One addict's story: Drugs cost grandson of Russian immigrant the farm — literally

Peter Augustinovich says addiction cost him the farm — literally

I went to Springfield hoping to talk to the folks at The Magic Mushroom, the head shop where customers no longer have to pretend they're buying fancy glass pipes to smoke "tobacco." 

No comment, said the owner when I asked to do an interview about the Vermont law that took effect July 1 making it legal to possess and grow small amounts of recreational marijuana.

Driving away, I passed through downtown, where I saw a man in sneakers and paint-splattered jeans walking slowly along the sidewalk. The sun bore down, and I could see sweat beaded on his face. He wore a bright green t-shirt that declared, “Addiction Kills.”

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I thought, this guy has a story to tell. As it turned out, he does. 

Peter Augustinovich is the grandson of a Russian immigrant who came to Springfield in the 1920s and bought a spectacular piece of farmland atop Elm Hill. For nearly a century, the Augustinovich Dairy supplied milk and hay to Vermont’s agricultural economy.

Peter grew up as one of seven children, the only boy, and he dreamed of following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Nickolas, and his father, John.

“I wanted to be a farmer with a bunch of kids,” he told me. “Have them help me run the farm.”

Now 58, Peter has a different story to tell. He had a number of relationships, but none ended in marriage or fatherhood. He was the first of his siblings to go to college, earning a degree in electronics engineering, but the stress of that job led him to drink.

He finally returned to help his father run the farm, but three years ago he lost that dream, too, after his abuse of numerous drugs — alcohol, pot, heroin and bath salts — left him unable to keep up with his obligations and forced him into rehab.

“I had a beautiful 163-acre farm and I lost it to drugs and alcohol,” Peter said, after I stopped him on the sidewalk and asked if he would share his story.

Peter doesn’t think pot is necessarily a bad thing, if used in moderation. It can help people with cancer, glaucoma and other medical conditions. It can soothe anxiety and provide a relaxing buzz.

But for people like him who are wired for addiction, he said, it’s a substance best used sparingly, if at all.

His advice to young Vermonters who can now use weed without facing criminal charges?

“Don’t abuse it. Use a little at a time,” he said. “It can lead to harder drugs — it did for me.”

I asked Peter if he’d show me the family farm. He agreed, but said I would have to drive because he lost his license after being convicted of drunken driving for the fourth time.

We drove up Elm Hill Street, climbing to an expanse of orchard grass and clover that stretched toward the horizon. There used to be a beautiful brick house here, with a mahogany staircase inside and a slate roof up top.

The house is gone now. Only an unused barn with weathered siding remains. On the side, there’s an American flag that Peter nailed up when some townspeople suspected the Russian immigrant family of being Communists.

Peter learned how to work hard in that barn, and to drink vodka, sometimes at the same time. His mother, Betty, got him piano lessons and he took to them.  

But he was born wired for addiction, Peter came to realize, and it eventually took over. He totaled his Subaru and and got a DUI. Just two months later, in 2014, his father died at age 90. Then everything fell apart. 

Peter was living in the family home at the time, and he was supposed to run the farm, which by then had shifted from dairying (milk prices dropped too low) to selling hay.

But he got involved with a woman, and before long they were drowning themselves in alcohol and drugs. He neglected the bills and found the water shut off.

“All we did was drink all night and sleep all day.”

He had to move out of the house. Next stop: Rehab.

February 25, 2015 marked his 55th birthday. He spent it at Phoenix House in Dublin, NH.

“I celebrated my birthday in rehab. They baked me a cake,” he said. “I hadn’t had a cake in years.”

He’s been sober for more than three years, Peter told me. He’s living on disability payments and odd jobs and working to live by the terms of the community sentence the judge gave him instead of shipping him off to jail. He's grateful for another chance. 

Standing at the old place with me, he looked through a new pair of prescription glasses at decades of history. He recalled climbing atop the barn roof in winter to shovel snow to keep it from collapsing. He remembered spilling buckets of milk when he attended to the cows while also attending to the bottle.

He swept his hand through the air to take in the expanse of the land his family will soon have to sell, now that his mother’s passed on and he’s lost the opportunity to run the farm. He lives in a subsidized apartment downtown and doesn’t get up here often — it’s a long, steep walk for a man without a license. 

“Yeah,” he said. “I miss living up here.”

But he’s pleased with his sobriety, which he must work each day to maintain. That morning, he had won a game of pool with his friends at the Turning Point Recovery Center in town. That afternoon, under a sea-blue sky, he had hopes. 

“I’d still like to have kids even though I’m 58,” he said. “I’m the last to carry on the family name.”

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