talk to who feels the same way I do.”

After running the idea of starting a group by her doctor, though, she decided to give it a try. She put an ad in the Machias Valley News Observer, and every week she and her husband waited in the doctor’s lobby in case someone showed up. After about three weeks, a woman came and poured out her story to Gilmore. Later, other women called to say they would come.

“There was a lot of crying when we first got together,” she said. “We hadn’t had anyone to talk to … The addicts have all these things available to them, but the family members have nothing to just get the stress out.”

They’ve been meeting for about 10 months now and have finally come up with a name: Circle of Hope. It represents the family circle, Gilmore said. It also represents the idea that as long as there’s life, there’s hope.

Gilmore knows how addiction turned her boy who was “a loving, giving child” and “wouldn’t hurt anyone for anything” into “someone who you really and truly don’t recognize.” She dreads having him walk into her home to ask for food or money because he’s spent his all on drugs.

But she does hope he will recover one day. Her eyes well up at the thought: “How wonderful it would be if he could step through our door and say, ‘Mom or Dad, how are you doing today?’”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.