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Local man gives a face to heroin addiction in Vermont

BRANDON — Kyle Pinkham could be your son, your nephew, your grandson, or your brother. A 2006 Otter Valley graduate, he was a good-looking, popular student-athlete who kicked the winning field goal to help the OV football team clinch the 2005 Division IV State Championship.
Now 26, Pinkham is trying to kick heroin. He’s also lending his drug experience to Brandon Cares, the community-based nonprofit group formed in August to combat Brandon’s opiate and heroin problem from the inside out. With input from residents, medical professionals, parents and police, the group is trying to bring the local opiate crisis out of the shadows and into public discussion and action through forums, Facebook and community organizing.
Brandon Cares has scheduled its next public forum for Thursday, Nov. 6, at 6 p.m. in the downstairs meeting room at the Brandon Town Hall. There will be presentations from parents and the medical community. Pinkham will be there to provide the addict’s perspective. This is his story…
DENIAL AIN’T JUST A RIVER
Pinkham came to our interview wearing a heavy black flannel jacket that looked too big, jeans and a baseball cap. He is thin, with a dark, carefully trimmed mustache and beard and soulful brown eyes. Prematurely gray hair pokes out from under his cap. He is soft-spoken and direct, and tired of being sick.
We talked over coffee in the back room of a local bakery. Light green tables and wooden chairs, the walls covered with table linens and aprons for sale, high-end soaps and hand lotions, cookware and glassware. Like so many shops and inns and restaurants in Brandon, it is just the kind of quaint New England stop tourists flock to, and that Vermont has branded. The problem is, many Vermonters have also been lulled into a false sense of charm in their hometowns. They are not willing to accept a “warts and all” attitude when it comes to the heroin epidemic that has engulfed many small towns across the Green Mountain State.
But Pinkham said anyone in Brandon who claims they haven’t seen evidence of the drug problem isn’t paying attention.
“That’s hard for me to believe, because I know what to look for and I see it everywhere,” Pinkham said. “I mean, isn’t it obvious?”
Once you start seeing it, it is. Still, even though this reporter knew there was a problem, the reaction was shock when employees at a local convenience store told of routinely finding hypodermic needles in the public restroom trash can and witnessing drug deals on a weekly basis in the parking lot outside. The same deals happen regularly in broad daylight in Brandon’s Central Park.
“There are transactions everywhere,” Pinkham said. “In parking lots, hand to hand in the park, people hanging in car windows, traffic, hundreds of cars going to one address in one day.”
Even the Pearl Street Covered Bridge is not immune to the scourge of heroin. Needles can be found on the ground near the bridge on any given day, as the structure and its proximity to nearby drug dealers is well known.
And if residents are alarmed by that, think of it as the Brandon equivalent of the Rolling Stone magazine cover last spring that depicted an iconic Vermont maple syrup can with a man sugaring in black and red plaid shirt who, in this rendering, is sitting on a log, shooting heroin. The cover accompanied a story titled “The New Face of Heroin,” and delved into how the Vermont drug landscape has changed since the mid-2000s, when heroin replaced opiates like Oxycontin as a drug of choice.
Like many Vermonters, Pinkham said the cover bothered him, even as an addict, but he knew all too well that it illustrated Vermont’s reality.
“It upset me to see that, but it was the truth, and sometimes, the truth hurts,” he said.
FIFTH TIME’S A CHARM
Right now, Pinkham is clean. He currently occupies a coveted spot in a suboxone program in Rutland through the medical offices of Drs. Mark Logan and Dean McKenzie. Suboxone is a medication that contains buprenorphine hydrochloride and works to reduce the symptoms of opiate dependence, but includes the ingredient naloxone to prevent misuse. It is the same drug featured in the “Hungry Heart” documentary that Dr. Fred Holmes of St. Albans used with some success in treating opiate-addicted patients in Franklin County.
Pinkham has not used heroin in two months. He has high hopes for this rehab stint, his fifth, but his first in a suboxone program.
“I first went to rehab when I was 19,” he said. “I wanted to be clean so bad. I went eight months with nothing and I still fell off, and that told me that I need something else and the only option is suboxone.”
He paused and fingered his half-empty coffee cup.
“I know I won’t lose on suboxone,” he said, his gaze steady. “It definitely helps me, mentally and physically. Mentally, it’s a safety net — physically, it makes me feel normal.”
The program is strict. Pinkham is required to go to Rutland three times a week. Once for a quick doctor check-in, once for group therapy and once for a suboxone refill. He is also required to submit a urine sample for drug testing at each visit.
Pinkham said the drug testing is an effective deterrent, although the desire to be drug-free has to be a mental commitment. A “dirty” or positive drug test could result in expulsion from the program.
“It really has to come from inside you,” he said. “But just having a urine test three times a week keeps me accountable.”
‘I WAS A GOOD KID’
To hear Pinkham’s evolution as a heroin addict is to track Vermont’s drug culture over the last decade. He was a good student and a three-sport athlete at OV. He wasn’t a partier.
“I didn’t do anything in high school,” he said. “I didn’t drink. I went to parties, but left by 10 p.m. I’m proud of the fact that I never got a single detention or slip sent home.”
But he did start smoking cigarettes, and did not ease into it, something that should have tipped him off to his addictive personality — that, and sugar.
“I went straight to smoking a pack a day,” Pinkham said. “And sugar. Once I was a teenager, I ate candy all the time, as much as I could get my hands on.”
Pinkham shares his senior photo from high school. He is smiling broadly, his face filled out, his shoulders broad, his future, bright.
“That’s innocence, right there,” Pinkham said sadly.
Pinkham was a Stafford Technical Center student in the auto refinishing program and had plans to go on to welding school after graduation. That never happened, and it was after Pinkham moved out of his parents’ home and into his own apartment that his steady slide into drug addiction began.
“My personality mixed with not really being educated about drug addiction and finding the wrong crowd led to my addiction,” he said frankly.
A LONG FALL IN A SHORT TIME
After high school graduation Pinkham was living in an apartment in Brandon with a girlfriend; he had a good-paying job at a local company. He had started smoking marijuana, but when his girlfriend’s friends would come over and started crushing and snorting Vicodin pills, it upset him.
“She drank heavily,” he said. “My friends started taking off and her friends starting coming in. She didn’t know what they were doing. I told them to leave. I didn’t want that there.”
But that stance did not hold long. One day, a girl he was interested in asked him if he want to split a Vicodin and snort it with her. He acquiesced and that was the beginning of the end.
“It took away all my anxiety,” Pinkham said. “And it made me feel stronger than I was. I felt a calmness and euphoria. It was great.”
But like any opiate, the effect was short-lived and the craving was lasting.
“It went from ‘That was great,’ and quickly went to, ‘Where do I get more of them?’” he said.
Pinkham said he quickly graduated from Vicodin to the powerful painkiller Oxycontin. He split up with his girlfriend and got together with another girl who was completely addicted to Oxycontin. After that, it wasn’t long until heroin appeared in his life.
“One day, we went looking for Oxys and heroin was there,” Pinkham said.
It was early spring 2007. Less than a year had passed since Pinkham graduated from OV. He snorted heroin the first time it was given to him.
“It made me sick, but I was high as a kite,” Pinkham said. “It felt like Jesus came down and wrapped me in a hospital blanket. It made me warm and I didn’t care about anything — rent, car payments — I didn’t care about anything.”
He was asked how he could be so sick and feel so good.
“I was sick to my stomach, but my mind was where I wanted to be,” he explained.
SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR
Two years passed, and Pinkham spent them as a full-blown heroin addict with breaks to try and get clean, only to relapse. He held a series of jobs, but would quit before he got fired. He sold off his possessions to buy heroin. He stole from family members. He did things he never thought he’d do to buy drugs.
“I would walk along Route 7, McConnell Road, Forest Dale Road, I’d walk for miles, picking up cans and bottles,” he said. “Do you know it takes 500 cans and bottles to buy one bag of heroin?”
At one point, after another failed attempt to get clean, Pinkham decided to leave Brandon and drove to Colorado. He was clean for seven months, but then decided to come back. He went straight back to his girlfriend, who was still using. He started using again almost immediately. A few weeks later, she told him she was pregnant. She immediately stopped using heroin and got on buprenorphine, which is suboxone without the naloxone and is safer for the unborn baby, reducing the effects of withdrawal on potentially opiate-addicted newborns.
For his part, Pinkham stopped using heroin, and his girlfriend helped.
“She would give me tiny doses of “butes” and it would keep me from getting sick,” he said.
On Nov. 9, 2009, Pinkham’s daughter was born. Much to his relief, she weighed six pounds, 7 ounces and was not opiate addicted.
“That was one of the hardest times of my life,” he said. “Waiting and hoping she was OK.”
LOSING IT ALL, FINDING HIMSELF
Pinkham currently lives with his parents in Brandon and is working hard to stay clean. He doesn’t have a job or a car, two things he is working toward.
“I lost it all,” he said. “Everything I ever had, I sold. I lost my soul, my self-worth, my self-respect, my respect for others. I just didn’t care.”
His daughter will turn five soon. Although the relationship with her mother did not last, he has an amicable arrangement with his ex and has his daughter three days a week. She is his pride and joy, one of the few good things Pinkham said he has to show for his life.
“In any treatment program, they say you have to do it for yourself, but if I didn’t have my daughter, I would not have kept trying to get clean,” Pinkham said. “I would have given up.”
Pinkham has lost a lot, but the thing that may pain him most is that he is losing his teeth. All of his teeth. His drug use has caused some of his teeth to fall out and many others are rotting from the inside, out. He doesn’t smile, and there is a long list of things he can’t eat.
“I need dentures,” he said ruefully. “The day I get dentures will feel like the first times I used. It will be euphoria. I will be bawling my eyes out. It keeps me down mentally.”
A job, a car, new teeth. It’s a short, important list, and Christmas is coming. Pinkham wants to be a productive member of society again, and his involvement with Brandon Cares is helping him do that.
“It helps, talking to people,” he said. “It helps me feel important and maybe I can turn this negative into a positive.”
LEAVING BRANDON
Eventually, Pinkham wants to leave Brandon and move north to live closer to his daughter. To him, Brandon isn’t a quaint Vermont town, it’s one big trigger.
“I know that drugs are everywhere, but this is the town where I did most of my using and I feel like I’m in a rut here,” Pinkham said. “I’m consumed with triggers. I need a new start, and things don’t change here.”
That’s where Brandon Cares comes in, trying to effect change on the local drug front, helping hometown addicts like Pinkham stay clean. He said something has to be done.
“It’s going to take everybody first realizing the problem so we’re not in denial,” he said. “It can’t be hush-hush anymore.”

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