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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Read an Obituary About the Cultural Cancer of Heroin Addiction

“It’s like a metastatic, cultural cancer -- we went from virtually no intravenous drug use three years ago to now rationing care in a raging, untreated epidemic,” said Mark Publicker, a physician who ran the Mercy Recovery Center, Maine’s largest outpatient drug detox program, until it shut down last month because neither private nor government insurance would pay enough to cover its costs."

(Marc Fisher. "A surge in heroin use overwhelms families, communities in Maine." The Washington Post. August 2, 2015.)

The heroin epidemic in Maine is described as "a metastatic, cultural cancer" -- an invasive, malignant growth being rapidly transported through the blood vessels of countless opiate addicts. There, in a place where deaths from heroin overdoses ballooned from seven in 2010 to 57 last year, victims like 29 year-old David McCarthy, often meet this unsuspecting description: 

"The needle was on the bed, next to him. The spoon was on the nightstand. A crystalline substance glistened in the spoon.... They were kids who had it made, at least on paper. The McCarthys’ rambling farmhouse on U.S. 1, not a quarter-mile from the ocean, had a separate wing for the boys. They called it The Bunkhouse. They had cars, money and plenty of independence, like many teens in Falmouth, a town of 11,000, a place of privilege just across a short bridge from Portland, the state’s largest city."

(Marc Fisher. "A surge in heroin use overwhelms families, communities in Maine." The Washington Post. August 2, 2015.)

How are we to react to such tragedies that result from the heroin epidemic? Perhaps, our first obligation is to read the accounts of the horrible truths. People tend to have so much emotional reaction to the topic of addiction that they prematurely judge addicts based on stereotypes and stigmas. Even a balance of frustration and empathy towards addicts can lead humans toward greater understanding.

Allow me to share the story of Coleen Singer with you today in hopes that her life may bring you closer to the struggles, misfortune, wrongdoings, and lost dreams of a young addict from Maine.

Coleen Sheran Singer died from a heroin overdose on Christmas, 2014. Brent Singer, her ex-husband and friend until she died, decided someone should write her story in her obituary. Singer, a Bangor attorney, thought a simple “she died suddenly,” like so many obituaries gloss over addiction and death, wouldn’t do.

“I did it for Coleen,” Singer told, “because I thought she deserved to have an obituary.”
The 900-word piece tells of her early life, her struggles, her highlights, her years of sobriety and moments of relapse. It tells of her complicated life -- she could be endlessly giving yet a liar and a thief.

Here’s the obituary in its entirety, as it appeared in the Bangor Daily News on July 30. Singer gave permission to republish the obituary.

Coleen Sheran Singer

"Coleen Sheran Singer (born Coleen Sheran Clark) would have turned 33 this August 31, but she died in Lewiston in an unsuspecting suburban professional couple’s home of a heroin overdose on the morning of December 25, 2014.

"She was a victim of herself, of LePage’s politics, of our society’s continuing ignorance and indifference to mental illness, and of our society’s asinine approach to drug addiction. Born in Biddeford and raised near OOB, Coleen lived the last three years of her life mostly as a transient in the Bangor area with increasing problems with infections in her limbs, a lack of MaineCare to pay for antibiotics outside the hospital, and escalating problems with the law following misdemeanor illegal drug possession convictions, failures to appear and a 2009 conviction for solicitation of prostitution.

"Coleen’s father left when she was younger than two. Coleen’s mother doted on Coleen when she was a child and made a good home for her, but barely eked out a living working long hours cleaning houses and motel rooms. Coleen’s mother was abused as a child in foster care out-of-state, had zero family support in Maine, and struggled at times with drug issues of her own.

"Though Coleen dropped out of high school, she was intellectually gifted and artistically talented, quick to grasp complicated legal and philosophical concepts. She had near perfect facial recognition and could glance at a person and know his or her clothing sizes to a T.

"While Coleen was capable of great compassion and would give the shirt off her back to one less fortunate, she was also at times a con artist, thief, and liar. Though Coleen presented herself with great panache among friends, she could be painfully shy and insecure in what many would consider 'normal society.'

"Apart from her drug addictions – or more likely much of the reason for them – Coleen suffered from serious borderline personality disorder. Unless you knew her well over a good length of time, you would not know. Beset by affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood, an unstable sense of self, impulsivity, and a pattern of intense but unstable interpersonal relations, Coleen flashed amazing smiles, but lived an inner life where she often felt intense emptiness, loneliness, and depression.

"By the time she was 18, Coleen was injecting opiates, crack, and various forms of amphetamines, while also abusing alcohol and other drugs. Coleen met her one and only husband and the only consistent male figure in her life (other than an older half-brother) when she was 22 and she had just started what turned out to be her longest, most successful time in recovery.

"The marriage was very brief, a couple years into Coleen’s recovery, but they remained dear friends until the day she died. For nearly four years Coleen was in methadone clinics and dedicated herself to sobriety. Taking to heart the adage that “without drugs, anything is possible,” and with the sometimes slavish devotion of the man she briefly married, Coleen earned her driver’s license, went to the gym regularly, completed nail tech school, worked successfully both part time in retail sales and full time caring for disabled adults, and enrolled in community college.

"But in the end Coleen’s untreated personality disorder and addictions prevailed. In later years, after LePage removed poor adults from MaineCare, Coleen could not afford the methadone clinic. Heroin was the cheapest way to avoid going into withdrawal. For readers without loved ones who are opiate addicts, you cannot imagine how powerful and difficult is that disease.

"The author of this obituary, who grew up comfortably removed from such things, thought he was educated but had no idea. Addicts shoot up to avoid being deathly ill and because the disease heightens also the psychological desire for the drug and the needle. Real addicts rarely manage to get high -- they just scratch and claw everyday to avoid dope sickness.

"Coleen wanted to get back into a methadone clinic, but LePage and enough Republicans in the Legislature said 'No' to the Medicaid expansion. It is no stretch to say that but for LePage’s veto of the Medicaid expansion, Coleen probably would not have shot the heroin that ended her life, and probably would not have had the serious recurring infections that ravaged her limbs the last couple years.

"That is not to say Coleen would be living happily ever after, since there were other significant problems. While in recovery, Coleen travelled extensively and did many wonderful things. She was particularly fond of an avant-garde theater in Washington, D.C. called the Woolly Mammoth.

"Coleen loved to pick flowers, shop for jeans, dance, work with crafts, and drink medium ice coffees with eight creams and eight equals (formerly eight creams, eight skim, and eight equals, until she started drinking “more coffee”).

"Coleen is survived by her dedicated mother, her very saddened older half-brother, a few women with whom at various times she maintained special relationships, numerous boyfriends who seemed to come and go, one boyfriend in particular named Les who among them was more special to her than the others, a few other older men along the way who genuinely tried to care for her, 100’s of acquaintances in this area, her adorable Chihuahua named Squeak, and the author of this obituary whose life was made more difficult, but also much better for having known her.

"Coleen, rest in peace."

(Allison Manning. "A heartbreaking obituary rips Maine governor’s drug policy." Boston Globe Media Partners. July 31, 2015.)

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, initially declined to provide a comment to the press about Singer’s obituary and its comments about Governor LePage.

Instead, she forwarded an email exchange between LePage’s director of communications, Peter Steele, and Tony Ronzio, director of news and audience for the Bangor Daily News.

Steele chastised the news organization for running the obituary, which he said bordered on libel.

Ronzio defended publishing the piece.

“Obituaries are vetted for accuracy, clarity, spelling, grammar, punctuation,” he wrote. “I do agree, this particular obituary is untraditional. But it is still an obituary. If any obituary contained outright falsehoods or libelous statements, it would not appear. This one had neither.”

(Eric Russell. Maine woman’s obituary highlights loved ones’ efforts to raise awareness of heroin addiction. Portland Press Herald. July 30, 2015)

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