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In Newmarket, 'Heroin Anonymous' Part of Community Approach to Epidemic

Michael Brindley for NHPR

Alcoholics Anonymous has become a well-known part of recovery, but now, Heroin Anonymous meetings are popping up all over the New Hampshire. The meetings are in large cities like Manchester and Nashua, but also in smaller communities where the addiction epidemic has taken a toll.

Newmarket is a town of about 9,000 people near the seacoast; the downtown is a string of quaint shops and renovated mill buildings, along the Lamprey River waterfront.

Kimberly Branch is at a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. She works part-time here, one of her two jobs. 

Jonny Boston’s is a great little spot to be," she says. "It’s fast food cooked slow. It’s just an awesome little place. Good energy.”

There’s a steady stream of reggae music playing, as the lunch crowd shuffles in. 

Before getting to her decision to start a heroin anonymous group here in town, she opens up about her own experience with addiction.

'When I came across heroin, I absolutely fell in love. And I wanted more of it because I didn't want to feel the pain I felt inside.'

“I started when I was fifteen. This was back in ’99. My dad had passed away and I started using everything I could get my hands on. When I came across heroin, I absolutely fell in love. And I wanted more of it because I didn’t want to feel the pain I felt inside.”

And after everyone she cared about had dropped her from their lives, Branch knew she needed to make a change.

“It wasn’t until I grieved with my own issues on the inside that I was able to realize this is not the life I want. I want to move on and do more with my life.

She’s now ten years sober, and between work and taking care of her two children, Branch is paying it forward by running weekly Heroin Anonymous meetings.

“My whole thing is to try and held the addicts nowadays. To help them realize that I did it, and I know you can do it. I really believe that with all my heart.”

Last fall, she reached out to a national Heroin Anonymous organization, and got a starter pack of pamphlets and key tags, which are used to mark milestones of sobriety.

And now every Wednesday night, she’s hosting meetings at the Newmarket Community Church.

  “When I have my meeting, I like it to be comfortable. It’s in a little spot upstairs in the church. There’s couches in there, chairs. It’s very comfortable. It’s very relaxing. I like more of the peer counseling, but I do go by the twelve steps, as well.”

"Is it kind of modeled after AA?"

"It is exactly modeled after the twelve-step program, yes,” Branch says.

But, unlike AA, Branch says having someone who’s actually been down the path of heroin addiction makes all the difference.

“Because I have been there, I think it means a lot more than going to an AA meeting and they have no idea what it’s like to actually do heroin or be in that slump, that heroin slump.”

Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR
Rick Ganley talks with Kimberly Branch of Newmarket. Branch, who began using heroin when she was fifteen, is now running Heroin Anonymous meetings at the community church.

To protect their anonymity, Branch offered to meet with members and use her cell phone to interview them to hear why they go to the meetings. We're only using their first names in this story.

“Hi, my name’s A.J. I’m 23 from Rochester, New Hampshire.”

A.J. got addicted to heroin after getting hooked on prescription medication following an injury. He stole, lied, and lost the ones he cared about.

"Why are you going to Heroin Anonymous?" Branch asks.

"Well, I came to the conclusion that I can’t really live my life the way I have been. I needed to work on myself and this seemed like the place to do it."

Branch also spoke with a woman named Aubrey, a recovering addict who’s on her sixth time trying to stay clean. 

Aubrey says the hardest part of recovery is the isolation.

“Most of the people I know around here are addicts or are recovering addicts. I can get it with one phone call. I feel like I’m sheltered. I just stay in my room because if I go out, I feel like I’ll end up doing something stupid.”

When Branch asks Aubrey why she goes to Heroin Anonymous, she says, “I like to listen to other peoples’ stories because it makes me feel better, like I’m not alone.”

Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR
A flyer advertising Heroin Anonymous meetings in Newmarket

Back at the restaurant, Branch says she’s run about 30 meetings so far, and each one is different.

“We have people come and go. I’ve had one person that I’ve sat there and talked to and I’ve had seven or eight people there that I’ve talked to. It’s up and down. You never know what’s going to happen. I have to show up every Wednesday at the same time and just hope that someone comes to hang out with me and talk about addiction.”

Those who do come to the meetings are in all stages of recovery. Some are court-ordered to attend the meetings, and Branch signs off on papers for them.

And sometimes people show up to the meetings high, but Branch doesn’t turn them away.

“They sit there, they nod out, whatever. It’s distraction for my other people who do want help. It’s a slap in the face and I’d rather they not come messed up. It’d rather they come clean and be serious about their recovery. It doesn’t always happen that way.”

And while she’ll point people in the direction of treatment, there’s only so much she can do.

“The only thing that’s going to get you sober is yourself. It’s when you decide that you’re tired of living the same way you’ve lived, in your addiction, and you want something different. You want something more.”

Branch is just one of the everyday people in town trying to help. Jon Kiper is another. He owns this restaurant, and joins us in our booth.

'I think the hardest part is that it's not like there are a bunch of addicts in line ready to get help...and the biggest problem is there's only so much we can do without any money and so few beds.'

He’s part of a community coalition called Newmarket Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention. The group has held forums in town, and come up with ways to address the problem. Kiper got involved after he learned one of his employees was an addict.

And as part of the coalition, he’s learned getting people help isn’t easy.

“I think the hardest part is that it’s not like there are a bunch of addicts in line ready to get help. Most of them don’t want help. So we kind of got all geared up and it was kind of like, there’s a limited amount we can do. And the biggest problem is there’s only so much we can do without any money and so few beds," Kiper says.

Kiper says it’s frustrating to see that first hand.

He says former employee who was using couldn’t afford rehab. And after going to jail for three months, he’s back out and using again.

“And so the state ended up paying, what, $6,000? What did three months in jail do? Nothing. It’s not like there’s a lack of money, it’s just the resources are being spent in such an illogical way.”

Still, the coalition is doing what it can.

Branch says it’s raising awareness and creating resources within the community, like the Heroin Anonymous meetings, and for others here in Newmarket affected by the crisis.

“They’ve started a support meeting for the people, the family of the addicts, so there’s also that option in town. When we have an issue arise, we try to solve instead of just turning our heads to it.”

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