Rip a star off our American flag. We have lost the population of an entire state to the ravages of the opioid crisis since 2000. It is as though the population of Vermont has disappeared–from our lives, from labor statistics, from our collective future. The ticking sound you hear is that number, 645,000 climbing higher daily.
In an effort to control substance abuse, we have incarcerated huge numbers of people for non-violent drug offenses. In fact, each day we have under lock-and-key the population equivalent of Kentucky. Through incarcerations and overdose deaths, we have become less, as a nation. It is time to rethink our approach to drugs and drug addiction.
Join me. I have embarked on a nationwide endeavor–I am traveling all around the United States interviewing people suffering or recovering from drug addiction. These interviews will form the basis of several large art installations to reduce the stigma surrounding drug addiction.
My journey began in the Seattle area where a young woman said to me, “It was my fault, I chose to first use this drug, but then it began using me.” These words flipped a switch in my mind. The power of this class of drugs is inarguable: 23% of people who try oxycodone become addicted; that is one in four people.
I learned that it takes only five days for opioids to effect chemical changes in the brain’s executive function. In less than a week of usage, a person can be taken hostage, chemically hijacked. In my travels, I have not met anyone who wants to be addicted; I have met plenty of people who are desperate to break free from the chemical stranglehold of drugs.
My travels have taken me to Seattle (WA), Portland (OR), Salt Lake City (UT) , Los Angeles (CA), Denver (CO), Austin (TX), Rapid City (SC), Fayetteville (AR), Evansville (IN), Lake Worth (FL), Rockville (MD), Raleigh/Durham (NC), Charleston (SC), New York City (NY), Boston (MA), Hartford (CN) and Portsmouth (NH)…and my venture continues.
I meet people wherever they are in their own journey: I have visited homeless shelters, soup kitchens, pawn shops, in-patient and out-patient recovery treatment centers, and sober living residences. I have even interviewed people on the street. There is much to learn from them all.
One evening, I was at a sober living residence in Maryland, when it all came home to me: I told one of my interviewees what a honor it is to be allowed into individuals’ lives to learn their stories. He looked at me with a gaze that echoed the brutal road he had walked and rhetorically challenged me–“So why is there stigma?”
He is right.
Walk in my shoes as I encounter people–each life immensely valuable–devastated by addiction. Watch as I build art to change the way you feel about those who have used. Help me turn judgment into empathy.