Correction: The wording in an earlier version of the following editor’s note led some to believe that one of the speakers specifically named below is a recovering addict. Please note that is not the case. We regret the error.
Editor’s Note: A “Substance Abuse Prevention and the Opioid/Heroin Epidemic” forum takes place from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday March 9 at the Canton Community Center, 40 Dyer Ave. Please consider attending to find resources, talk to experts and hear speakers. Approximately 20 different organizations, including state departments, hospital, recovery networks, legal experts, policy advocates, emergency personnel and others will host booths. The event will also include remarks by a recovering addict and remarks from speakers Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the state department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Canton resident Maria Coutant Skinner, executive director at the McCall Center for Behavioral Health.
By John Fitts
CANTON — Throughout her life, Samantha Jean Seger would easily make new friends as she would go through phases and delve into new hobbies and interests.
She’d spend time as a hippie, punk rock, and country girl, and later found an interest in everything from cars to emergency medical training.
“It seemed like she was trying to reinvent herself,” said her father, Dan Seger. “She was trying to find where she fit best.”
“She was a chameleon,” added her sister Sheri.
Sheri remembers her sister as “fierce, wild and loud.”
Samantha collected comic books and geodes, but she also followed her older sister Dorie’s lead and added a little outrageousness. When Dorie – who was, admittedly, “way too young” – went to a tattoo and piercing parlor at age 15, Samantha did one better and went at age 12.
“She would do [things] a little more outrageously than I did,” Dorie said.
Another time, Samantha took a $500 dare, gave herself a Mohawk and dyed it. The instigator skipped town without paying but the hairstyle was memorable.
“She could make anyone laugh,” Sheri said. “She did so much stupid, funny stuff. She’s the person who would shave off her eyebrows to draw new ones on and be like, ‘I thought it was good idea, but it looks weird now.’ She’d meet a person, her new best friend, and say, ‘OK, I’m going to marry this guy tomorrow.’”
But, sadly, Samantha’s ease of fitting in and making new friends, at least in part, helped lead to a more dangerous path.
Following her marriage in 2010, Samantha was often in the midst of volatile situations that involved too much alcohol, a party atmosphere, and some of the wrong friends, according to family members. Later, periods of isolation would only lead to further questionable associations.
Additionally, Samantha had medical and skin conditions that led to some pain and discomfort. Family members believe that, at one point, she had a valid prescription. Pain killers, easily abused, are often a common “gateway” to opioid addiction.
“I think that’s when the self-medication kicked in,” Sheri said. “I think that kind of opened up the door.”
In 2012 and 2013, the family witnessed increased changes in Samantha. She avoided the family and displayed increasingly erratic behavior.
One time, Sheri visited her older sister on a 70-degree day. Samantha was wearing a hoodie and sweatpants and looked like “skin and bones.” Other times Sheri would also find Samantha sleeping in the middle of the day and paying no attention to her children.
“I knew something was going on,” Sheri said. “I had the conversation with her about stopping doing pills and that’s when she stopped talking to me.”
“She’d come up with some crazy stories about why that wasn’t what she was doing. She denied it and denied it,” Dorie said.
Finally, she admitted it to Sheri.
When they were on the way to a detox center in Hartford in the spring of 2013, “She finally pulled up the sleeves to her sweatshirt and admitted to me she had been using heroin for months and showed me all the track marks all over her arms,” Sheri said.
Samantha would end up spending time in three different places in 2013, but the experiences did little good, left the family frustrated with a system that offered little help for someone trying to get it, and even led to further strangeness.
Dorie remembers coming to that first detox center as Sheri and Samantha were waiting to get in.
The girl that once followed her older sister everywhere was unkempt with greasy hair and filthy, blood-stained jeans.
“It was quite disturbing to see that,” Dorie said. “Then she left the next day.”
What followed were increasingly scary experiences.
The family found themselves picking Samantha up at strange places and fast-food restaurants, often having to cajole her into the car.
“I had her pinned up against the wall when I was pregnant and I ended up dragging her out to the car and said I was done with this, you can’t be this person,” Dorie said of one experience at a fast-food restaurant in Winsted, which she called a haven for drugs and users.
Eventually, Samantha would be accepted at facilities in New York and Florida.
In Florida it only got worse, as Samantha and a new friend ended up trying to hitchhike to Kentucky. She was at least sending her older sister text messages, but the stories were disturbing.
“Just the most bizarre [stuff] I have ever heard in my life,” Dorie said. “Good guy. Meanwhile her children are here in Connecticut with other people and she’s just hitchhiking for fun and walking with no shoes and bathing in people’s back yards.”
“Clearly, she was out of her mind,” Sheri said.
Dan was able to send some money and help them get to a safe place but the situation was still dark. Eventually, there were also allegations of physical abuse. Dorie said it was hard to know fact from fiction.
Fortunately, Samantha came home and in 2014 and, in 2015, things improved somewhat.
“She was taking two steps forward and one step back,” Sheri said. “A little bit of progress, but not a ton.”
By the beginning of 2015, Samantha was still exhibiting some strange behavior, but had gained weight, looked better and got a job. She spent time with her mother, who was helping her out, and had sleepovers with her daughter at Dorie’s house.
The rest of her family pitched in as well.
“We did everything we could to keep her on the straight and narrow,” Dan said.
Still, there were setbacks.
“Things seemed to be going well but then all of sudden she would not show up when she was supposed to be having a sleepover with her daughter,” Dorie said.
On Nov. 14, 2015 Sam and her daughter came to the Canton home where Dorie and Sheri lived. Samantha made cards with the kids for her niece’s first birthday before her mother took her home.
But the next day, heartbreak would come. When Dan and Samantha’s stepmother left the party for Dorie’s daughter a little early, they would find police waiting at their Canton home.
Dorie and Sheri were living together on Country Lane in Canton at the time. Sheri had taken a walk at Nepaug Reservoir and Dorie was in the midst of a fun, if somewhat hectic, birthday party. Then Dan called to tell her that Samantha, just 26, had died.
The family not only struggled with grief, but also tried to put the pieces together.
“It didn’t make sense because she had been doing so well,” Dan said. “We didn’t even think it was going to be drug related, really.”
There are many unanswered questions, and what ifs from the incident, including the lack of track marks or nose residue and questionable details from a roommate, family members said. Despite the questions and other medical conditions, the death was ruled an overdose.
The Segers hope that by telling their story, they can help others.
“As soon as you start seeing signs, you might be able to catch them when they’re doing some pills before they’re in so deep,” Dorie said. “We didn’t catch her doing this until she was already shooting heroin and getting it off the streets.”
Canton resident Maria Coutant Skinner, executive director at the McCall Center for Behavioral Health in Torrington, said those classic signs of use include pinpoint pupils, loss of appetite, excessive drowsiness, slow breathing and flushed skin.
Often, erratic behaviors or withdrawal are factors and denial is almost always present, Skinner said.
Dan said if someone suspects a friend or loved one is abusing, to insist they go down to a pharmacy and take a drug test.
“When they argue with you, that’s when you know,” Dorie said.
Of course, looking out for signs and trying to get a person help is really just the beginning. It can be an extremely painful and difficult journey trying to get someone to even accept help and to beat an extremely addictive substance.
“It’s such a painful experience for everybody,” Sheri said. “It’s a vicious cycle, there’s only so much you can do and that you can mentally and personally handle.”
“It can feel so scary and overwhelming,” Skinner said.
One thing she recommends is finding a support group for yourself or other people who are trying to help a person abusing drugs.
“There’s a lot of wisdom in those rooms,” Skinner said.
As the Seger family struggled to find help for Samantha, they also found a system full of failure. Treatment centers were often full, and detox centers, which can be the path to more intense treatment, wouldn’t accept addicts that had been clean for a few days. They aren’t at that “critical stage” in an overwhelmed system. A user often must get high to be accepted.
Skinner’s organization offers numerous programs, particularly to the financially challenged, but those continually operate at near 100 percent capacity.
There are numerous factors, but Skinner wholeheartedly agrees that there are numerous flaws in the mental health system at large.
“We encourage people to fail and be really sick and at death’s door before we help them,” Skinner said. “With what other disease do we do that?”
While Skinner has some concerns about potential changes on the federal level, she said there are some positive and continuing efforts to change things on the state level. The Segers also wonder if Narcan, a drug that temporarily reverses the effect of an overdose until a patient can get further medical help, could have saved Samantha, had it been readily available.
“People say it enables them, but if you’re dead and revived … that might be a big life-altering moment for you to realize that you need the help that might be the chance that you get,” Dorie said.
Today, crews in many towns, including Canton, carry Narcan.
Skinner said recent state laws have also made it much easier for pharmacists to carry it for the population at large.
Addiction, of course, is a multi-faceted issue with many different scenarios.
What is without question, however, is that it’s increasingly present, even in the most bucolic places and in surprising age groups.
Samantha, a 2007 graduate of Canton High School, spent much of her childhood in Canton and New Hartford.
In 2014, according to the Farmington Valley Health District, there were seven known opioid deaths in the Farmington Valley.
The state’s overdose death rate is higher than that from car accidents or firearms.
For every death, officials estimate that nine people go for treatment, 35 to the emergency room, 161 report drug abuse and 461 report non-medical use of an opioid.
“This happens to good people, good families,” said Jennifer C. Kertanis, director of health for the Farmington Valley Health District. “No one is immune. Until we can openly engage that discussion and break down those stereotypes we will be less effective in really addressing this issue.”
“The more we can bring people to awareness the more people get comfortable so they don’t hide from it and recognize it being a real issue and not pretending it doesn’t exist [the better],” Dorie said.
Ultimately, an abuser must be willing to help themselves, but addiction thrives in isolation, Skinner said, and there are things people
“It’s an addiction and it’s a disease that somebody, no matter how much they care and want (to stop) for themselves and you and all the other important people in their lives, there’s something in them that won’t let them do that,” Sheri said. “I think that she felt really alone in the sense that nobody understood that, which is hard to understand when you’re not an addict. I see that now, after the fact, when I reflect on it.”
Dorie wishes her sister was here to see their kids grow up.
“I lost my best friend, a person that’s known me my whole life, that understood everything and that I could talk to about anything. (She) was a very fun-loving person, who was always there,” Dorie said.