A fter 20-plus years of “hardcore” drinking, Bill Sutton was ready to quit. But as he looked around New Hampshire, all the attention seemed to be on people addicted to opioids and other drugs.
He tried finding a rehab program that would take him, but had no luck. It made Sutton angry.
What he didn’t realize, and now wants others to know, was that The Doorway, the state’s new hub-and-spoke system, is not just for individuals addicted to drugs; alcoholics can also find treatment there. It’s the same for Safe Station, the program in which individuals seeking treatment for a substance use disorder can walk into any fire station in the city and get help.
And that’s where Sutton finally found the help he needed.
Last Thursday, Sutton stopped by Manchester’s Central Fire Station, where he shook hands with Fire Chief Dan Goonan and thanked him for the help and compassion he found there exactly one month earlier. “I feel like I’m 10 years younger,” he told the chief. “I’ve got more pep in my step.”
“I’m just glad you’re doing well,” Goonan replied.
Sutton started drinking when he was 14. Whiskey was his drug of choice. By the end, “I was drinking over half a gallon of booze on a Saturday,” he said.
“I was sick and tired,” he said. “I was OK being an alcoholic, but then it got to the point I was a drunk, and I realized it was unacceptable to me.”
Accompanied by his wife, Sutton, who is 49, walked into the Manchester fire station on Feb. 28 and asked for help. “Within four hours, I was in the Farnum Center,” he said.
But that night, he wound up in the emergency department at Elliot Hospital. “I was sick as a dog,” he said. He spent 10 days at the hospital, hooked up to an IV, with nurses taking his vital signs hourly. They told him that sudden withdrawal from alcohol can be fatal.
“You can quit heroin, fentanyl, and you won’t die from it, but to cold turkey quit drinking, it can kill you,” he said. “It can give you a heart attack or a stroke.”
The doctors also told him if he had kept drinking, “I would have been dead in the next six to eight months.”
It all made him wonder why there isn’t more attention being paid to alcoholism. “I thought to myself, if I can die and these other people can’t, why are they getting more attention?” he said.
Patricia Reed is state director of Granite Pathways, which runs the Doorway hubs in Manchester and Nashua. While the federal grant that allowed New Hampshire to set up its hub-and-spoke system targets the opioid epidemic, she said, Doorways across the state “will continue to assist persons struggling with any substance use disorder.”
Individuals can get screening, evaluation and help to find and access treatment and other services when they come to any hub, Reed said. “No one seeking help for substance use disorder will be turned away,” she said.
Sutton wound up at Friendship House, a residential treatment program in Bethlehem. He attended groups sessions and 12-step meetings. “I was the only person my age, and every other person there was there for fentanyl or heroin,” he said. “I was probably the only person there for alcoholism.”
After eight days, with a promise to keep attending 12-step meetings, Sutton came home to Auburn. He’s been sober since the day he walked into Safe Station — except for “one nip” of rum that he bought but didn’t finish, he said.
Sutton, a welder/fabricator by trade, starts work this week for a company in the North Country. He’s thinking of getting a dog to keep him company while he’s staying up north during the week; he wants to train it to be a pet therapy animal, so they can visit schools and nursing homes together.
And he’s got his heart set on a piece of land in Vermont, 20 acres with a cabin, where he and his wife, Jenn, a school paraprofessional, can start over.
Sutton is convinced he won’t go back to drinking. “I was just done,” he said. “Something inside me just died. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like flipping a light switch.”
Sutton said he hopes Manchester keeps its Safe Station program going for people like him. Getting that immediate help when you’re ready to surrender is key, he said. “If people hadn’t helped me out, I would have gotten frustrated and would still be drinking, “he said. “You have to strike when the iron’s hot.”
“When you’re feeling that sick and you realize how screwed up you really are, that’s the time to get to a person,” he said. “You’re more open and honest at that time.”
“People have a tendency to give up because it’s easier,” he said. “If it’s hard, then people don’t want to do it.”
What would Sutton say to others who are addicted to alcohol? “Don’t give up. There’s always an answer,” he said.
Jenn Sutton wrote a letter to Chief Goonan while her husband was in detox. “Thank you so much for your compassion, understanding and non-judgmental assistance,” she wrote. “You are a true hero and angel walking this earth!
“I will never be able to thank you enough for saving his life and our marriage.”
Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous stories in this series, visit: unionleader.com/stigma.