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A Warm Embrace for Opiate Addicts

September 1, 2006
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Alice diorio


Alice Diorio


Alice Diorio credits methadone with saving her life. As the coexecutive director of the Opiate Dependence Resource Center (ODRC) in Brattleboro, Vermont, Diorio now tries to help others trying to recover from opiate addiction in finding the resources needed for the task.

Operating on a shoestring budget of $65,000 per year, ODRC manages to cover all of Vermont except for Burlington, although it still sees some people in the state's largest city as well. “We take everyone that no one else wants to deal with,” says Diorio.

Diorio once was one of those struggling individuals. Born in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, she was a “Randolph” whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. Her parents were alcoholics, and she started using marijuana by her early teens. At 16, she was admitted to a New York hospital for marijuana use and started using heroin, which became her drug of choice.

Although Diorio managed stretches of sobriety, including the period during which she gave birth to her son, she struggled with addiction until she started receiving methadone. “Methadone and the people who loved me unconditionally and helped me see what a good person I was really saved my life,” she says.

When Diorio began advocacy work for others, Vermont by law did not allow methadone treatment. “I was on a community planning group for HIV prevention, representing the injection drug-using community. I said, ‘There's no treatment up here if you want people to be able to maintain positive behavior change so they don't get HIV.‘”

Advocates first were able to get a law passed allowing syringe exchange, and finally a law allowing methadone treatment. Around this time, Diorio and codirector Mark Beresky formed ODRC (http://www.medication-assistedrecovery.org).

Promoting healing

Diorio estimates that 95% of the work ODRC does is free. “It's very difficult to get funding,” she says. She bristles at having to “clean up” after better-funded entities.

“There's not enough focus on the healing process—it's not just treatment and then recovery, it's trying to help the whole person,” she says. “It's creating a trusting and safe environment, making people feel worthwhile. A lot of addicts have never been loved unconditionally.”

She adds: “We need people out there to understand that this is a disease and that people aren't bad because they use drugs—they use drugs because they want to alter their psyche. They want to feel the way they think everyone else feels.”

ODRC focuses on helping people find the agencies that can assist them in areas such as housing, legal issues, and transportation. “We give people references, talk to their landlords,” says Diorio. “We tell landlords that they have a much better chance with someone in recovery than with someone they don't know because they can be well-assured that they're working on recovery.”

ODRC also helps people find lawyers “that really want to help them,” and primary care doctors who will treat them with respect and understand methadone, says Diorio. The two co-directors also give presentations around the state on methadone and related topics.

In the organization's early years, Diorio and Beresky would dip into their own pockets to help people, a practice they no longer can afford to do.

“In the beginning, we fixed people's cars, paid for their treatment, put them up in hotels if need be,” says Diorio. “We've done everything we could to help people and I have no regrets.”

Fragile existence

The need for services certainly hasn't diminished. “In methadone treatment, everything can be going beautifully—a patient can have a once-a-week take home [dose], a job, an apartment, and then their car breaks down, they don't have a cell phone, they can't call the clinic, they miss their dose, and their take homes are taken away,” says Diorio. “The next thing you know, they've lost their job and they've lost their apartment. What we try to do is intervene on their behalf and find a solution as quickly as possible.”

Diorio remains a strong believer in individualized services. “The counselor should be facilitating the treatment plan while the patient tells them what to put in it,” she says. “What's realistic, what are their goals—it's different for every person.”

Brion P. McAlarney is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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