BRATTLEBORO — When Michael Poster was a boy nearly seven decades ago, neighbors his current age would ask what he hoped to do when he grew up.
“No kid ever says, ‘I want to be a heroin addict,’” the Dummerston resident notes. “But that’s what I became.”
A teenage Poster used and sold drugs to escape anxiety and depression, only to eventually stop and work as a motorcycle mechanic, then an artist, carpenter, cabinetmaker, businessman and finally a photographer. Reaching retirement age at 65, he came full circle and visited the local Turning Point addiction recovery center in hopes of volunteering.
“It was important for me to see what recovery was like for people now,” he says, “and to try to give back.”
Focusing his camera, Poster has created an exhibit, “If She Has a Pulse, She Has a Chance,” on display through Jan. 7 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. The show reveals the words and faces of locals wrestling with alcohol and drug abuse — through both portraits on the walls and people attending a series of supplemental public programs in the space in between.
Take the mother who, standing up from her seat, cried as she talked about her struggling son.
“He said, ‘Do you think I want to be an addict?’”
Or the neighbors seeking to curb related downtown begging and burglaries.
“I’m trying to understand why,” one said. “Is there a reason this epidemic is happening?”
“It’s different for everyone,” Poster responded. “We support all paths to recovery because all paths to addiction are different.”
The exhibit pictures 32 Turning Point clients of varying ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds, personal quotes telling their stories, and a portrait of the photographer himself.
“A lot of people tend to think what’s going on now is unique,” Poster says. “It’s devastating and troubling, but 45 years ago there were people devastated by heroin. It’s good we’re paying so much attention now. No one was paying attention then.”
Although Poster began his recovery in 1970, “I’m still working on it. The most important word in my early recovery was ‘no’ — no to drugs, no to addicted friends and an addicted lover, no to anything that might trigger a relapse. But I soon realized that in order to get back what I’d lost, I had to start saying ‘yes.’ I had to remember who I’d wanted to be in the first place.”
The photographer has created other shows on such subjects as the people of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and women’s roller derby as well as local takes on Brattleboro’s New England Center for Circus Arts, Bellows Falls’ Twelve Tribes Messianic community and Dummerston’s Scott Farm orchard.
“I feel the camera is secondary to just being there,” Poster says. “People aren’t proud to be addicts, but they’re proud to be in recovery. And recovery really requires a lot of help.”
Community representatives at a recent panel program concurred. Suzie Walker, executive director of Turning Point of Windham County, grew up in an alcoholic family yet has stayed sober for the past two decades. She understands why people use alcohol and drugs to numb the pain of such personal loss as a breakup, unemployment or homelessness.
“It’s a complicated problem,” Walker said. “We can get people into treatment, but if we’re not dealing with the underlying causes and conditions, these things tend to repeat.”
Brattleboro police report local heroin use has skyrocketed from 20 overdoses in 2010 to upward of 100 and five resulting deaths this year.
“No one’s going to listen to me say ‘stop using drugs,’ and arresting and prosecuting people isn’t working,” Lt. Adam Petlock said. “How can we get a handle on this? What can we do to effect some change? We need to get people into programs that can help.”
Friends and relatives want assistance, too.
“It was a life-altering experience for all of us,” said Susan Avery, a mother of two addicts who has raised her grandchildren. “There is not enough emphasis placed on the fact families are also in trouble.”
“We try to include shows that have real social relevance and allow us to foster awareness, education and discussion,” says museum director Danny Lichtenfeld, who has found himself setting out extra folding chairs to accommodate capacity crowds. “This project is less about the scourge of addiction and very much about the possibility of recovery.”
The exhibit can be seen through Jan. 7, with more information available at the museum’s website. Poster cautions that not everyone pictured is still clean.
“The process of recovery is not in any way finite,” he says. “Relapse is a part of the process.”
Then again, panel participant Ella Thorne-Thomsen hasn’t used heroin in six years.
“Everything in my life was broken, and I was surrounded by this tangle of seemingly insurmountable obstacles I felt convinced I was never going to be able to fix,” she recalled during one program. “I knew how to make myself feel better for 20 minutes.”
The exhibit aims to show another way.
“What was helpful to me was to have a roomful of proof that recovery is possible,” Thorne-Thomsen said. “I needed to see that.”