A gathering of grief and support
● By J. Chambless
The First Baptist Church in Kennett Square was nearly filled on Aug. 31 for International Overdose Awareness Day.
By John Chambless
They came in groups of two or three or
four, wearing T-shirts with photos of departed family members. There
were hugs of recognition and welcome, and a steady drone of
conversation as the pews filled at the First Baptist Church in
Kennett Square. By the time the program started on the evening of
Aug. 31, there were just under 200 people who had a loved one
fighting drug addiction, or a loved one who had lost the battle.
There were far too many people.
To mark International Overdose Awareness Day, the grassroots addiction support group Kacie's Cause held a meeting and vigil at the church. Similar meetings were held in Delaware County, Oxford and Exton, and at well over 300 other places in the nation. It was a chance to connect, to share grief and support information, and to shine a light on an epidemic that has touched nearly everyone.
Andy Rumford, whose daughter, Kacie, died of a heroin overdose four and a half years ago, opened the evening by reading a poem he reads daily for solace. Pastor Daniel Nicewonger, who opened the First Baptist Church for the meeting, spoke about endurance in the face of turmoil.
Luis Tovar, who has joined Rumford in operating Kacie's Cause and its outreach programs, told the audience, “I hope you find some solace in being with each other tonight. We get you. We are part of 357 gatherings throughout the United States tonight. We hope you walk away with a feeling of support and love and understanding.”
Sen. Andy Dinniman cited some obstacles that those struggling with addiction face, such as 30-day insurance coverage for rehab that is far too short to be effective. He asked the audience to directly pressure their representatives to keep the addiction crisis in the spotlight. “Every day, too many people are dying,” he said. “Those whose child or relative has died – no one understands the trauma they go through every day. Together, we can educate and create change.”
Dinniman asked everyone in the pews to hold hands. “That's the strength you get from other people,” he said. “That's the only way we're going to change things. We will do it together, in the memory of those we love.”
Tovar asked Dinniman about starting needle exchange programs to insure that addicts at least are not spreading diseases by sharing needles. Currently, Tovar said, clean needles are considered drug paraphernalia and are illegal to distribute.
“Many laws have to change,” Dinniman said. “We have a new paradigm. This is not just affecting a few people. Lots of things we've tried don't work. We need to rethink things, given the dimension of this epidemic. You have to go to your legislators and tell them if they are not going to help, then you are not going to support them.”
Chief Bill Holdsworth of the Kennett Square Police Department asked the audience, “What more can we do to help you?”
He pointed to the drug take-back program that started eight years ago, in which families bring unused prescription drugs to the police station for proper disposal. “We have to call about every three weeks for disposal, because the box is overflowing, and it's a big box,” Holdsworth said. “It's scary to see how much is collected. And it's just a fraction of what's out there.”
Holdsworth has been in local law enforcement for about 20 years, he said, praising the DARE program that used to educate young students about the dangers of drug abuse. “But the program didn't continue through middle school and high school,” he said, so it gradually lost its effectiveness.
There were questions from the audience about joint police/student after-school programs, mentoring programs, and whether addicts who are arrested for drug possession should be put in jail or steered first to rehab programs.
Holdsworth said there is a new impetus to prosecute dealers who supply drugs that kill someone. Cheap and easily available heroin, now laced with lethal substances such as fentanyl, “scare the hell out of me,” Holdsworth said. “As police officers, it's scary that a few grains of this stuff could touch your skin and you could overdose.”
Rumford mentioned safe injection sites – places where addicts could use drugs in medically supervised surroundings – as being successful in Vancouver, where 600 to 900 people a day are monitored for signs of overdose. Similar sites are set up in England, he said, and are saving lives. Locally, there is no such site.
A former addict, Adam Lush, spoke to the families about his own experiences. Now clean and sober for 13 years, Lush said he was the son of alcoholics who showed him by their actions that drinking was fun. After drinking two beers the first time, Lush said, he woke up the next day feeling horrible. “Whereas a normal person would not do that again, the definition of being an addict is using a substance over and over again despite negative results,” he said.
Lush said beer turned to pot, going to school stoned, and weekend parties where he felt he had to be drunk to have a good time. Eventually, the drugs got stronger and Lush had to use more and more just to maintain. “That was the point where there was no turning back,” he said. “The arrests started coming. The negative consequences were not stopping my behavior.”
At 19, as a student at West Chester University, Lush found himself paralyzed with fear about going into the hallway for a drink of water. “That's when I realized that something was really wrong.” He broke down, called his parents and was taken to a recovery support program.
Lush works in a treatment program now, and said, “This disease is very hard to treat, but tons of help is available. Luckily, I saw that this was going to kill me. I find joy in life now.”
Tovar introduced a man named Scott who attends the weekly Kacie's Cause support group for family members of addicts. Scott told the audience that Aug. 31 “is the day my 27-year-old son is released from jail in California. He's been in rehabs, he's been on the streets. He's going to be homeless and jobless, and he's at very high risk.”
His son's addiction, Scott said, “takes over your life as much as the addict's life. The main feeling of family members is hopelessness. I didn't cause my son's addiction, and I can't cure it. You need to be strong for yourself, because addiction can break a family apart. Over 60,000 people died from overdoses last year. That's more Americans than those who died in the Vietnam War. This is a national disgrace.”
Tovar reminded caregivers that “you have to work on yourself first. That's hard to do, especially for moms, who want to fix everything. But addicts are good at lying,” he said. “They're very good at that. That's the disease, that's not your kid. It was hard for me to let go, but you've got to trust yourself.
“There are three options for our kids,” Tovar added. “Recovery, jail, or death. That's it. The longer we continue to make it our problem, the longer we are extending their drug use. The longer they use, the harder that hole is to get out of.”
At the back of the church, a young man stood up.
“My name is T.J.,” he said. “I have one year clean.” Addiction, he said, took away his promise as a baseball player and Scout. “I've been in Kensington, shooting up under a bridge,” he said, referring to the notorious gathering place for addicts near Philadelphia. “I'm a six-foot man, but that little, powdery substance can control my life. After a while, I was just using to maintain. That's how dark it is. I've lost way too many friends, but we can stop these statistics. This is an epidemic disease, and literally the whole country is going through it. I hate heroin. I hate opiates.”
Several people in the audience began to cry as T.J. continued. “I've been to jail 10 times in the last eight years. Addicts should not be going to jail. They need help. Sorry, I'm going on too long. Now, I have way too much to live for. I have to work the program. I encourage family members to get into a group. I just had to get this out. There is hope for everyone. That's all I have to say.”
At the end of the program, the crowd of family members filed outside to the parking lot, where glow sticks and glow necklaces were distributed. Nicewonger said a final prayer in the center of the circle, and several family members mentioned aloud the names of those they had lost. While young children waved the glow sticks and darted happily back and forth, their parents, siblings and grandparents stood silently, holding each other's hands and sharing their grief.
For information about Kacie's Cause, visit www.kaciescause.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.