Guest columnist Alyssa Curran: ‘It is unacceptable for a single life to be lost to opioid overdose’

  • A reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va., in 2017. AP

Published: 9/28/2022 5:55:07 PM

My name is Alyssa Curran, although you will learn that I have many different identities. Up until age 17, there was never any doubt in my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was going to be a professional figure skater for the rest of my life.

No need for a backup plan when you’re riding on sheer luck, a little bit of talent and wildly blind confidence. However, as my junior year of high school came to an end and I found myself with multiple torn ligaments in my ankle, I realized I would need to pivot, and it wouldn’t be on the ice.

I would go on to experience a full-blown identity crisis before I could even legally vote. Switching majors and transferring schools simply felt like trying on clothes, with nothing ever fitting quite right. The only time I ever thought I felt like myself was when I was drinking alcohol. I had a very quick digression into alcoholic behaviors and in hindsight, I’m not sure if my relationship with the drink was ever truly “normal.”

The more I used alcohol to find The True Alyssa, the more lost I became. That’s the tricky thing about addiction; it is a disease which disguises itself as its host and speaks with voice indistinguishable from its owner’s.

After five years of hitting dead ends, my journey of self-discovery took a beautiful turn when I accepted the gift of treatment in 2011. This would be the beginning of a long, albeit occasionally bumpy road, into recovery from alcohol use disorder. I experienced the feelings of connection and belonging I had been seeking via alcohol by surrounding myself with others who had wandered through life in a similar fashion.

Over the past decade-plus of living and working in the field of substance use disorder, I have been blessed to meet the most creative, intelligent, driven, hilarious, gritty, charismatic, and empathetic individuals. We are a group with endless diversity, infinite backgrounds and unending differences. And yet, through our common thread of living with addiction, we form a single kaleidoscope, multifaceted with every hue and shade of color one can imagine.

I wish I could stop writing now. I’d love to just end the article here, but there is a dark truth to this world which cannot be ignored. One of my first mentors told me, “if you’re gonna be sober, you’d better get yourself a good black dress.” That dress has since faded into a dull gray. The fact is, by age 30, I had likely attended more funerals than both of my parents combined.

My time in recovery has coincided with the opioid epidemic in ways that have made the landscape of substance use disorder in 2022 utterly unrecognizable from what it was in 2011. It is widely accepted that there have been three “waves” of the epidemic beginning in the 1990s, with what we now know was a criminal increase in the amount of prescription opioids across the United States. The second wave would come around 2010, when data started showing more and more overdose deaths involving heroin.

For almost the last decade, we have been living in the third and most devastating wave of the opioid epidemic; the age of fentanyl. Here in Massachusetts, fentanyl has completely eclipsed heroin in the drug supply. According to the most recent data from the Department of Public Health, fentanyl was present in 93% of the 2,290 deaths that occurred in 2021. Heroin, or suspected heroin, was only found in just 10%.

The life of an individual with opioid use disorder in 2022 looks very different than any other time in history. Unfortunately, what hasn’t changed much in Belchertown, Ware and surrounding towns to the East is the availability of treatment for the disorder. Living in a geographically vast treatment desert is compounded by the limited access to public transportation. While it’s lovely to discuss all the blessings of living in a small, tight-knit town, we cannot ignore the prevalence of stigma, especially as it pertains to topics such as harm reduction and medications for opioid use disorder.

For the past two years, I have served as the Belchertown/Ware community coordinator for the HEALing Communities Study, a National Institute of Health research project with the goal of reducing the opioid overdose death rate. Earlier this year, we formed a grassroots coalition comprised of representatives from local advocacy groups, law enforcement, hospitals, public health, schools, businesses, legislators, faith-based organizations, and individuals with lived/living experience with substance use disorder.

Over the course of the next 15 months, the Belchertown/Ware HEALing Coalition will be proposing, voting upon and implementing strategies designed to address these barriers and others. The compassion, ingenuity and dedication among coalition members has made me immensely proud to be a resident of Belchertown.

There was never a turning point, or single moment in time in which I decided it was “normal” for my friends to die. I cannot recall exactly when I no longer felt shocked by seeing obituaries for people in their 40s and often younger. Accepting the idea that overdose is simply an inevitable part of life at any age was more of an unwanted slow dissolve, like accidentally pouring salt instead of sugar into iced tea.

Through the HEALing Communities Study, I hope to reconnect with an old core belief, one that I had been unknowingly letting go of after each painful loss of a friend, loved one or neighbor; it is unacceptable for a single life to be lost to opioid overdose. I hope you take back this belief, too.

Alyssa Curran is the Belchertown/Ware community coordinator for the HEALing Communities Study, a National Institute of Health research project with the goal of reducing the opioid overdose death rate.


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