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Road to the methadone clinic an all-consuming addiction, by John McGauley

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Its name is the Keene Metro Clinic but everybody calls it the methadone clinic where addicts get treatment. Its owners want to move it from the Swanzey/Winchester town line to Keene, so it’s easier for people to get there.

This column isn’t about the wisdom of such a move — that’s up to the Keene Planning Board.

I want to talk about the addicts who go there.

It’s something I know about first-hand because for two years I drove the medical transportation van for the local Red Cross chapter and frequently took people there. I only drove one or two days a week — there were other Red Cross volunteer drivers doing the same thing — and we took a lot of people to appointments at many medical facilities in the region.

The methadone passengers didn’t have any other ways to get to the clinic. And, the ride was free. The Red Cross ended its transportation service four years ago, but my time driving people to the place is indelibly etched in my mind.

We drove them in the early morning because the clinic was open early and we wanted to get that job done before we picked up other people for later medical appointments. Needless to say, because of the early hour and the specific physiological characteristics of the addicts, it wasn’t the cheeriest crowd. In fact, it was often a sullen, somber and quiet ride. After their dosing at the clinic, they were more talkative. And because I frequently drove the same people, I got to know them fairly well, a few very well. I asked a lot of questions about their lives and carefully listened to their answers.

I found out that almost to a person they began their hard drug use at about 18 years old, and it was usually at a party where someone suggested they take a try. That’s how it started, innocuously.

Then — pooffff! — they were users. Then, addicts.

The passengers were men and women, with an age range from 17 to 60. Almost all of them smoked cigarettes, although it wasn’t allowed in the van. I’d watch them snuff a smoke out right before I picked them up or light up as soon as they left the vehicle. Occasionally, they’d ask me to stop so they could buy cigarettes at Market Basket or Jake’s Five Star and I’d oblige, although that was against the Red Cross rules. My feeling was what the hell, with all their problems, smoking was the least of them. There was one guy who frequently bought beer along with his cigarettes. I couldn’t stop him, nor would I.

Their lives were a complex matrix of problems that they expounded upon — spotty employment in dead-end jobs, chaotic personal finances, brushes with the law, prison sentences, estrangement from families, suicide attempts, close brushes with death from overdoses and many medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, poor circulation and premature aging. Many of them were alcoholics, too. No one looked healthy. More than a few of the people I drove then are now dead and I recall their faces so well, along with the conversations we had.

They weren’t bad people, nor did they come from “bad” families. Their lives simply evolved into bleak existences that revolved solely around drug use.

They often spoke of being “dope sick,” which is a term addicts use when withdrawal symptoms start and, according to them, it’s a miserable feeling that they’d do anything – take anything – to alleviate. They also frequently noted that those who aren’t addicts know nothing about the reality of the life of an addict – and that includes the doctors, counselors and cops. Many of them admitted that they often backslid and used street drugs. One guy told me he’d rob anyone, do anything, to get his fix.

They didn’t go to the methadone clinic to get high, just to feel normal, they said.

Methadone, even though it’s safer than some other narcotics, can lead to addiction or abuse. The drug blocks the high from other drugs like codeine, heroin, hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone and it can give a similar feeling and keep a person from having withdrawal symptoms and cravings. It’s sometimes referred to as “replacement therapy.”

It’s usually just one part of a treatment plan, along with counseling and behavioral therapy. Medical experts emphasize that it isn’t a cure for addiction.

My passengers told me they participated in the counseling and therapy part of the treatment only because it was required, not because it helped them. They just wanted the drug.

The theory behind methadone is that dosage amounts are stair-stepped down to an eventual point that none is needed. Critics say addicts stay on methadone forever. The people I drove never got to the point where they no longer needed the drug.

Because of my driving job, I had to spend a lot of time waiting at the clinic.

The parking lot would get crowded as people came and went. The clientele was primarily young people, say from teens to about late 30s, maybe into their 40s. Most of the cars were old and shabby. Some of the clientele wore pajamas and flip-flops. And, some of the young women had babies with them, left in car seats watched over by either a friend or relative who had driven them.

These aren’t stereotypes — this is what I saw.

Once I wrote in a column that if Keene residents wanted to see firsthand what the scourge of drugs does to a community, spend a half hour in the methadone clinic parking lot. This is where it is all on display.

It was a lot to digest for me, but I eventually squared the circle in my thinking by coming to the conclusion that we’re all God’s creatures and some of us are lucky and some of us are not.

John McGauley, an author and local radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at

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