Opioid-affected families are learning to cope
TAUNTON — Joanne Peterson has attended more than 100 funerals for opioid victims, and she long ago learned the words to all the songs she hears at the services. But she no longer attends the wakes.
“I could not look at another young person in a casket,” Peterson said. “There are some days when I just start crying.”
The toll is understandable. Week after week, month after month, year after year for more than a decade, Peterson has been the grass-roots face of the fight to stem the opioid epidemic that is killing an average of four people a day in Massachusetts.
She is the founder of Learn to Cope, a support group for families that have been affected by opioid addiction. From simple beginnings in 2004, the group now has 23 chapters in Massachusetts and nearly 9,000 members who turn to its website for empathy and advice.
But as the nonprofit organization has grown — Learn to Cope has chapters in four other states — so has the problem. And no one in hard-hit Massachusetts might be closer to the tragedy than Peterson, whose now-sober son struggled with heroin addiction.
She is sought out by power brokers and the powerless. Governor Charlie Baker sought her input on legislation to fight the crisis. She attended the 2015 State of the Union Address as a guest of US Senator Edward J. Markey. And she spoke on Wednesday at a Capitol Hill briefing on the misuse of opioid medication.
But the grunt work — sometimes 80 grinding hours a week — is what defines her.
Ringing telephones are the recurring soundtrack at her office on Taunton Green, where desperate parents, spouses, siblings, and lovers turn for help. Obituaries of opioid victims cover a bulletin board. Beside them, the photo of a young man surrounded by his smiling family reminds Peterson why she began a campaign that has no end in sight.
That young man is her son, whose descent into heroin abuse 15 years ago pushed Peterson into a nightmarish place she had not known existed. Along the way, she discovered she was not alone. And that discovery lit the spark for a mission to help others who feel hopeless.
“This was never, to me, a ‘program.’ This is just what I do,” Peterson said.
Her commitment was evident recently at a Dorchester union hall, where Peterson led a Learn to Cope session attended by 18 people in a spare, starkly furnished conference room.
Sarah O’Brien, a 30-year-old mother from Whitman, told of her life-shattering addiction to heroin, and about the harrowing journey that led to recovery. Her father, retired Holbrook fire chief Eddie O’Brien, listened in rapt silence.
Afterward, he embraced Peterson. “Keep up the great work,” O’Brien said.
Baker, in a recent interview, called the creation of Learn to Cope “a seminal event” in the struggle against opioid addiction.
“I’ve been to a couple of meetings. It’s incredibly powerful,” Baker said after an opioid forum in Boston sponsored by William James College. Peterson, he added, “is paying it forward in a way that is quite courageous.”
That courage sprang from an improbable journey that began in 2002, when Peterson learned that her teenage son was addicted to heroin. She contemplated suicide, found many support meetings unproductive, and began trading bewildered e-mails with other parents adrift in hell.
She was reluctant, as many others were, to acknowledge publicly that opioids had ravaged her family. As a result, Peterson used “learn to cope” instead of her name in her e-mail address.
“Back in those days, you didn’t reach out. You just suffered,” said Peterson, 50, who lives in Raynham. “Nothing drives me crazier than when I hear it called a ‘new’ epidemic.”
The group’s first session was held at Randolph High School, which former Norfolk district attorney William Keating, now a congressman, attended to show his support. The more that Peterson spoke with distraught parents, the wider the circle grew.
“I was able to get my dignity back, knowing that I’m not the only one. It empowered me,” Peterson said.
She remains close to the parents with whom she shared so much heartache at the beginning. They call themselves “the porch girls,” because they rotated their therapeutic get-togethers among their homes.
For more than three years, Peterson worked a full-time job while devoting her personal time to Learn to Cope. State officials noticed the organization, and she received a $100,000 grant in 2007. Last year, the group received $500,000 from the state Department of Public Health, which has made opioid prevention and treatment a priority.
Michael Botticelli, the White House director of National Drug Control Policy, also has noticed.
“Joanne’s tireless efforts have helped so many parents and families whose lives have been impacted by the opioid epidemic,” Botticelli said. “By joining together and sharing their stories, Joanne and parents like her are also playing key roles in helping shape government policies to prevent and treat substance-use disorders.”
It’s hard work, however, and the strain and the hours have mounted.
“Some days, I don’t know if I want to do it. I’m tired,” she said. “I don’t know where the stamina comes from.”
Whatever its source, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, a leader in the opioid struggle, has seen the benefits.
“Joanne is a hero,” Campanello said. “When you find the courage to attend one of these meetings, you immediately feel less of the stigma, and that allows you to have a voice. And if you have a voice, you can feel good about educating others.”
Peterson knows that feeling, and she has no plans to stop spreading it. But amid the 80-hour weeks, the tears, and the deaths, Peterson knows she must make time for herself. Recently, she went dancing with the porch girls.
There’s also this: “I’m buying a paddleboard this year,” she said.