Bob Conner/The Ballston Journal Online LLC

Heroin Epidemic Is Real, and Here

Andrew McKenna started his talk last night at the Saratoga Springs Public Library by recounting his arrest in 2005 for bank robbery, and how in the moments before it happened he was contemplating suicide.

He was speeding away from police pursuers on I-90, and thought about deliberately crashing the car, but “something spoke to me and told me not to do it.” Maybe, he said, it was a “higher power,” using a term familiar to most people in the large audience from its use in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Then, after the cars stopped, and a state police trooper was pointing a gun at him and demanding “Let me see your hands,” McKenna thought about dropping his hands out of sight so that the cop would shoot and kill him. But, again, that voice told him, “You can’t do this to your kids” (his sons were then aged 4 and 3). So he didn’t do it, and allowed himself to be arrested.

Not long before, McKenna had been a lawyer in the Capital Region, and before that was a federal prosecutor and a Marine. He was also a risk-taker, and someone who turned to drink and drugs to cope with insecurity, who abused opiate prescriptions after a back injury, and became addicted to heroin when the pill supply of his Schenectady dealer dried up. He fell into a depression as his career and marriage disintegrated, and it was his anger, especially when he was (justifiably) denied contact with his children, he now thinks, that led him to rob several banks. He served more than five years in federal prison.

McKenna has written a memoir about these events, and his recovery. “There’s a way through it,” he said. “There is a way out.” He credits a counselor and group therapy at Conifer Park with his initial progress, and “a strong spiritual program,” along with attention to details such as avoiding “white lies”, as helping keep him clean. “The relapse occurs long before you pick up,” he said.

Before McKenna spoke, there were brief presentations from local groups Recovery Advocacy in Saratoga (RAIS), along with Friends of Recovery to the north and  Young People in Recovery to the west. There were materials on a table from groups such as Nar-Anon (which has a weekly meeting at the First Presbyterian Church of Ballston Spa) and The Prevention Council in Saratoga Springs.

McKenna praised such efforts, along with 12-step groups and Al-Anon. “We’re making a lot of progress,” he said, while also noting that heroin is more widely available than ever.

One of  the introductory speakers said, “We’re not trying to stay hidden or anonymous,” and another that recovery should be seen as normal, not “hidden in the church basement.”

A third speaker, perhaps seeing some tension between those statements and the philosophy of AA and NA, whose groups often meet in churches, said: “NA, AA, it’s all good.” I agree. Ubiquitous and free of charge, the AA-based groups are a Godsend, a vital part of the recovery movement — which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for these newer groups, too.

I have a little education and experience in the drug-alcohol treatment field, and worked part-time from 2010 to 2014 at a chemical dependence community residence in Ballston. While I often bump into people who do not realize that the heroin epidemic is local, they knew in that room last night. They also knew about the heartbreaking prevalence of sometimes fatal relapse, along with the countervailing reality of hope.

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Reporter Bob Conner has worked 21 years in various positions at the Gazette of Schenectady, and before that four years as a reporter at the Glens Falls Post-Star. He won two first-place writing awards from the New York Associated Press Association for newspapers with circulation between 50,000 and 250,000. Bob has a Phi Beta Kappa bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University, and an associate’s degree in chemical dependency counseling from HVCC. He is a published author and is currently writing a historical novel about the last four months in the life of Ulysses S.Grant

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