Heroin overdoses prompt Montville vigil

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Montville — If you're of a certain age in this small town along the Thames River, you likely know somebody who is addicted to heroin.

"If it's not a friend, if it's not a family member, it's an acquaintance or somebody you knew or went to school with or played sports with," said Elaine Podzaline, 27, who graduated from Montville High School in 2007 and now works at Mohegan Sun.

"If they're not active now, they were active at some point, or they're dead," she said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Community Speaks Out, the Groton-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing opioid addiction, helping those who are using get into treatment and supporting their family members, is holding a candlelight vigil Thursday in a town where the obituaries have included far too many names of people in their 20s and 30s.

The latest untimely death occurred over the weekend, when local resident Daniel Murphy, 31, was found dead in his home on Saturday morning. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is awaiting the results of toxicology tests before ruling on the cause, but town police said they suspect a heroin overdose.

The vigil will begin at 6 p.m. at 601 Norwich-New London Turnpike (Route 32), in the parking lot best known as the location of the now-shuttered Beit Brothers supermarket. Participants from any community are welcome and are asked to bring matches or a lighter for the candles, which will be provided.

Lisa Cote Johns, co-founder of Community Speaks Out, said she's sick of watching people suffer. She said she knows what it feels like, having lost her son, Christopher Johns, to a heroin overdose in October 2014.

"It breaks my heart knowing someone else's mother is going to wake up the way I do every day," Johns said. "It's the first thing that comes to mind when somebody passes away from an overdose. I think about that poor mother and I think about the poor child that suffered."

The purpose of the vigil, she said, is to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of the opioid crisis, erase the stigma of addiction and support families so that they know their loved ones mattered.

"I want to honor those that died, because they weren't bad people like a lot of people think. They were someone's daughter or mother or father. They're the people that have been shunned and looked at like they're bad people or junkies," she said.

Town resident Randy Newman, who will turn 27 in a few days and works at the Rand Whitney Containerboard factory, is sick of going to funerals. Newman said he still is asking himself what he could have done to help prevent the overdose death in September of his cousin, 25-year-old Matthew Bernier. Bernier died two days after arriving home from a 60-day rehabilitation stint.

Two of his close friends, William "Billy" Quidgeon, 24, and Jay Mercer, 25, died of drug overdoses, he said, in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

"You think about them every day," he said. "You miss them every day. You have to try to move on, but there's always a piece of your heart missing. You sit there and think, what could I have done differently? You blame yourself."

Newman, who plans to attend the vigil, said he was shocked to learn recently that addicts who have none of the drug in their system are often told go out and use heroin because they won't be admitted into treatment unless they test positive for heroin.

Podzaline and Newman said when they were in high school, pills and heroin weren't a cool thing to do, and there was very little education about the dangers of opioid addiction.

Podzaline, who has moved back and forth from California a few times over the course of her adult life, said she started noticing in 2009 that her peers were using Oxycontin and Percocet recreationally.

"When I came back from California in 2011, the vast majority of our friends were strung out," she said. "It went from people using them for fun to becoming completely strung out."

She said for a period of time, a strong opioid pill called Opanas became available. When they were no longer available, she started noticing people using heroin.

"It seems like it's reaching younger and younger people now," she said. "Everywhere you go has issues, but it's hitting us very hard here."

The closest friend she lost was Zachary Greenough, a 28-year-old Army veteran who died in December 2015 after overdosing at the VA hospital in West Haven, Podzaline said. But she said it's a small town, and she has been acquainted with, or least known of, several others who died of heroin overdoses.

"Even if you're not close to them, when you hear about your classmates dying at the age of 27, it's going to bother you," she said. "I know it's really difficult for people to feel sympathetic for heroin addicts. There's a lot of different emotions. But at the same time, if we don't have any compassion for these people, if we don't have better treatment, it's not going to get better."

Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel knows that every town is struggling with addiction. He said his own community's problem is broadcast to him via text message every time an ambulance responds to an overdose call and that he wants to do whatever he can to help. McDaniel serves on the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government's opiate task force, which will be releasing a report this week after meeting with people who work in health care, law, education and social services. 

"We just kind of talked to everyone to see what their piece of the pie is so we can focus on this wholistically," McDaniel said. "I think we all recognize that what we are doing is not necessarily working. We can multiply our efforts with what is working and revamp what's not working."

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the cause of death of William "Billy" Quidgeon and Jay Mercer.

What: Vigil organized by Community Speaks Out for those touched by the opioid crisis

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: 601 Norwich-New London Turnpike (Route 32), in the parking lot of the now-shuttered Beit Brothers supermarket

Who: Participants from any community are welcome and are asked to bring matches or a lighter for the candles, which will be provided

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