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“It’s Not Getting Any Better:” Berkshire County Observes Overdose Awareness Day

56 luminaries lit from within with names and photos attached to them on the steps of a park monument
Josh Landes

Tuesday night, a vigil was held in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts to observe International Overdose Awareness Day.

In Park Square, a small crowd gathered at the steps of Pittsfield’s Civil War monument to light luminaries marked with the names and sometimes photos of loved ones lost to overdoses.

“Last year, we had 56 overdoses, opiate-only overdoses in Berkshire County alone," said Julie MacDonald. "Now, they also say that 11.9% of yearly deaths in the United States are from alcohol poisoning. So that's another. And of course, there's lots of other forms of overdose.”

MacDonald is the acting director of Living In Recovery, a peer-driven support program for people in addiction recovery.

“I think the pandemic has really affected people, not only because of their emotions, but because, like, we were closed for some time, meetings were closed for some time," she explained. "So people aren't able to get out the way that they were to get the kind of support that they've been getting in the past. And I just, I think life is really hitting people hard, you know?”

“I've actually overdosed many times myself, and actually been dead quite a bit," said Angela Streeter. “I was on a medication that was super addictive. I lost my health insurance. And I was withdrawing from that medication. So my sister kind of told me, well, try this. So I did, and it went from there. It just snowballed from there. And it got worse as time went on. So I think I was in using for like two years straight.”

Her own journey culminated in an overdose in January of 2019.

“I’m even surprised they got me alive after 15 minutes, because I was dead 15 minutes," said Streeter. "Blue, no breathing.”

Now, Streeter is 20 months clean. She credits a Pittsfield treatment center – the Keenan House for Women – for providing her with a community of people also in recovery and getting her back on her feet.

“That house saves everybody, because there's a couple, a few of us girls that are here that know somebody or someone that has OD’d,” she told WAMC.

Streeter says she has lost family members and friends to overdoses.

“It’s very, very hard," she said. "It's very hard. It is. It's a hard journey. And every single person that is on drugs needs to get into some sort of rehab and they need to get off them before they die. That's all I can say.”

MacDonald, of Living In Recovery, says stories like Streeter’s are crucial to International Overdose Awareness Day.

“We have plenty of people here who are in recovery, who are proof that recovery can happen, that there are alternatives to using," she said. "But some people don't get the opportunity, right? And so we're here today to remember those people that didn't get the opportunity to get and stay clean and sober. We're here to honor the people that, many of us have lost people to overdose, and also to remind ourselves and remember that as a community together, we can stand stronger to keep each other going toward that recovery pathway.”

The vigil provided attendees the opportunity to share their stories of loss.

“I've lost two sons to this addiction. I lost my first son, my oldest son, in 2002, from an overdose, and I recently just lost my next oldest son. He would have been 43. But he died the day before his birthday. He was 42. And he died of an overdose this year on April 2nd, 2021," said Roberta Lucia. “It’s out there, the disease is strong and powerful. And you just don't know what you're getting on the streets anymore. So it's really difficult, you know? And I just, I don't know. I don't know what else to say. And I'm just lost for words. I also want you to know is that it's true. People are dying. Dying. And we need to have more support, more houses, more programs for these people that are out there, because it's not getting any better.”

MacDonald says support for peer-led groups like Living In Recovery can come both materially but also through awareness.

“I think more support and recognition of it, right, from the city and from the state in terms of helping us to get the word out there more, in terms of helping us to get the word to the clinical places and all of that, to let them know that we are here, we are open, that we're there to support people in any, whatever stage they are in their recovery, whether they're just getting sober, whether they're thinking about recovery, that we're there," she said. "I mean, you know, money probably we can always use, right? But, really, helping us get the word out there. Because quite frankly, I think we're unfortunately a well-kept secret.”

For people like Roberta Lucia, that well-kept secret has been a lifeline.

“When we come together like this, and as you see, you know, like, I myself am in recovery, myself. And we have wonderful activities. We have dances, we have picnics, we have campouts, and when you come together, you're not alone. You're never alone with this disease. You don't have to be alone to fight it.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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