Reviewed by Tena Starr
Unstitched, by Brett Ann Stanciu. Paperback, 197 pages. Published by Steer Forth Press. $15.
When a local man repeatedly breaks into the Woodbury Library, where Brett Ann Stanciu is librarian, she goes to some lengths to get him arrested. He’s rumored to be a drug addict, and Ms. Stanciu finds $20 in petty cash missing, along with, one day, a dollar handed in as penalty for an overdue book.
Who, she wonders, steals a dollar from a library?
The money isn’t a big deal, but she’s plagued by the invasiveness. She can tell when he’s broken in by the smell of cigarette smoke that greets her in the morning. She sets up a game camera and does catch the man on film, but for reasons she never figures out, charges against him are not pursued.
Then, a trustee catches him in the library and tells him she’s calling 911. The man runs home and shoots himself.
His death combined with a request that she, as librarian, carry Narcan — an antidote to opiate overdoses — and learn how to administer it, sets Ms. Stanciu on a quest. What could she have done differently? Did she see the man only as a burglar and an addict? Should she have looked beyond to see the whole of the person? And what does she know about opiate addiction?
This is a work, largely, of nonfiction, and Ms. Stanciu’s journey leads her to conversations with addicts, with recovery workers, with the Hardwick police chief, and with former U.S. State’s Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan.
What’s odd about the book is that, at the start of her journey, Ms. Stanciu appeared to be the last remaining person in the country to grasp that there is, indeed, an opiate crisis — and it’s been here for a very long time.
The result is a book that’s something of a primer on opiate addiction.
She tells us that addiction is now largely regarded as a disease, not a moral failing, that too many people were prescribed too many pills for pain relief, leading to inadvertent addiction — young people maybe suffering a painful sports injury, who trusted their doctors. When pills dried up, or got too expensive, people turned to heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic and dangerous opiate. She notes that an expensive habit can lead to burglary and theft.
Despite her apparent, and surprising, lack of knowledge about a problem the nation has been grappling with for years, one that has transformed society as we used to know it, affected how families, communities, and schools function, Ms. Stanciu has written a book that’s worth reading. Her curiosity, her efforts to understand, and maybe her benign status as a librarian, led people to open up to her.
Who develops an addiction and why? she asks. And how did we get here, to a place where opiate addiction is almost commonplace, altering family structure and responsibility, turning rural communities into places where people now worry about home and car break-ins and theft, where teachers have turned into social workers dealing with feral children, where even a librarian can feel threatened in her workplace?
She talks to people who took to opioids in part, as a result of trauma-wracked lives, to people who became addicted through no fault of their own. She talks to law enforcement.
And she talks to Sam, a recovering addict from a middle, or upper-middle class family, who took to drugs basically because they’re fun.
To Sam, Ms. Stanciu says she’d acquired interest in opiate addiction after hearing that the library burglar was an addict.
“If you heard he was using, he probably was,” Sam tells her.
“I know. But after he died, I realized I had let the rumors scare me away from trying to help him. I began to wonder whether I might have acted differently if I had known more about opioid abuse, as opposed to acting from fear.”
Sam urges her to not blame herself for the man’s death, and she says she doesn’t.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” she says. “I should have treated this man better. Instead, I put all my energy into getting him arrested. I just wanted him out of the library and out of my way.”
Sam’s parents were white collar professionals; he wasn’t a struggling kid. He didn’t suffer an injury that led to a prescription.
“A lot of people assume addiction always has sinister roots, like childhood trauma, mental illness, or overprescribed opioids after a surgery or injury,” Sam says. “But when I started, drugs were just fun for me. That’s what’s so scary about opioids — it’s so easy to start using, but nearly impossible to stop.”
Pills were everywhere, he said. Everyone’s mother and grandmother had them, but eventually that supply dried up as the medical profession got more cautious. That’s when he turned to heroin. With a habit that cost $200 a day, he became a dealer. It was only when a friend called and said he was on law enforcements’ radar that he quit and enrolled in a MAT (medication assisted treatment) program.
What he’s talking about is giving addicts suboxone or methadone to help them ease off street drugs and gradually recover.
“How did MAT go for you?” Ms. Stanciu asks. “I’ve heard grumbling about that program. Some people say it swaps one addiction for another, or that it’s too easy.”
“Anyone who says that doesn’t understand how difficult addiction is,” Sam tells her. “My body and my life were consumed by the need for drugs. From the moment I woke up in the morning, I was focused on where that next high was going to come from. To get better, I had to physically detox from drugs, but I also had to redefine health. The MAT program gave me the space for my body to regain health.”
Ms. Stanciu’s question and Sam’s reply are a vital part of the discussion, since she is, indeed, correct in thinking there’s public skepticism of MAT programs — to the extent that there is often community resistance to establishing clinics.
Pressing him on his efforts at sobriety, Ms. Stanciu asks if there were factors beyond fear of jail.
“… the thing is, I wouldn’t have been as worried about going to prison if my parents wouldn’t have had to experience it as well,” Sam says. “What if it was just me and a mom who didn’t really care, and a dad who’s maybe in jail or not around? I didn’t care if I felt bad, but I definitely did not want my parents to suffer.”
Perhaps the most heartbreaking story in this book involves the Tatro family, who lost their daughter Jenna to an overdose. Dawn Tatro comes off as a fierce advocate for their daughter, who came to addiction through a 30-day prescription, with a refill, for OxyContin and, according to her mother, a doctor’s orders to take as needed.
“When she told me she was using heroin, I was like, Jenna — heroin? I was terrified,” Ms. Tatro says.
Desperate for help, she began attending meetings at a recovery center. “I was so ashamed when I walked in that meeting and admitted my daughter was a heroin addict,” she told Ms. Stanciu. “But you know what? Those people were just like me. We were all struggling.
“In my experience, people have reason to hide their addiction. There’s such a harsh judgment levied against anyone who struggles with an addiction. And against that person’s family.”
Jenna struggled with addiction for six years, going to rehab about 20 times, Dawn says. But she’d got herself hooked up with a gang from Springfield, Massachusetts, was running drugs for them, and they were reluctant to set her free since she knew too much.
In the end, it looked like Jenna had done a 180 at the latest rehab center and was on her way, finally, to recovery. But following a brief, but complicated and dangerous series of events, she relapsed, and her father found her unconscious in her bedroom. The family believes the drug she took, a particularly potent fentanyl, reached her deliberately.
Jenna had a vision that her parents followed up on. The Tatros bought an empty church in Johnson and turned it into a community center for people in recovery,
“We began Jenna’s Promise in 2019 after the tragic loss of our daughter to substance use disorder,” the website says. “Jenna, ourselves, and her brother, experienced first-hand the emotions, trauma, sorrow, and emptiness that so often occurs at every level of the ongoing struggle against the opioid crisis.
“So, instead of succumbing to despair or hopelessness, we have decided to turn instead to hope. Inspired by our daughter’s spirit and her desire to help, we have decided to commit ourselves to a greater cause to honor her memory. Thus, the Tatro family is proud to introduce Jenna’s Promise, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of substance use prevention. It will endeavor to help organizations which use evidence-based methods to help people that are suffering from substance use disorder as well as assisting their families through the treatment and wellness process.”
Opiate addiction, once seen as an inner-city problem, nothing to do with places like rural Vermont, is here and has been for a long time. Ms. Stanciu’s book doesn’t get much to root causes, though it does touch on how lack of resources — both financial and in the way of support — can hinder a person’s chances of recovery.
She departs with a message of hope and compassion.
“This book makes no claim to offer any formula for a way out,” she writes. “It’s impossible not to acknowledge the bitter despair of addiction and the merciless reality that some sufferers never elude its bonds; that the requisite pound of flesh so often paid for escape becomes an entire body of flesh; that for every person like Meg, who emerged from the darkness of addiction to help others, an early grave claims another. In the battle against addiction, there are clear advantages, including affluence, race, and education. But the murkiness of luck, or perhaps the fickleness of fate, has its role, too.
“As I finish writing this book, I wish I could testify that today I joyfully greet strangers. I don’t. I’m cautious and careful …. But what has changed is this: When I encounter behavior that puzzles or troubles me, I’ve learned to pause and inquire, Why? What’s the larger story here?”