Earlier this year, Brett Ann Stanciu, of Hardwick published “Unstitched: My Journey to Understand Opioid Addiction and How People and Communities Can Heal.” (Steerforth Press, 2021) She is also the author of “Hidden View,” a novel (Green Writers Press, 2015). “Unstitched” was critically acclaimed. On her website, Stanciu describes the impetus: “This nonfiction book begins when I was working as a librarian in a tiny, one-room library, in rural Vermont. A man who lived nearby, and was rumored to be an opioid addict, began breaking into the library after-hours, to use the computers and hang out in the space. I put a great deal of effort into preventing him from breaking in. ... Then, one frigid January afternoon, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. ...This book was written during my quest to understand my actions, my motivations, and my guilt.”
The Times Argus/Rutland Herald asked Stanciu about the response to the provocative book since its publishing this year.
— What has been the response to the book?
I’ve heard from numerous readers via email, Facebook, and phone who see their lives reflected in Unstitched. Through my own journey, Unstitched peels back the stigma that often saturates a family or an individual who is struggling with addiction. Unstitched asks, What if we don’t reduce people to a pejorative label — like “addict”? Many readers also let me know the book opened their eyes to a view of Vermont they hadn’t seen before. I’m grateful to hear from all readers.
In the wake of Unstitched, what have the outcomes been?Unstitched’s publication coincided with the pandemic. To no one’s surprise, COVID has overwhelmed the health care system and also dramatically increased overdose deaths. The isolation imposed by the pandemic has been especially toxic for anyone struggling with addiction. Currently, Burlington is debating opening an overdose-prevention site, and passionate arguments have been made both for and against that path. What is not debatable is that Vermont has a substantial addiction problem.
The pandemic and accompanying political turmoil created unprecedented social chaos. This chaos, while painful to live through, also offers an opportunity for genuine reflection and change. As a whole, Americans are publicly debating hard questions. Talking openly about addiction is a step in a healing direction. As a woman in recovery myself, I fully understand why addiction is so often hidden as a shameful secret. Addiction, however, is a secret that festers and grows. Only by speaking openly about addiction and acknowledging it, can we begin to move towards healing.
One of the greatest surprises I discovered while writing Unstitched was the unstinting generosity of people who were willing to share their stories about addiction. Unstitched has stories of people in recovery and, heartbreakingly, of a couple who lost their daughter to an overdose. The resilience and courage of these people astounded me, who shared their personal stories in hopes of helping strangers. I’ll emphasize that addiction is a thorny, complex beast. For those who are suffering in its grasp, the outlook can appear bleak. But people do heal and live meaningful and rich lives. Despite the current grim data, this is not a hopeless scenario.
Don’t you think Vermont, being a small state with such tremendous access to officials and policy makers, could have done more to head this crisis off?First, many Vermonters are devotedly engaged in numerous ways to mitigate addiction. That said, the roots of addiction are lengthy and gnarled. There’s a plethora of reasons why addiction is wrecking such havoc in Vermont. Numerous people have profited — legally and illegally — from flooding our cities and towns with incredibly addictive substances. Our society — not just in Vermont, but nationwide — has also been fractured by compounded problems that have caused widespread and often not readily visible trauma. Disparity of wealth, systemic racism, inequity in the education and health care systems, isolation, and the breakdown of families are just a few of these factors. In hindsight, the current “opioid crisis” perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
As I wrote Unstitched, I realized the way forward can’t be placed solely on the state. It’s a fallacy to think of addiction as an Us versus Them scenario. Addiction spreads, visibly or not, into every aspect of our communities — our schools, workplaces, and homes. To really decrease the devastation of addiction, we can’t just rely on the state to solve this problem. The people whose stories I share have made a positive difference, not because of any policy or mandate, but from their own choices.
How has the journey — from impetus to today — changed you and how you think about these issues?Writing Unstitched forced me to scrutinize my own life and how I fit into this particular time and place where, more or less by happenstance, I live with my daughters. In Unstitched, I write about my own struggles with addiction, and my insistence to take full responsibility for my life. The harder truth, I realized, is that addiction is both an individual disease and a societal illness. The ugly historical elements that contribute to the proliferation of addiction are enormously complex, deeply embedded, and difficult to change. Nonetheless, despite these constraints, we each have the opportunity to treat others with dignity and compassion, even when we don’t understand one another.
The book’s title reflects our current society — frayed and unraveling. Unstitched begins with a small town church that is unused, emptied of its vitality. The final chapters feature another abandoned church in Johnson that was bought by a family and re-made into a sober community center. The process initiated with one family and then involved — by hammer and paintbrush and significant donations — a whole and willing community. History is rife with examples of civilizations that have fallen apart and then come back together. Right now, we have the opportunity to take a hard look at who we are and knit ourselves back into a whole cloth, stitch by stitch, person by person.
Will there be a follow-up?In Unstitched, I quote a line from Karl Marx in Unstitched that reads, “(People) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances given and transmitted from the past.” Using this observation as a guide, I’m particularly interested in writing about the unique societal challenges women face regarding addiction and its too often evil twin of domestic abuse.