WILLIMANTIC, Conn. (WTNH) — Mary Middleton sits on a bench in downtown Willimantic.
She pulls down her hoodie as she breathes in the crispy, autumn air and exhales a sigh of relief for she has remained clean in the town once dubbed “Heroin Town.”
How her addiction began
Middleton was born on Dec. 8, 1973. She spent the first six months of her life in St. Raphael’s Hospital — now known as Yale New Haven Hospital, St. Raphael Campus — after being born with a cleft palate, partial hearing, and asthma.
She was given a 50% chance to live and was kept under a close eye. So close that she wasn’t even held by her mother until her half birthday.
Middleton grew up in Meriden and lived with her parents until they divorced in 1976. She attended Catholic school at St. Mary’s School until 8th grade and then was enrolled in St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol.
After being tormented by her peers, she begged to be transferred again her freshman year.
On her 13th birthday, Middleton learned that her mother was addicted to cocaine for several years before she was born — that would be the first time drugs would negatively impact her life.
Her addiction started in 1999 after she hooked up with her then-boyfriend and started popping pills. Her infatuation grew from Vicodin to Percocet to Oxycodone.
For the next 15 years, she would struggle.
“I did coke and then years down the road I met up with other people, that were friends, and did the crack and did the meth,” Middleton said.
Her introduction to heroin came after a friend, whom she was living with, started selling it — one of the nation’s most addictive substances infiltrated her home and soon, her life.
“Heroin was now in my house, and then I tried it and that’s when I started liking it,” Middleton said.
After her ex-boyfriend passed away a year after their break up, Middleton said she turned to the one thing that made her feel numb: the needle.
“I felt the guilt and remorse, so I turned to the needle fulltime because I didn’t want to feel … I didn’t want to feel anything,” she said.
Middleton said she then became hooked on drugs and lost everything — eventually becoming homeless.
Her introduction to “Heroin Town”
Her involvement with drugs got her in trouble with the law and she was arrested several times for drug-related charges.
In January 2014, Middleton said she relapsed within two hours of being released from a short stint in jail and knew she needed to make a change.
She admitted herself to Stonington Institute in August 2014 where she ultimately started her journey to sobriety.
On her 41st birthday, she was sent to jail for five months at York Correctional Institution and then was taken to a halfway house in Willimantic — a decision that shocked many.
“Some of the COs [correction officers] were like, ‘Why would they send you to heroin capital? They’re setting you up to fail,” she recounted. “I said, ‘I heard this was the heroin capital of Connecticut.” “She was like, ‘No, this is the heroin capital of the country.”
“But I assured them I’m not coming back and especially not for heroin,” she confidently announced with a gleam in her eyes.
While she thought the decision to place a recovering heroin addict in a town that was once plagued with heroin differentiated from the status quo, it was a challenge she was willing to accept.
“I said, ‘Don’t put me in the middle of it [drug scene], but as that time went on I realized I’m not really in the middle of it … Once I got out of the halfway house and I reached my one-year clean time that was it; I wasn’t looking back.”
How she stayed sober in a town of temptation
While some town officials and residents agree that Willimantic cleaned up its act, the everyday temptation is still there for Middleton and other recovering addicts.
“I don’t see it like they said it,” she said. “I really thought when I came to this town I was going to see it all the time and I don’t. Unless I’m part of the group that’s doing it, I don’t see it … Besides a needle on the ground or an empty baggie, not as much as I did four years ago but that’s because four years ago I was still thinking about it.”
While the opioid crisis may not be seen to the naked eye, it’s still an issue people continue to face daily.
From 2012 to 2018, Windham, where Willimantic is located, had 61 accidental drug-related deaths, according to Connecticut Data Collaborative.
While Middleton said she doesn’t see people openly doing drugs in downtown like years ago, she said she knows drugs are still around and where to find them.
“I’ve never seen it. I mean, I’ve seen people screwed up out of their minds after the fact, but I’ve never actually seen people doing it right here in the open.”
Even though the enticement exists, she said she still feels confident that she can continue her sobriety.
“I feel totally safe, totally safe. Just like I trust myself to walk down the street in Meriden now because living here and coming to meetings, built my strength back up. I know how to say ‘no.'”
She commended Willimantic on its resources — like Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery — to help her and people like her to get and stay clean.
With nearly five years of sobriety under her belt, she now spends her days working at BJs, her Sunday mornings at church, and the time in between helping others fight their addictions.
While she acknowledges that an issue still remains, she said Heroin Town is no longer a fitting name.
“I think it’s just a nice quiet town that’s just got a really bad name because of how small it is compared to other cities.”
Who she credits for her sobriety
While Middleton and her mother had a rocky relationship for most of her life, she said losing her helped bring on the realization that she needed to get clean.
“It wasn’t until my mom passed away that I realized that I was the end of the bloodline [and that] no drink or drug is ever going to bring her back.”
While she struggled with her addiction for years, she said she ultimately found spiritually in her recovery.
“The last night I spend in Meriden before I went to Stonington, I slept underneath the overhand at St. Mary’s School where I grew up going to school because I need peace,” she remembered. “I needed to find Jesus.”
“I prayed to him that day, that very last day, to help me find a way to stay clean for a few months so I could stay out of jail. It kept me clean but I didn’t keep me out of jail but that’s okay because that added five more months to my clean time. So … he knows what he’s doing up there.”