One morning in early 2004 I woke before dawn. I walked to the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. I was standing next to the kitchen table, staring out the large, old kitchen window when I got a phone call I will never forget. It was my mom. She was crying and had to take a minute to pull herself together. All she could manage to get out was, “Ben’s dead.”
Ben was one of my best friends in high school. We had met at a party he threw my sophomore year, and we quickly became friends. When my family had some trouble, Ben’s let me stay with them for as long as I needed. He was one of the smartest people I’d ever met. He was our Ferris Bueller. I often think about the time we spent an entire summer at a local arcade winning hundreds of plastic swords and organizing a late night battle near the Dunkin Donuts. Or the time we floated his parent’s Rubbermaid shed in the pool until it fell apart. Or time he stole the back seat out of my car and hid it on a fire escape behind the local window shade company. It took me all night to find it.
Ben floundered after high school. He had a job working at Hannaford, and he started school at as a computer science major at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. My freshman year I was supposed to share a dorm room with him, and my backing out may have saved my life. It was around that time when Ben’s soft drug use, a near constant in the time that I’d known him, became hard and problematic.
Ben spent most of the next decade in and out of school, working and not working, living with his parents and making music until 3 or 4 in the morning. He tried taking the steps to sobriety, and sometimes they worked. But sometimes they didn’t. He did a stint in a halfway house. He really seemed to be getting his life together. Then he relapsed, got some bad stuff, and just like that he was gone.
Ben isn’t the only person I know who has battled addiction, but he is the first person I ever knew who died from this disease. Last year, 378 people in Maine died from drug overdoses. That’s around 750 parents in our state who have lost children. The same year, the state failed to rally the political will to pass meaningful legislation to combat the opioid epidemic sweeping through our state.
We need innovative approaches like the Hub and Spoke treatment model — which connects people to medication-assisted treatment, mental health treatment and placement — that Vermont uses. Every police department in Maine needs the freedom to create programs that connect people to treatment for their addictions rather than arrest them, like the one started in Gloucester, Massachusetts. We need every person with an addiction to know that if they want to get clean we will find a way to help them. We need to increase investment in recovery centers and methadone clinics. We need to guarantee that no one who calls for help is arrested when a friend is dying of an overdose. We need sustainable job growth in rural Maine so people know they have something to look forward to in life.
People who run for office can’t make anyone with an addiction want to get clean, but we can make sure there is treatment available for those who do. I still think about Ben every time I read about the opioid epidemic that’s ravaging Maine. Running for Congress as an outsider is a very tough thing to do, but I feel motivated every time I think of Ben’s mom and all the other moms who will spend their lives thinking about what could have been. Moms who dream about a future that was ripped from them. Moms who will cry themselves to sleep every night for the rest of their lives.
Our lack of action is unacceptable. As a society we should do better.
As a state, we must do better.
Tim Rich is a Democratic candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. He is the owner of The Independent Cafe in Bar Harbor. He lives on Mount Desert Island.