We should all be dead,” said Jonathan Goyer one bright morning in January as he looked across a room filled with dozens of his coworkers and clients. The Anchor Recovery Community Center, which Goyer helps run, occupies the shell of an office building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Founded seven years ago, Anchor specializes in “peer-to-peer” counseling for drug addicts. With state help and private grants, Anchor throws everything but the kitchen sink at addiction. It hosts Narcotics Anonymous meetings, cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, art workshops, and personal counseling. It runs a telephone hotline and a hospital outreach program. It has an employment center for connecting newly drug-free people to sympathetic hirers, and banks of computers for those who lack them. And all the people who work here have been in the very pit of addiction—shoplifting to pay for a morning dose, selling their bodies, or dragging out their adult lives in prison. Some have been taken to emergency rooms and “hit” with powerful anti-overdose drugs to bring them back from respiratory failure.
That is how it was with Goyer. His father died of an overdose at forty-one, in 2004. His twenty-nine-year-old brother OD’d and died in 2009. When he was shooting heroin he slept on the floor of a public garage. He would pick up used hypodermic needles if they were new enough that the volume gauges inked on the outside hadn’t been rubbed off with use. He OD’d several times before getting clean in 2013. Now he visits people after overdoses and tells them, “I was right where you’re at.”
There have always been drug addicts in need of help, but the scale of the present wave of heroin and opioid abuse is unprecedented. Fifty-two thousand Americans died of overdoses in 2015—about four times as many as died from gun homicides and half again as many as died in car accidents. Pawtucket is a small place, and yet 5,400 addicts are members at Anchor. Six hundred visit every day. Rhode Island is a small place, too. It has just over a million people. One Brown University epidemiologist estimates that 20,000 of them are opioid addicts—2 percent of the population.
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