ANDOVER, Mass. — In a softly lit auditorium, people walked on stage in pairs; one held a portrait depicting someone who lost their battle with addiction, while the other told the audience the day they found “the miracle of recovery”.
The portraits are part of the Angels of Addiction series, and they lined the stage at the Greater Lawrence Technical School auditorium for the 4th annual Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project (MVPASAP) community forum.
The theme of the forum was “To Be Aware is to Be Alive: The Miracle of Recovery,” and the evening focused on education and awareness of addiction.
Some of the people on stage found recovery as recently as August, some as far back as 1988. The crowd cheered in support of all of them.
“We want to impress upon you the effect of the miracle of recovery,” said Phil Lahey, MVPASAP founder and forum organizer. “It’s hard work. All those portraits you see, their families didn’t get to see the miracle of recovery.”
The auditorium was dark during the showing of “If Only,” a Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation and Millenium Health short film.
In it, a high school-aged boy named Isaac succumbs to peer pressure and begins down a path of addiction with his friends.
His mother recognizes warning signs early, and puts him in recovery, but one of his friends dies of an overdose.
Though the stage was dark and the subject matter darker, co-writer James Wahlberg said it shines a ray of hope on the opioid crisis too.
“We lose sight of Isaac,” he said as the credits scrolled by showing dozens of people who lost their battles with addiction. “It’s important for me to say there is hope … don’t give up.”
After the film, Louise Griffin of Zach’s Team Foundation talked of early warning signs parents can be aware of.
Griffin lost her own son Zachary Gys from an accidental morphine overdose when he was 21.
“He was a great kid. They’re all great kids,” said Griffin. “They’re beautiful human beings.”
Griffin said parents shouldn’t dismiss “teenage” behavior like mood swings or distraction, because they can be early signs of drug use or addiction.
“If you can get to them, get them into treatment. Particularly at that age, it will work,” she said.
And Griffin said people should stop focusing on the stories of high profile overdoses or drug busts, which she said only further the stigma and shame of addiction and can be barriers to people seeking help.
Gys was prescribed Percocet after he sprained his ankle playing hockey, and then Vicodin when he broke his leg. The Vicodin “kicked his addiction into high gear,” said Griffin.
She encouraged people to be intimately involved in the drug prescription process if their children or loved ones are ever prescribed narcotics for pain.
Wahlburg backed her up with a staggering statistic: The United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population, and consumes about 90 percent of all the opioids in the world.
The auditorium was filled with people familiar with the scourge of addiction, as many in the audience had lost people close to them or battled addiction themselves.
As well as being an educational forum, it also served as a way for people to gather in solidarity and community.
“I don’t know if there’s any truer definition of a hero,” said Wahlberg of families who speak out about their experiences with addiction and losing loved ones.
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