BRATTLEBORO — The lilacs on Susan Avery’s dining room table look perfect at first. The dainty flowers form a puffy cloud of mauve, casting an almost imperceptible perfume about the sunny room. But look closer, and you’ll see them — imperfect little petals whose crumpled edges are beginning to mummify.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Avery asks, training her eyes on the bouquet.
At 71, Avery, a slight, soft-spoken woman, looks almost as delicate as the flowers on her table. Her calm, open demeanor radiates a sense of peace that is at odds with the turmoil she’s endured.
Spend any time with the Brattleboro native, and you’ll see: Avery is stronger than she looks.
It began in 1998, when a loved one came to her for help.
“You’ve got to help me. I’m in trouble. I’ve been using heroin,” Avery said the loved one told her.
Avery, ever pragmatic, started making plans: Her relative was a single mother with young children, and they needed a temporary home while she got help. They’d live with Avery and her then-husband for the time being. Avery drove her to the now-defunct Beech Hill Hospital in Dublin for treatment. It’d be a one and done deal, she thought then. Her loved one would get clean, take the children back, and life would resume as it always had. But it didn’t.
“Put one drug into your life, (and) your life as you know it no longer exists,” Avery said.
She isn’t alone in her experiences, as the nation grapples with the worst drug addiction crisis in decades. Opioid overdoses killed roughly 42,000 people nationwide in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Hampshire is among the hardest-hit states, ranking third in the nation in overdose death rates per capita after West Virginia and Ohio.
But the impact of the epidemic transcends those who use drugs — it cascades to friends and family who often get a front-row seat to the damage and despair. Avery has been watching her loved one struggle for 20 years.
The children never lived with their mother again. It was Avery who raised them.
“My life at age 51 was interrupted, and it ended, and this new door opened,” she said, with an incredulous laugh.
The logistics of her new life were initially complicated by geography, Avery said. The children lived in another town, and Avery lived in Brattleboro and worked at United Natural Foods in Chesterfield. Her then-husband worked in Putney. Soon, the children moved to Brattleboro, and Avery retired.
A year into that new life, Avery discovered Nar-Anon Family Groups, a 12-step program for people whose loved ones have substance use disorders. With its roots in California in the early 1970s, Nar-Anon operates much like other 12-step groups, offering support from peers who have had similar experiences. The organization now has 44 active support groups nationwide, but back then, Avery couldn’t find a Nar-Anon group in Brattleboro.
She decided to start one. No one came to the first meeting she organized, but eventually, through word of mouth, fliers and newspaper ads, people started trickling in. Soon, five or six regulars would show up to the weekly meetings. They were parents whose children were addicted to drugs.
In the groups, people work through their feelings — the guilt, shame and helplessness that comes from witnessing someone they love unravel.
Helplessness, Avery said, is the most common feeling parents bring to the group: They tell her they understand the steps of recovery, but don’t know how to help their child get there.
Avery started a second group in Keene almost four years ago — the only Nar-Anon Family Group in the Monadnock Region, according to the Nar-Anon meetings database. That first meeting in Keene drew more than 30 people, Avery said.
Jennifer Heald was one of the people who showed up to that first meeting, along with her husband. By that point, Heald knew and understood Nar-Anon. The Swanzey resident had been to the Brattleboro group before, seeking support after her son became addicted to heroin. Her life turned upside down. For all the help that Heald gave her son, she felt like a bystander.
“It forever affects you, whether your child survives or doesn’t,” she said.
Heald’s son didn’t.
Before he became addicted to opioids, Dan Rounds was a 20-something who loved the outdoors. He hunted, fished and skied. Heald said her son became addicted to prescription narcotics after hurting his back in a skiing accident when he was 21 or 22. He transitioned to heroin after his doctor stopped prescribing him the painkillers, she said.
At weekly groups, Heald worked through her feelings, processing the helplessness, the fear and the pain with people whose own loved ones were gripped by addiction.
“It was just total, unconditional support,” she said. “There’s no judgment. You can go there, and you can speak freely. You can share as much as you want to share or as little as you want to share.”
Rounds overdosed at home, waiting for a spot to open at the Brattleboro Retreat, Heald said. He died just before his 26th birthday.
Avery’s loved one continues to struggle, but the children she raised are thriving. Another relative, who she said is addicted to cocaine, is taking the first steps in sobriety.
In the meantime, Avery has coped with the lack of control she has over others’ health.
“The support for me is being at the other end of the phone and saying hello; it’s not that I’m going to throw money at it,” Avery said. “But I’m going to be the voice of someone they know and love, and when I don’t get those phone calls it’s concerning, but I can’t let it devastate me, because I have other roles to play … and that’s about as good as it can be.”
The Brattleboro Nar-Anon group meets Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at meeting room B in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. The Keene group meets Thursdays at 7 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church.