NEW BRITAIN – Annette Diaz recalled the night more than a decade ago when her infant son was in his car seat as she drove to buy drugs to feed her opioid addiction.
“I didn’t think about my child,” the 37-year-old told the crowd of about 175 Thursday evening who had gathered at the New Britain Museum of American Art. “I always told myself my son was safe because he was with my mother.”
More than 10 years later as she discussed her addiction and recovery during a community forum on women and opioid use hosted by the Connecticut Health I-Team, Diaz admitted she had to work through the shame of that moment after she became sober following a stint in prison.
It’s not an uncommon story as the number of women who are becoming addicted to opioids is rising faster than men, according to the findings uncovered by the C-Hit, a non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth coverage of health and safety issues in the state.
Their investigation into women’s health and the barriers to opioid treatment led to Thursday’s public forum “Working Women: The New Face of Addiction,” featuring a panel discussion with Diaz, former state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer, and treatment providers Judith Stronger and Jessica Smith from the Plainville-based Wheeler Clinic. The discussion was moderated by Angela Carter, a senior web producer and metrics specialist for the New Haven Register.
The well-attended forum drew service providers and community members from all walks of life including a federal probation officer and staff from the state’s Judical Branch Court Support Services Division which oversees treatment options for defendants.
“We saw the numbers coming out of the medical examiner’s office,” said award-winning veteran journalist Lisa Chedekel, who founded C-HIT with Lynne DeLucia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former managing editor for the Hartford Courant. “Women were the fastest growing group.”
Although about 75 percent of those who fatally overdose in Connecticut are male, the number of females who are dying has steadily risen. C-HIT reported that the Center for Disease Control found that nationally 3,300 women per day are initiating opioid use – a rate 25 percent higher than men. In Connecticut, 423 women died of overdoses in 2015 and 2016.
Families dealing with addiction often feel alone and are discriminated against, Rehmer said. When a neighbor or friend has cancer, people will jump into help. “But when you hear someone is addicted to heroin, no one is bringing you a casserole,” she pointed out.
The problem is two-fold for women, the panelists agreed. Women are more likely to seek treatment for chronic pain and more likely to receive a longer dose of prescription opioids than men, making them vulnerable to addiction, said Stronger, Wheeler’s vice president of Prevention, Wellness and Recovery. “The amount of time it takes to get dependent is less for women than men,” she said.
At the same time, women are the caretakers of the family, said Smith, Wheeler’s senior director of Adult Outpatient Services. Going into treatment disrupts the pattern of caretaking and women fear they will lose custody of their children if they admit they have a problem, she said.
Fifty-five to 90 percent of women who enter treatment have a history of trauma, Smith said. “Trauma impacts every area of a woman’s functioning,” she added. Women need a gender responsive, multi-faceted approach to treatment that not only focuses on addiction, but their medical and behavioral health issues, Smith said.
Diaz, who provides peer counseling and has worked in a variety of roles for Community Health Resources since 2010, offered a perspective of hope. Recovery is about living, having fun and finding the richness that life has to offer, she said. Her son, now 13, was 19 months old when she went to prison a decade ago. She commented that it feels like she’s a cheerleader, providing a happy face and song and dance to those who are seeking peer support.
“I do it every single interaction” Diaz said. “I believe it because it saved my life. I feel like if it worked for me, it will work for someone else.”
Those seeking information on opioid treatment can call Wheeler Clinic at 888-793-3500 or visit wheelerclinic.org.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@newbritainherald.com.