Jake White is quick to point out that he’s no fan of politicians.
The recovery coach at the Keene Serenity Center, which is now on Mechanic Street, said he’d assumed the congresswoman scheduled to visit Friday would just pay fly-by lip service to the addiction-treatment program.
But within five minutes of sitting across from U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster in a circle of couches and chairs, he said he couldn’t help but change his mind.
“When she revealed stuff about her personal life, that opened the door for me,” White told The Sentinel Friday.
Kuster talked about her brother, Donald McLane, who she said became addicted to opioids after undergoing surgery a few years back.
Much of the New Hampshire Democrat’s story resonated among the dozen or so gathered in the circle, either personally or for a loved one.
It started with just a prescription to OxyContin.
Then a second oxycodone prescription, just for the short term, until Kuster said she kept hearing her brother say his pain was at a six out of 10 during checkups.
Eventually, Donald got treatment, and Kuster told the group he had no qualms about giving her permission to share his story. Despite whatever stigma some may hold, Kuster said, addiction is “an equal opportunity illness.”
In recounting the resistance to expanding funding for treatment that she has heard from lawmakers in Washington and some constituents, Kuster kept comparing addiction to other illnesses, asking whether someone would make a similar moral judgment about a patient with epilepsy or diabetes.
By that point, there was no proverbial ice left to break, and White shared his story of recovery, followed by others sitting beside him.
“I’m one of my only friends left,” said White, now five years sober.
The Keene resident, who was formerly incarcerated, said he was unable to get treatment as an inmate until just a few weeks ahead of his release.
“You can’t heal a lifetime of destruction in 28 days,” Nancy Gehrung, a recovery coach at the Serenity Center and with Granite Pathways, added as White and Kuster discussed the need to improve recovery programs both behind bars and during re-entry.
Sarah Allen, a Marlborough native in recovery, asked Kuster about models in the private sector that could grow with government support, and was joined by others in a fluid policy discussion with the congresswoman.
As part of that exchange, Kuster, the founder and co-chairwoman of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, talked about not only legislation she has introduced — such as a bill that would require pharmaceutical companies to print warnings about potentially addictive qualities of medications they sell — but also the future of the opioid crisis.
With fentanyl having overtaken less potent opioid painkillers and heroin as the deadliest and most common agent in New Hampshire overdoses, Kuster outlined how addressing synthetic opioids should be a priority for Congress.
Workforce development is also part of the equation, according to Kuster, who said people in recovery shouldn’t be overlooked as companies search for skilled employees.
“Our unemployment rate is incredibly low in New Hampshire, and every visit that I have to any kind of company of any size, they’re like, ‘How do you get more workers? We need people to do the jobs,’ ” Kuster told the group. “I have so many meetings right around here in Keene about workforce development and how we’re going to get people to move to Keene — and it’s like, OK, there are people right here, right now.”
White, Allen and others agreed, explaining to Kuster the barriers they have encountered in finding a job while in recovery.
Philip Rondeau, a field organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union and manager of the Prospect House for sober living in Keene, told Kuster about his drivers license being suspended when he could not pay court fees, further encumbering his ability to find employment in recovery.
Kuster listened, and told Rondeau she wants to do as much as possible to level those hurdles.
White, who is pursuing a degree in addiction studies at Southern New Hampshire University, suggested a loan forgiveness program for those in recovery.
Gehrung suggested a coordinated media campaign to destigmatize substance use disorders.
Before Kuster headed to Keene State College for the inauguration of President Melinda Treadwell followed by a visit to Maps Counseling Services, she was given a tour of the Serenity Center’s new facility by Executive Director Jocelyn Goldblatt. The center features a kitchen, sliding wall partitions and other amenities to optimize comfort and privacy in recovery, and anyone who walks into the center can pick up a toiletry kit and clean clothes from a cubby by the entrance.
The center also has Narcan, a fast-acting agent to counter overdoses, along with sealable envelopes for drugs and paraphernalia to be safely disposed of.
Shortly after Kuster said goodbye, White said he was impressed with how sincere and heartfelt the congresswoman was.