Son of nightclub fire victim gets help with heroin battle
Norwich — Andrew Henault knew he had to come clean about his "dirty urine."
The 24-year-old Lisbon native, who a week earlier had moved into the Autumn Oak sober house at 66 McKinley Ave. to continue his recovery from heroin addiction, knew that once he urinated into a plastic cup and gave the specimen to the house manager, he would be unable to deny that he had smoked marijuana.
The moment of reckoning took place July 29, a Friday afternoon, in the second-floor kitchen of the sober house.
With Lisa Cote Johns from Community Speaks Out and a Day reporter observing, house manager Dennis Savage looked Henault in the eye.
"I need honesty," Savage said. "There's word in the house that you were smoking on the front porch with Sheila. Did you?"
"I'll be straight up honest," Henault replied. "I took a hit."
Heroin, not marijuana, is the major demon in Henault's life, having derailed his career as a personal trainer and mixed martial arts fighter, damaged or destroyed most of his relationships and left him homeless more than once.
But testing positive for any drugs or alcohol is a violation of sober house rules and grounds for eviction, and on that Friday afternoon, Henault, who had lost everything when he relapsed in the spring after not using heroin for three years, was once again headed for homelessness.
Just a week earlier, members of Community Speaks Out, a nonprofit group that educates the public about opioid addiction and helps get addicts into treatment, had scrambled to find him a place to live when he left a Stonington Institute sober house in New London and an accompanying Stonington Institute day program after running into a problem with some of his housemates.
Henault ended up at New London's Homeless Hospitality Center. He then slept at his sister's house in East Lyme for a couple of days, but she has a young child and Henault knew he couldn't stay there.
He had worn out his welcome with other relatives, including the father who raised him after his mother, Jude Henault, died in the Station Nightclub Fire in Rhode Island in 2003.
Henault, who was 9 when his mother went out for a night of fun and never returned, received a settlement as part of a lawsuit brought on behalf of the fire victims' families.
He said he gave the money to his father, who used it to buy a house.
His friends, Henault said, are all gone as the result of his heroin addiction. Though he has the support of his sister and an uncle, he knows he has to make it on his own.
"When you're kicked out on the street and have nothing, the first thing you want is to numb yourself," Henault said, pacing around the kitchen.
Recovery 'a lot of work'
Henault is among hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting heroin addiction.
In 2013, when he snorted the drug for the first time as a 21-year-old, there was a 109 percent increase in heroin use among people in his age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since then, the rate of overdose deaths has soared in the state and country.
Henault says he is lucky he's never overdosed, though he knows many who have, and a few who have died.
In Connecticut, the state chief medical examiner has projected that 440 people will die from heroin overdoses in 2016. Police have said many of the overdoses reported this year have involved the use of heroin laced with the powerful opiate fentanyl.
Once clean, staying that way is a lifelong effort.
Experts say a heroin addict needs at least three to six months of treatment to have a realistic chance at recovery.
Numerous studies have shown that the relapse rate for heroin users is between 80 percent and 90 percent during the first year of recovery.
While the state's congressional delegation continues to seek funding for treatment, prevention and law enforcement efforts, local groups, including social service providers and educators, have banded together to work on the opioid crisis.
Community Speaks Out, a grass-roots group whose founders have been personally touched by the opioid crisis, has helped get more than 70 people into treatment.
In 12-step meetings, addiction to drugs and alcohol is often described as "cunning, baffling and powerful."
"Once you get caught in it, the drug has such a powerful effect on a person," said Savage, the sober house manager, who is a recovering alcoholic. "People look for that one high for that one moment, then you get caught up and get that feeling like there's no way out."
Recovery is possible, but it's a lot of work, he said.
"It's all up to the individual," Savage said. "I've seen people after 30 years clean turn around and say, 'What the hell. I can do one more.' That's why you have to go day by day. You have to hang around with the right people who are clean and sober."
'I'll probably die'
Brown-haired, blue-eyed, bright and athletically built, Henault realizes he has a future only if he can resist snorting the powder that he said helped him forget everything that caused him pain — including his mother's death — but also took away everything good in his life and made him ashamed to look in the mirror.
"I know if I go out and relapse on heroin again, I'll probably die," he said.
The last time he used heroin, Henault said, he combined it with Xanax, a benzodiazepine. It can be a deadly combination.
Henault says marijuana is different. It helps him cope with depression and anxiety, and he's wondering whether he'll be able to get a prescription for medical marijuana.
In the meantime, the small amount he had smoked a few days earlier had landed him in big trouble.
Before administering the drug test, the house manager took Henault's house keys and gave him a copy of the sober house contract, in which tenants agree to voluntary random urine tests and to vacating the premises if they test positive.
Then Savage handed Henault a plastic specimen cup and sent him into the bathroom.
Nobody was surprised with the results that appeared when Savage dipped the plastic prongs of the test kit into the urine sample. The absence of a red line under the column labeled "THC" — the main psychoactive component in marijuana — indicated Henault had the drug in his system.
Savage, who manages the five privately owned Autumn Oak sober houses in Norwich and works weekends at a halfway house owned by the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, said he tells the recovering residents, "If your attitude don't change, and if your behavior don't change, then your address will."
It wasn't looking good for Henault.
When Johns, a co-founder of Community Speaks Out, learned a day earlier that Henault was in danger of being ejected from the McKinley Avenue home, she left the sober house manager a phone message asking him to let Henault stay.
She told him Community Speaks Out would provide drug screening kits for follow-up tests.
Sitting across the kitchen table from Savage that Friday afternoon, Johns confided that her son, Christopher Johns, had died in a sober house in October 2014.
Johns, who has made herself available to addicts and their families around the clock for the past several months, said her son is working through her as she tries to save lives. Christopher, she said, didn't want to be a drug addict but never got the quality of treatment he needed.
She said she does not want same thing to happen to Henault. Not on her watch.
"There is something about this boy," Johns had said a week earlier after meeting Henault and working with Norwich Human Services to get him into Autumn Oak.
Henault said he had seven years of sobriety before he relapsed a couple of years ago and restarted the 12 steps of recovery.
"Knowing he was sober for over three years, he has the fight in him. If he doesn't get the support, he might end up in an urn," Johns said.
A second chance
In the end, Savage told Henault he could stay at the sober house for at least five weeks. As he returned Henault's keys, he told him he would be re-tested in a couple of weeks and then at the 30-day point, when Henault should be clean.
"Right now you're getting one heck of an opportunity," Savage said.
Savage reminded Henault he would be subject to random searches of his room.
Though the Autumn Oak home does not require residents to take part in any other substance abuse programming, Savage encouraged Henault to attend 12-step meetings and find a sponsor.
Johns, who had run out of housing solutions for Henault, exhaled and thanked Savage.
This past week, she got Henault into counseling and arranged for him to have Vivitrol injections to stem his heroin cravings.
Working with the Norwich social worker "angels," Johns said, she was able to get Henault a free gym membership so that he could begin what he hopes is his return to the personal training and boxing circuit.
Johns said Norwich Human Services, which partners with regional groups to help the homeless and has access to some funds that do not come from city taxpayers, also provided Henault with bus passes and a voucher for a full-sized bed.
Telling his story during a recent interview at his sister's house, Henault said he had gotten involved with the wrong people three years ago and had even ended up selling heroin at one point.
He said he knows he is responsible for his own actions.
He told of a terrible dream he had while using drugs, about his mother, who had died at age 37 in the Warwick, R.I., nightclub fire that claimed 100 lives.
"You could tell she just came out of the fire," he said. "The whole half of her is burned and she said, 'Get your life together.'"
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