VENTNOR – The bell tolled 105 times for souls lost this year to a disease that has become epidemic in America. As Tracy A. Smith read the names of the South Jersey victims – mostly from Atlantic and Cape May counties – survivor Mike McGaffney rang the bell. Sometimes the sound was loud and clear and was carried away by the wind, other times it was barely heard. Most sat motionless during the remembrance ceremony, while others were seen with tears streaming down their faces.
Smith, founder and president of Speakers for Change, which recruits speakers who inspire change, organized the area’s first ever International Overdose Awareness Day. She wasn’t expecting so many, but welcomed more than 200 people to the Suffolk Avenue beach Wednesday, Aug. 31. Some were there to remember loved ones lost to the disease of addiction, about a third of them are in recovery.
More people have died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record. Overdoses claimed the lives of 47,055 Americans addicted to opioids and heroin. They were men and women, daughters, sons, mothers and fathers, cousins and friends, all races and income levels, because addiction knows no boundaries. It affects one in three families in big cities, wealthy suburbs and tiny towns across America.
“It’s important to never forget them and to work to find solutions, so we don’t lose any more,” Smith said. “We need to start talking about it, so there is no shame. When the stigma goes away, we will find solutions.”
Smith said that education and awareness helped find solutions to the HIV-AIDS epidemic.
“That’s what we need to do with the disease of addiction. We need more treatment, we need more beds, we need more access to resources, and peer-to-peer support,” she said.
Smith talked about how Narcan saves lives, “because every life is worth living.”
“If you have a loved one who is using, you need to have Narcan in the house,” she said.
“You have broken the stigma because you are here,” said Charlie Kerley, drug and alcohol abuse coordinator for the Atlantic County Alliance, which provides drug and alcohol abuse prevention programs in county schools and community groups.
Around his neck was a Naloxone kit. He carries it everywhere, “just in case.”
“My Just in Case awareness program breaks down barriers. In 20 minutes you can save a life,” he said. “It’s better to have it and not use it than to not have it when you need it.”
Tom Carrona talked about his son Jerod, who died from the disease of addiction, and how his death from an overdose affected his family.
“At first you are in denial. You think that he will be ok. Then you think, ‘It can happen to us. We’re a good family.’ But the disease of addiction knows no boundaries. It is in our backyards and in our neighborhoods,” he said.
Carrona shared his story in hopes that it would help someone else who is suffering.
“It’s a long, long battle, but don’t give up. Show them love and support and do everything you can to get them into recovery.”
Carrona said more attention needs to be paid to addiction, more recovery programs are needed, and legislators need to understand the problem facing families of every income level, race and creed.
Kathy Rivero Robinson lost her only son Andy to addiction.
“There is hope in grieving,” she said. “It’s a process I never thought I’d be able to survive and be able to stay clean.”
Robinson is also in long-term recovery, she said.
“I went out and found people who suffered like me. I did research. I lost my only child, but today, I am happy. When you survive what I went through, you know there is hope.”
Robinson has since started a foundation that helps other families who are dealing with addiction.
Rita McGibney Ben-Asher choked back tears speaking about the loss of her daughter Rachel.
“We need to come together to fix a broken system.”
She talked about the need for local, state and federal officials to do more to help families like hers.
“Every police department should have Narcan, because they are first in response to an emergency. Health insurance companies need to get realistic about treatment. Short-term treatment doesn’t help anyone,” she said. “And the pharmaceutical companies need to do more. They make big bucks at our expense.”
The final speaker of the evening, before the bell-ringing of remembrance, was 30-year-old Eric Dua, who survived a drug overdose.
He said that since he has been in recovery, he has attended 43 funerals of friends under the age of 35 who have died from drug overdoses.
Dua said he survived because his family believed in him.
“I’m here because people have loved me unconditionally,” he said.
Dua said he is from a wonderful home and was “playing by the rules.” He went to college, but got in a car accident, which required back surgery.
“I was on pain killers and the disease took over,” he said.
He recalled picking up his mother and moving her out of the way to get high. That was three years ago.
“I was no longer being responsible. The disease had changed me,” he said. “I thought, there is always tomorrow to get better.”
Although he was in recovery, he still used drugs, he said, until he realized that his tomorrow might never come.
He knew his future depended not only on staying clean, but also changing his behavior, which included changing everything about the person he had become.
It was a daily struggle, he said, but today he is living well with his girlfriend and family’s support.
“My mom can now sleep at night, without waiting for a call,” he said.
“Some say once an addict, always an addict. But I say no. We are warriors. I received the gift of life and acceptance. Now my greatest goal is to do for others.”
Faith Johnson of Mullica Township, whose daughter is in recovery, said the event was informative and inspirational.
“We need more events like this to create awareness that this is happening everywhere, every day, taking away our children.”