When it comes to talking about addiction, neither Portsmouth native and resident Jake Bradshaw, 36, nor his friend Kevin Alter, 30, mince any words.
Neither said so specifically, but both almost certainly believe keeping quiet about their problems would be of help to absolutely no one, including themselves. And helping people on the front lines of addiction undoubtedly seems to be the motivation driving these two friends.
One year ago in February, at the urging, he fully admits, of a treatment counselor, Alter launched from his home base in New England, what he dubbed “The Addict’s Diary,” mostly telling the story of his personal struggles with addiction. You could argue the blog has been a bit of a success, picking up over 130,000 followers during its first year of existence.
“I struggled with substance disorder from the age of seventeen to twenty-seven. When I finally got clean and sober, I had nothing left, I had lost it all,” Alter writes in one post on his blog.
“I am a human whose life has been saved by Narcan on multiple occasions. If it weren’t for EMT responders having access to this life saving medication, this blog would definitely not exist. Nor would I,” Bradshaw writes on their shared blog, Humans of Addiction, launched just a few months ago. Bradshaw even talks about walking around with a stethoscope to check his own heart rate while he was high.
Bradshaw and Alter joined forces in a somewhat roundabout way, meeting through a recovery group despite living in different cities. Inspired by the success of The Addict’s Diary, they teamed up to launch Humans of Addiction. Both, though perhaps especially Bradshaw, talk to addicts in Portsmouth and other areas and write up those stories on the Humans of Addiction page. Bradshaw said the pair’s goal is to meet with at least one person every day.
“We don’t always meet that quota, but we try,” said Bradshaw, noting both have full-time jobs in the recovery community. “I’d say we’ve spoken with about 30 or 40 local people.”
Some of the addicts featured on Humans of Addiction clearly were allowed to tell their own stories.
One woman talked openly about standing on a street corner selling herself and eventually helping or forcing other women to do the same. Another talks about how she started smoking crack at a very young age, while her mother was in and out of jail. The two did not have much of a relationship until they ended up in jail at the same time, the mother acting as head of the writer’s jail pod. She said the jail experience, sadly, was probably the highlight of her relationship with her mom. Now in recovery, the writer hopes she can be an example to other addicts, particularly persons of color.
“I can say, ‘Hey. Look at me.’ I am a black woman. I am gay. I am a convicted felon. I am covered in tattoos. I am an ex-drug dealer. And now I am a recovered and responsible child of God. And if I can do it, so can you.”
As was the case with The Addict’s Diary, the reaction to Humans of Addiction has proven very positive.
“We’ve got a lot of attention, a lot of publicity very quickly,” Bradshaw said.
“A great place to understand how addiction grapples the mind and body, created by those in recovery, for those in recovery and those who hope they never fall into addiction,” wrote one poster.
The page contains numerous other such glowing comments. But perhaps more importantly to Bradshaw and Alter, the blog has attracted some out-of-town attention. A reporter from the New York Times was in town at least twice to speak with Bradshaw and Alter, but also other locals. A reporter from a London, England publication also showed up in Portsmouth doing a story on Humans of Addiction. Although he did not mention Humans of Addiction, a reporter from a French magazine also was in Portsmouth last month.
Thanks to several factors, not the least of which include Sam Quinones’ book “Dreamland,” as most locals know, Portsmouth already has a national reputation for having a major drug problem. Do stories in the New York Times and even overseas, really help the situation?
“That’s a legitimate question,” Bradshaw said. “I think it all depends on the story, on the writer.”
Bradshaw opined Quinones did more harm than good, with the author swooping in from outside, making money off Portsmouth’s troubles and disappearing. He expects the New York article will feature plenty of positives about the city while being realistic and recognizing there are still problems. He went on to talk about local teachers, churches and plenty of others “doing some fantastic things that are not being done anywhere else.”
“We have local treatment centers investing their profits back into the community,” Bradshaw said. “We both know the treatment community and that generally doesn’t happen.”
Both Bradshaw and Alter hope all the positive publicity somehow marks a turning point in Portsmouth’s historical connections with addiction and opiates in particular. The name of the blog itself, Humans of Addiction, is an attempt to change local attitudes towards addiction and addicts.
“I think somewhere in the mists of this epidemic we all forgot something very important. We all forgot that addicts are human beings. Human beings are precious. We can’t lose anymore,” is but one of the many slogans scattered over the Humans of Addiction page.
“I think one of the biggest things turning things around in this community, when it comes to addiction, is finally you are starting to see a little bit of sympathy, empathy and compassion,” Bradshaw told the Daily Times.
He said the city and its attitudes have come a long way since the heyday of the pill mills not all that long ago. Bradshaw added plenty of people have legitimate grievances against addicts and former addicts. But both he and Alter expressed a hope the two sides – the addiction community and the community at large – can somehow set aside their differences, and in Bradshaw’s terms, “meet somewhere in the middle.”