If there was one take-away from the WNC Drug Awareness Walk held Sunday in Waynesville, it was that drug addiction is not a choice, not a parental failure and not a moral failing.
Addiction is an illness like diabetes or hypertension and the stigma associated with it needs to be combated.
That message was delivered at the event in multiple ways by speakers tackling the issue from multiple angles.
Lisa Falbo, co-founder of the SHARE Project, which organized the rally, told a crowd of about 150 the number of drug overdose deaths in the country has grown by 43%.
“Last year there were 200 overdose deaths a day in America, but this year it was 285 overdose deaths a day,” she said. “It’s an epidemic hidden by a pandemic.”
For those age 18 to 41, overdoses are the No. 1 cause of death in America.
“Drug use continues to be considered a moral issue, a parental failure, not an epidemic,” she said. “This stigma persists.”
Falbo said there are resources available to combat addiction and help facilitate recovery, and one of the most powerful resources are communities with caring people who have both a passion and a heart to help.
Dr. Susan McDowell, works with MAHEC and specializes in Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for addiction.
Addiction is a chemical disorder in the brain, and like other chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension, can be treated with medication.
Those who choose a recover option using MAT raise their chances of success from 10% to 50%, she said, “and folks in MAT are 75% less likely to die.”
MAT minimizes withdrawal symptoms and as a patient moves to the recovery stage, the treatment tries to stop cravings.
There is a myth that those using MAT aren’t truly in recovery, one McDowell dispelled.
“If you are a diabetic and you are managing your disease with diet and exercise,” I’m fine with that,” she said, “but if you need medication, I’m fine that that, too. The same with addiction.”
She encouraged people to talk openly about addiction to help reduce the stigma.
“It’s everywhere,” she said. “We can’t learn about something that is not in the light. “
It was a truth echoed by Chelsey Bumgarner, who works with Eleanor Health, a center to help people affected by addiction.
“Your brain is an organ and your brain gets sick, just like all your other organs,” she said. “Addiction is not a choice.”
Bumgarner told the crowd she saves lives simply by listening.
“I know for a fact I’ve saved hundreds of lives,” she said. “Your addiction and mental health problems do not define who you are. You do not have to be a nurse to save lives, you do not have to be a doctor to save lives, or any kind of professional to save lives. This starts with you. End the stigma.”
She challenged each person present to speak with one person a month for the rest of the year about the resources available to help addiction, noting that just that action could save more than 1,000 people.
Michele Rogers, co-founder of the SHARE Project, shared the story of her son Clay who became addicted to Percocet after a sinus surgery. He hid the addiction for a year, and Rogers only learned about it when he couldn’t pay his mortgage and needed help. For the next six years she was there every step of the way in the ups and downs of recovery before he died of an overdose.
She recalled the old saying about “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and told the crowd how untrue that saying really is.
“Wounds from sticks and stones heal pretty quickly,” she said, “but that’s not so with wounds from words.”
Many participants walked down Main Street carrying giant banners with the faces of loved ones lost to drugs.
When they joined others on the courthouse lawn, the Rev. Chris Westmoreland opened the event in prayer urging all to remember and celebrate the lives of those who died, while Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers urged the crowd to remember that, as sinners, every single person falls short.
“We are all in the mud in some way,” he said. “Everyone is going through something. Don’t fall victim to the stigma by thinking you are alone and that you are different.”