CARIBOU, Maine — In photographs, TJ Poitraw smiles kindly into the camera. His mom, Renee Fulton, said he was the type of guy who was always trying to make people laugh, always trying to help other people get better.
Poitraw was in recovery and just 26 when he died of an overdose three months ago. He had been living in Vermont and working at Adult & Teen Challenge — a faith-based recovery organization — and was only back in Caribou temporarily when he died.
Maine is on track to have its deadliest year of the opioid epidemic in 2021 — an average of 51 people are dying every month from overdoses. Since January, 16 people have died of an overdose in Aroostook County, just one less person than in the entire 2020 calendar year.
Poitraw was among those honored at a vigil on Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday in downtown Caribou. His smile beamed out from photographs glued to paper lanterns that lined Main Street where it crosses Caribou Stream.
“Even on the day he died he was still reaching out to people and trying to help people with their addiction,” Fulton said. “People don’t care if you’re sober, they’ll still offer it to you. Ultimately he made the choice to use, but addiction is something that’s really very hard to beat.”
Families of overdose victims and people in recovery say stigma and a lack of resources are keeping people with substance use disorder in The County vulnerable to relapse and overdose.
“We need so much help here,” Fulton said. “I think if they weren’t so worried about going to jail more people would reach out for help.”
While some resources — recovery houses, for example — are being developed in the area, many people struggling with their addiction have to leave their homes and support systems behind to seek out help. But staying in northern Maine, or even coming back after, can be dangerous if there aren’t enough resources to keep people on the path to recovery.
The County has no detoxification facility, and no long-term living options for people with addictions outside of Caribou.
Roland Belanger has been in recovery for decades and was shocked at how few Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there are in Aroostook County — he moved to Caribou from New Hampshire in June. Since then, he’s driven to Ellsworth, several hours both ways, for a meeting.
While Roads to Recovery — which organized the vigil on Tuesday alongside Recovery Aroostook and Aroostook Mental Health Center — has meetings, Belanger said he would like to see more of them across the county, and in neutral spaces like churches.
He’s approached both Van Buren and Limestone to suggest using some of their town-owned abandoned buildings to open up facilities to help people with substance use disorder.
Belanger was at the vigil to honor a family friend, 20-year-old Malcolm Allen who died of an overdose in Bath at the end of July. As much as he tries to think positively, Belanger can’t shake the feeling that people are dying younger and younger from overdoses.
“Everybody knows somebody that died from drugs or alcohol,” Belanger said. “As far as I’m concerned, everybody has an addiction. The stigma is we don’t talk about it and we’ve got to start talking about it.”
This was Caribou’s fifth time participating in Overdose Awareness Day. After setting up the lanterns on Main Street, a small group bowed their heads in a moment of silence before dispersing.
Jan Jackson, a representative from Recovery Aroostook and Cary Medical Center, said that small as they may be, events like this are important in raising awareness — which will be key if The County is going to make any progress in the fight against the substance use disorder epidemic. It will take widespread support in the community to fund the facilities and treatments needed, she said.
“It’s not just the Narcan, it’s not just the naloxone that can keep people from dying. We all can,” Jackson said. “We as a community all have to do that.”