EAU CLAIRE — Sen. Tammy Baldwin took her seat at a table of seven people in a small, wood-paneled room in the basement of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library after shaking hands with everyone in the room, including a young boy who sat off to the side with his mother.
Baldwin spoke softly, first telling a short version of the story she started telling publicly a few months ago, about her mother's lifelong struggles with mental illness, chronic pain and prescription drug addiction.
Baldwin was raised by her grandparents, but didn't publicly share why until after her mother's death last year.
"I do believe that it’s by communicating, by coming out, by challenging the stigmas, that we’re going to be able to make some headway and also have better informed policies around these things," Baldwin said.
She invited others — all there because their lives had been affected in some way by addiction — to join the discussion.
The man to her right was the first to speak. Vince Britton wore a backwards baseball cap and a Green Bay Packers polo shirt. He said he'd like to see doctor's offices stop using a 1-10 "pain scale" to measure patients' well-being at check-ups. He'd been able to game that system to get "piles of opiates" when he was using drugs, he said.
Baldwin responded, and others started to weigh in. Alicia Carlson, an expecting mother, talked about her mother's alcoholism and her sister's methamphetamine addiction. Britton chimed in again, lamenting that most of the biggest dealers supplying the Eau Claire area are based across state lines in Minneapolis. A few people shared their experiences — good and bad — with the local confidential informant system.
Sarah Ferber, a local recovery advocate, thanked Baldwin for sharing her family's story.
"As someone in recovery … what I felt when I stayed in my addiction was the stigma," Ferber said. "There’s a big chunk of the population that still looks at addiction as a moral thing and not as a disease."
Ferber said she wishes people could be exposed to more success stories, like hers, and not just the mugshots of those who have been arrested. Ferber's path to recovery included a local treatment program called Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers, and another local program that helped connect her with affordable housing.
All the while, the young boy sat with his mother along the wall, just far enough from the table that it was't clear whether they intended to take part in the conversation.
Then the woman, who asked to only go by her first name, Nichole, spoke, as softly as Baldwin had started the discussion.
"I have a — I can't speak on my own story right now, but I think it's important," she began, her words choked off by tears.
The tears kept coming, and she couldn't speak. Baldwin stepped away from the table and leaned in to whisper reassurances.
"I can do it," she said, steeling herself. "It’s important to start with the little ones. I guess I have to tell my own story. I’m a mom that had to leave."
She paused again, delayed by more tears.
"Today I’m 10 years in recovery, but I had to leave when my daughters were young to let them grow up … I'm trying to do it right now," she said, motioning toward her son.
Nichole said she thinks prevention efforts should focus on building up children's self-esteem and giving them goals to work toward. Ferber agreed — drugs and alcohol need to be replaced with something positive, she said.
She offered a few suggestions for treatment facilities, including offering team-based counseling. Carlson interjected: It seems like anytime she calls the local facility to get treatment for her mom, there are no beds available.
Jim Britton, Vince's dad, agreed. It's their dream, he said, to find the money to open a treatment center or sober living house in the Eau Claire area once he retires.
Most people at the table agreed, having a place to live makes a huge difference, especially if it's away from the friends they had when they were using. Several people said they'd like to see more efforts to help people reintegrate into the community after time in jail or prison, whether they be focused on education and skills training or helping connect people with community groups.
"The addiction treatment and re-entry process is completely separate from all the emerging groups in Eau Claire County," said David Carlson, an Iraq veteran. "People are being put right back in a position where they’re doomed to fail."
Baldwin mostly listened, chiming in from time to time to ask questions or let people know about efforts being made by state and federal government. She mentioned at one point that the medical community, especially those treating veterans, is pursuing more alternative pain treatment options like acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, yoga and massage therapy.
In an interview earlier this year, Baldwin's challenger, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, listed many of the same alternatives.
"I think an overarching thing is just changing the culture of how we think about pain management," Vukmir said, noting the unintended consequences of the 'pain scale.' "Now that we realize the consequences …we need to pull back and change the culture of how we think. That is a shift in thinking already occurring in the medical profession, in large part because we as policymakers have been demanding it."
In the same interview, Vukmir said she believes the majority of the response to the opioid abuse epidemic should come from the state, rather than the federal government. As much as possible, she said, the role for the federal government is to administer grants to states, who can distribute them most effectively.
Baldwin endorsed a similar approach during the conversation in Eau Claire.
"There has been a real stepping up at the federal level of putting dollars behind grant programs, but I think the ultimate focus of that is that localities know better what their needs are, their prevention needs, their treatment needs, what drugs are taking over in certain areas, what sort of support families need, and we want to make sure that folks have the resources to do that so we can … turn the corner and head on into recovery," Baldwin said.
Nichole, the mother in recovery, told Baldwin her family's story had touched her.
She asked Baldwin if her mother had ever had any clean time before her death.
Yes, Baldwin replied, smiling. It was on and off, she said.
"Oh, good," Nichole said. "Maybe my kid will become a senator."