PORTSMOUTH — Peter Letendre knows a thing or two about treating addiction because he used to abuse drugs and alcohol himself.
“Today, as it stands, I’ve been sober since December 1987. I’ve been in the recovery community since then,” said Mr. Letendre, a 1988 graduate of Portsmouth High School whose firsthand knowledge of addiction paved the way to a private therapy practice before he co-founded Clinical Services of Rhode Island, an American Addiction Centers facility.
FOR MORE: Read about Debbie Lawrence, a Portsmouth mom who lost her son Brad in May 2017 after he struggled with opioid addiction for years.
The company’s King’s Grant location is where a group of local moms whose families have been impacted by opioid addiction meet regularly to share stories and information. “The Moms Club,” which connects at an ongoing support group held from 6-7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday there, is on a crusade to spread the word about opioid usage and to help parents learn to detect the early warning signs so they can stop a problem before it starts.
Mr. Letendre can’t talk about his clients due to confidentiality reasons, but during a recent interview he shared his own story as well as his thoughts on America’s opioid scourge and addiction treatment.
He freely admits he didn’t do so well at PHS.
“I got into a lot of trouble,” said Mr. Letendre. “Since middle school, I had been experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, probably around fifth grade, sixth grade. By the time I was in high school, I was doing a lot of crazy things: drinking heavily, doing a lot of different drugs.”
Although opioids “weren’t really around” when he was in high school, he said he probably would have taken them had they been available.
By the time he was 16, he knew he had a problem. “I never had just one beer, two beers. I would just do it and I couldn’t stop. I would go home hammered, or I wouldn’t go home. I couldn’t control how much I drank. That’s how I knew there was something wrong,” he said. If other drugs were available, he’d also smoke pot or use LSD or cocaine, he said.
A strong message from a friend finally convinced him he needed to do something about his problem.
“One of my friends said to me, ‘Hey, I went to treatment because I had a problem and you’re no different.’ And that’s kind of what got it into my head: ‘Wow, there are some things I can do to get better,’” Mr. Letendre said.
He entered a drug treatment program as a senior — detox and residential treatment, followed by six months of outpatient treatment.
“That kind of led me down the path,” he said. “When I got into recovery, this company recruited me to speak at schools. After I was out of high school, for about two years, I’d go around and speak at different schools about being in recovery.”
He ended up playing the lead role in “Eddy,” a Rhode Island-based play presented by the Edward Joseph LaRiviere Foundation, about a boy who died of drug use.
“Then I would come out afterward and tell my story. This was back in the late-’80s, early-’90s and I did it at Portsmouth High School and all over New England for about two years. It was my job when I started going to college. That helped me get into this field of helping people — and myself,” he said.
After college he started working at different treatment facilities and started his own company around 2009. He now has three offices around Rhode Island, treating clients ages 18 and over.
“Some people go into in-patient settings like I did and some continue in outpatient for long periods of time,” he said, adding that treatment options vary and tend to be “very individualized.”
It usually starts when parents — typically moms — approach him with concerns their children may be abusing drugs or alcohol. The majority of calls are about young men in their late teens or early 20s.
“I’ve had some (parents) come in with paraphernalia and they say, ‘What is this?’” he said. “They’re hanging around at home, they might be working, they might not. They’re unmotivated. They drink and they smoke and (parents) think there may be something else going on.”
Some parents may be naive, but they usually know their kid’s doing something by the time they call his office, Mr. Letendre said. “Then there’s the other extreme: ‘This thing kind of crept up on us. He’s been stealing from us, she’s out on the street and not coming home. We think she’s doing heroin; we saw the track marks and found the paraphernalia,’” he said.
Why more opioids?
Although he treats all types of addictions, Mr. Letendre said he’s seeing more and more clients hooked on opioids and other hard drugs
“I’m seeing a lot of the young guys I started seeing five or six years ago, they’re all doing hardcore drugs now,” he said. “Some have graduated from high school and I’m seeing heroin, a lot of cocaine and a lot of prescription drugs, and unfortunately I’m seeing a lot of kids dying.”
Heroin has been in this area for a long time, Mr. Letendre said.
“A lot of people just didn’t realize it. Down in Newport you have a methadone clinic that probably has 150, 200 people on methadone. So it’s been here, but over the last 15 years, prescription drugs started becoming a bigger issue in New England,” he said.
A variety of reasons are to blame, he said. “Down in Florida, there were a lot of pain management clinics and you could go in there and pretty much get what you wanted for the longest period of time. So a lot of people from New England would go down there and get a bunch of stuff and bring it up here and sell it on the street. That’s kind of what kicked it off,” he said.
Over the past two or three years, fentanyl has been introduced into the mix, he said.
“That’s another opioid, but it’s 50 times more potent than heroin and that’s why we’re seeing so many deaths. In Rhode Island last year, there were 336 deaths; 59 percent of those deaths involved fentanyl. It is a big problem in Rhode Island, which is ranked No. 4 in the nation as far as overdose deaths per capita. This year it looks like the deaths are on the decline, but we definitely have a problem.
“And it’s not just the cities, it’s the nice communities like Portsmouth. It’s not just kids who come from poor neighbors. Sometimes it’s kids who come from Sandy Point.”
Starting with pills
For many opioid users, it starts with prescription pills — whether it’s from their own supply or a family member’s.
“I’ve interviewed thousands of people in my career, and not one person said, ‘The first drug I did was heroin,’” said Mr. Letendre. “Usually people start with alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and there tends to be a progression — cocaine, other pills, prescription drugs and then heroin. In most cases the precursor to heroin is Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycodone. Now, cocaine is laced with fentanyl, and marijuana can be laced with fentanyl, which is crazy. People can die from these drugs in small amounts.”
As for President Trump recently declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency?
“I felt like it was an afterthought, that he should have acknowledged this months ago,” he said. “I’m not a big supporter of his for a lot of reasons, but whether he said it or not made no difference to me because I know it’s a huge problem. It was very disheartening to me that he didn’t put anything behind it, such as special funding. The whole thing was basically lip service. ‘Just don’t do it’ was his message.”
However, he acknowledged the president was technically correct when he said the easiest way to avoid getting addicted to drugs was to not take them in the first place.
“What I tend to see is that the younger the kids start, the more propensity of a problem and that’s what the research indicates as well,” he said.
What can we do?
To make a real change, people need to have open conversations about substance abuse and hear from addicts who have gone through it, he said.
“What I think really works with young people is hearing from other young people who have done it and suffered,” he said. “With adults, they probably don’t listen as much. When I was doing prevention in my early years, I had a lot of kids’ full attention when I was sharing my story. They were looking at me, quiet and asking relevant questions. Kids by nature, if you just say, ‘Don’t do it,’ they’re going to do it.”
He also believes parents need to do more research and not be afraid of what they may find out.
“I don’t want to point fingers at anybody, because there’s a lot of people in this community doing a lot of wonderful things,” Mr. Letendre said, noting he strongly supports the efforts of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition. “Over the years there’s been a lot more funding for prevention activities at the schools, but I don’t think it’s the school’s full responsibility to educate every kid on substance abuse. Personally, I think it’s the parents’ responsibility. I’m a parent, so guess what I talk about with my kids? I talk about the truth. I talk about things that can happen in sexual relationships. I talk about substance abuse issues.”
And yes, he’s shared his mistakes with his four daughters — ages 26, 24, 13 and 10. (His two oldest work in the same field, and his wife is the company’s human resource director.)
“I tell them, ‘You’re going to make mistakes in life, but the important thing is that you learn from them. Hopefully you don’t make the same mistakes as I did,’” he said.
“Honest, awkward conversations need to be had.”