Peer Grief Helper Profile: Peter Babineau
By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor
I was first introduced to Peter Babineau at the height of the pandemic in a Learn to Cope video meeting and was immediately struck by his upbeat and caring demeanor. He leads with compassion and makes one feel welcome, radiating warmth and acceptance in a way that is rare in this stigma-ridden journey. At the end of each meeting, he gathers the group in and does a mindful-based breathing exercise (which he is trained in) to help center participants and model self-care. He also sends out weekly meeting reminders that are profoundly reflective and inspirational. As someone who also writes reflectively, I was more than intrigued.
My own journey includes losing one son to substance-use disorder and struggling to keep another alive -- which is how I came to be “invited” to attend this closed meeting -- the only one of its kind -- called Still Learning, Still Coping. A screen filled with sad faces was my first reminder that I am not alone, and I began to listen, week after week, to stories similar to my family’s. Many of the participants had attended Learn to Cope group meetings when their loved ones were struggling with substance-use issues but then felt like they no longer belonged there after their person’s death.
“Between my personal history with active addiction and my professional work, I have seen so very many people that I love lose this battle and have cried and mourned their passing alongside their families and friends on too many occasions,” said Peter. “So I had the idea of providing a space that would allow for all of this -- a safe, supportive environment that offers the typical LTC supports and also welcomes the grief and bereavement process as well as honoring and holding the deceased in our hearts and our minds.”
I couldn’t help but be curious about how he was able to maintain his long-term sobriety (he recently celebrated 30 years in recovery). Still, I didn’t learn the details until we sat down for this interview. In fact, if you asked me which of the following I thought might be true about Peter, I would have guessed #5:
- Began sniffing nitrous oxide through whipped cream cans at age 8
- Began smoking pot at age 10
- Began drinking at age 12
- Began injecting drugs at age 16
- None of the above
The correct answer, however, is #6. Yet, somehow, he still managed to learn how to play the guitar well enough to form a band, graduate from high school and college and earn decent money traveling with his group. He stopped doing opioids around this time, though, and began making decent money, but it was all going to purchase cocaine while he was basically “living in a box.” When the band finally crashed, he struggled through a series of arrests and found himself back in Massachusetts. Peter worked his way up in a restaurant chain to the general manager position during a period of stability and was briefly substance-free. The situation was short-lived, though, and he began smoking crack and embezzling money to purchase cocaine. The big wake-up call came when he was robbed as he was making a bank deposit on the day after Christmas 1990, and suffered post-traumatic stress in the aftermath. Feeling increasingly despondent, he agreed to a safety contract with his therapist but ultimately landed in a lockdown psychiatric unit for two months after a drinking incident he does not recall. January 1, 1991, marked his first day of sobriety during this period. Soon after, he confessed to the crime he had committed, made restitution and began to work on his recovery, eventually marrying his wife, Maureen.
Peter began to attend AA meetings, but he became more heavily invested in Narcotic Anonymous. He found a sponsor, became one himself, and did public relations around the NA philosophy. He also went back to school for CADAC credentialing and landed an internship at the Hamden County Sheriff’s Department. Simultaneously, he was involved in early harm reduction and took clean needles and Narcan “into the woods” -- which his peers did not always sanction. He was not deterred for even a minute. He continued to volunteer as an advocate for both AIDS and overdose awareness until he was hired as a case manager and clinician for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department. In this capacity, he served as a substance use counselor, educator, and curriculum coordinator, marking the beginning of what would be a 25-year career there.
Fast forward to an evening in 2011 when Peter and Maureen were, ironically, on their way home from a dinner celebrating their 20th year in recovery. Not long after dropping their son off at a friend’s home, they received a phone call that he was in trouble. He was rushed to a hospital by ambulance, where he almost died from alcohol poisoning, and there was nothing they could do but wait it out. Fortunately, he survived, but they battled through a series of other incidents and were reminded of the helplessness of families and friends whose loved one is struggling. Today, they continue to support him in his wellness, but it was a cruel reminder of the ruthlessness of substance-use disorder. Peter was so disheartened by “discompassionate people” around this time, he stopped going to NA meetings and began to study Buddhism, which he practices to this day.
One evening, he took his son to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Chris Herron was speaking and was surprised -- and yet not surprised at the 600-plus person turnout. There were also two Learn to Cope speakers. After hearing LTC director Joanne Peterson speak, he told his wife, “I’m gonna work for her.” He was instrumental in getting Narcan into the hands of the staff at the sheriff’s office, and he worked with the state Department of Public Health to pilot a nasal Narcan program -- where once again, he met up with Joanne, who was also advocating for the program.
In early 2017, Peter took early retirement from the sheriff’s office but soon returned part-time to do groups and substance-use advocacy, going back to full-time a year later. He spotted a Learn to Cope ad for a part-time manager, immediately applied, and was hired. He juggled both positions until an emergency appendectomy led him to do some soul-searching, resulting in a second and final retirement from the sheriff’s office and, eventually, a full-time job at Learn to Cope -- his dream job.
Today Peter is the senior regional manager of Learn to Cope in Western Mass., a job he has been training for his whole life. His personal journey, educational, volunteer, and professional experiences have combined to offer unique expertise and knowledge about a disease that has devastated too many lives. Peter does the work with great awareness and respect for individual choices and is blazing new trails in his outreach to law enforcement, nonprofits, schools, families, and multiple other communities. His vast experience and knowledge have taken him from the streets to the statehouse, and he shares as much as he can at our Still Learning, Still Coping meetings, a role that he can only say “the universe” must have chosen him to do.
“I haven't lost a close family member in this manner, but I have lost a great many friends, some very, very close friends, to substance-related death including overdose, suicide, violent crime, and trauma as well as substance-induced health issues. I am just so deeply grateful for this opportunity, and I pray that I serve in this role effectively.”
In a word, I would describe Peter Babineau as humble. He genuinely believes that “we are by nature beautiful, strong, creative beings with an inner light able to illuminate the darkest of nights and the stormiest of days, but we can only keep what is given away." In that case, perhaps he is best described as that blinking ray that beams from a lighthouse during a storm; it doesn’t actually save us -- but it allows us an opportunity to save ourselves and, in turn, save others.