North Adams Vigil Celebrates Addiction Recovery, Mourns Loss
Around 100 people turned out for the candlelight vigil at Noel Field to celebrate those in recovery and remember those struggling or lost.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Brandy Whipple's struggle with addiction left her shoeless, homeless and alone on the streets of Salt Lake City.
It's also where she was reborn, in a sense, in finding the strength to reach for help to overcome her addiction.
"I feel like I died on the streets," Whipple told the crowd of nearly 100 gathered on Tuesday at Noel Field for the second annual candlelight vigil on substance abuse. "The person who I was, the things I did, I feel like I just died on the streets and from that point on, not to say it was the last time I used, but from that point on I can say I worked harder for my recovery."
Whipple and Michelle Slater, who is now studying to become a social worker, spoke about their struggles in overcoming an insidious disease that wreaks havoc on addicts, families and friends. It's cunning, said Slater, in convincing the addict that what they're doing is OK — despite the stealing, the lying and the using.
"Addicts don't know they're addicts most of the time," Slater said.
The vigil brought together those recovering from addiction and those who had lost someone to substance abuse. Through the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's Heroin Working Group and community groups such as the Have Hope Initiative, efforts are being made to provide support for substance abuse recovery and families grappling with loved ones caught in addiction.
"Too often the disease of addiction is perceived as deserved, and shameful, leaving families and friends to grieve in silence or for the addict to struggle alone to recover," said Mayor Richard Alcombright. "I'm guessing that all here have experienced or lived with someone who suffers from co-existing mental health or substance abuse issues. I've said so many times that mental health is the loneliest illness and substance abuse the loneliest disease."
He called for changes in insurance coverage and less focus on addiction as a public safety issue over a health issue.
"We can affect change over time that will see addiction and the underlying mental health issues as a public health epidemic and not simply as a public safety issue," the mayor said. "We need hope, all the hope that is around us tonight, and use that hope as a catalyst for our continued unification around addiction and the stigma that's attached to it."
Lois Daunis, program coordinator with NBCC and a member of the countywide working group on prescription and substance abuse, coordinated the vigil and spoke of some the support efforts.
The police stations in Adams, North Adams and Williamstown now offer 24/7 dropoff for people trying to dispense with unneeded prescription medication. The North Adams Police Department will also send a cruiser to pick up any discarded needles found by calling the business number at 413-664-4944.
Detective Mark Bailey urged residents to contact the police with any information.
"Don't just turn your back on a person because they're stealing things from you or going out and breaking into businesses ... report them because ultimately you're going to be helping them," he said, adding he'd rather sort through thousands of calls than have to respond to one death from an overdose.
"We need your help just as much as you need our help ... so working together I think we can really help solve these issues and help combat this addiction that really is running rampant not only in Berkshire County but neighboring states as well."
Rebecca Dodge, founder of the Have Hope Initiative, said this year had been "bittersweet" in helping community members overcome addiction.
"The trials and tribulations of that process were gratifying to say the least," she said. "But some came with much heartache.
"Strength doesn't come from what you do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn't."
Dodge recounted some of her own experiences with addiction more than a decade ago.
"I'm grateful every day for my rock bottom because it ultimately became the foundation on which I built my life," she said. "If I can do it, so can you."
The initiative meets every third Wednesday of the month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at First Baptist Church.
Will Brown sang a song in remembrance of those lost and the Rev. David Anderson of First Baptist led the group in prayer before the candles were lit and yellow balloons released in their memory.
"It is not too late," he said, calling for hope. "Let us in this place and time truly learn lessons from those who lost this battle. Let us learn the lesson from those who have won the victory in all of this."
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