Editor’s column: Sharing stories to remove shame around opioid addiction

  • Design by Nicole Chotain.

  • Editor Brooke Hauser. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 10/22/2019 5:03:11 PM

Dear readers,

Today begins a four-day series about the opioid epidemic — specifically, about the toll it has taken on people in our community, on those left behind.

Between now and Saturday, as you read stories about how families and friends are coping in the wake of tragic loss, you may see familiar faces. Some you may have seen in the newspaper before, around the time of their loss. Some you may have witnessed speaking publicly about the importance of destigmatizing addiction. Some of these people may be your friends or neighbors or colleagues or classmates. Or maybe you just recognize someone from around town, a familiar face at the coffee shop whose story you never knew.

Even if you don’t personally know anyone featured in this series, you will recognize them in other ways. They are parents who would do anything for their children. They are brothers and sisters whose lives are now on a completely different path. They are friends and frontline workers who are trying every day to remove the shame around addiction to save more lives. They are exceptional. They are not. As Cara Moser, who lost her 26-year-old daughter, Eliza, to an opioid overdose in 2018, pointed out: “It’s the same story. All the details are different, and they’re all meaningful, but there’s a skeleton to it all.”

Moser is one of several families who spoke to the Gazette for our series, “Those left behind: A special report on the opioid epidemic,” which Gazette photo editor Carol Lollis and writer Laurie Loisel began working on over the summer. Lollis first suggested the idea for the special report around the time Eliza’s parents, Moser and Dan Harper, came into the newsroom “determined to get the story out about their child,” as Lollis described it.

“As they walked out the door, I was really struck by, ‘What is their life like now?’” said Lollis, whose three sons were close friends with Mitch Ouimette, who died of an opioid overdose at 19 two years ago. “I think, for me, part of the obsession was, ‘It could be us.’ And I was obsessed with, ‘How are these people handling it?’ That’s the journalist in us, wanting to look at it for broader reasons but also personal ones.”

Writer Laurie Loisel felt a personal connection with her subjects as well. “The whole time doing these interviews, I felt like, ‘This could be my family,’” she said. Raising awareness around the opioid epidemic is a big part of her job as the director of community outreach and education for the office of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan. Loisel also has ties to the Gazette, where she worked as a reporter and later managing editor for nearly 30 years. In recent months, she has filed dispatches in the Gazette about initiatives to fight against opioid deaths, even accompanying Hampshire HOPE — the countywide opioid prevention coalition run out of the Northampton Health Department — to attend the country’s largest prescription drug and heroin conference in Atlanta. As with those dispatches, Loisel wrote this series for the Gazette using her skills as a journalist in her official capacity at the DA’s office.

We all felt it was important to explain the connection to you, the readers. The collaboration made sense to Loisel “as a route to educating the community about one of the most devastating issues facing our district,” she said. While it’s an unusual arrangement for the Gazette, we share the same end goal of informing the public about this growing threat and providing resources for those seeking help. We went through our own discussions in the newsroom about whether the partnership presented a conflict of interest. In the end, we settled on some boundaries: Loisel would not promote the DA’s office or its programs, but rather she would write about the community response to the opioid crisis, with a focus on families. Could we have assigned the series internally? Yes. We chose to work with Loisel because she already came to the subject with such a deep well of knowledge and empathic understanding.

As it happens, Lollis and Loisel have a history together. “Laurie was one of the people who raised me at the Gazette. I came here with no experience and then started working with Laurie, and I feel like she instilled in me a voice to tell the stories we both wanted to tell,” Lollis said. Among those stories was a chronicling of the last days of life for Northampton resident Lee Hawkins, who planned her death at age 90.

Loisel sees some common threads between the two series: “Both are about controversial topics that communities need to grapple with, and there are no easy answers,” she said. But while the Hawkins story was about an elderly woman who was at peace with her decision to die, Loisel said, “These are young people who were in no way ready to die — they happened to have been caught up in a vicious addiction.”

Like Lollis, Loisel was horrified by the sheer numbers of young people dying from opioid overdoses, and the impact of those losses on the constellation of people who loved them. Some of those people she met through her work with prevention coalitions around the community. Last year, she ran a writing group for people affected by the opioid crisis for “(IN)Dependent: The Heroin Project,” a theatrical production at the Academy of Music in Northampton based on interviews with heroin users, counselors and family members. “There were parents of people who had died, parents of people who were still using, and people still in early recovery, just very close to addiction,” Loisel said. “It was a moving experience, so when Carol wanted to do a story about the people left behind, it felt like the next thing to do in terms of understanding all the consequences.”

The DA himself has not read any of these articles or seen any of the photos prior to publication, though he did join Loisel, at the Gazette’s invitation, to talk about this project in our offices. Asked why he backed Loisel’s participation in the series, Sullivan said he also views the newspaper as an effective way of educating the public about the opioid crisis, which is quickly morphing into a fentanyl crisis. “Five years ago, fentanyl didn’t exist in heroin, and last year 90 percent of opioid fatalities in the state had some amount of fentanyl,” Sullivan said.

The synthetic opioid is so prevalent and unavoidable in lab-tested supplies of heroin, he added, “it’s like having flour in bakery products.”

In addition to warning the public about these dangers, Sullivan said he hopes that this series will allow readers to see that each death from opioid overdose is “not just a number, but a human being who lived and breathed in our community.”

He too wants to see the stigma around addiction disappear. “We strive for treatment above all else, to treat addiction as a disease and not criminalize it,” said Sullivan, who is in favor of safe-injection sites. “I think it’s important to embrace survivors of the opioid crisis, to say, ‘We care about you,’ to tear down the stigma. We grieve as a community.”

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