Overdose Awareness Day 2023

On August 31, 2023, at Memorial Field in Needham, MA, a sea of purple flags dotted the landscape, each representing a life tragically lost too soon to overdose. The Becca Schmill Foundation, a fervent champion of harm reduction and fighting the stigma surrounding Substance Use Disorder (SUD), hosted this event. At the heart of the evening’s vigil was a series of talks by those in recovery. I was honored to be selected as one of the featured speakers.

I spent the afternoon reflecting on what I wanted to say and had a number of disjointed messages that I struggled to fit together. (Recovery can be like that sometimes.) My final overarching theme: Recovery is not a one-size-fits-all destination. It is a journey that isn’t linear and can look different for everyone. One of my favorite sayings is, “You are in recovery when you say you are”, emphasizing that each person’s path is different – and that is just fine! 

The individual steps that people take to find and sustain recovery are as diverse as the people themselves. And this diversity necessitates an individually-tailored approach to recovery with recognition of the unique battles and triumphs of each individual.

The metaphor I chose for my talk was a very moving one; I alluded to the sea of purple flags mere steps away on the finely manicured, sloped lawn edging the field. My point was that, unless society undergoes a fundamental shift in the way we perceive and discuss SUD, the number of flags will only continue to increase. Month by month, year by year – these flags will just keep piling up.

And the real tragedy here is that these are not faceless numbers; they are our neighbors, siblings, parents, friends, and partners. Their lives, cut short by overdose, are a stark reminder of the collective work that lies ahead.

One of the primary steps in that work is the creation and fostering of a new narrative around SUD. The conversations we have at our dinner tables, at workplaces, and among friends must pivot towards understanding, compassion, and empathy. To stereotype and stigmatize is to push those struggling further into the shadows. Instead, let’s celebrate the immense bravery that accompanies recovery. Let’s rejoice in the milestones achieved, recognizing the immense fortitude required to overcome addiction.

The bond between the Becca Schmill Foundation and Pretaa shows us that when communities come together with empathy at their core meaningful change is possible. The journey to reducing the number of flags begins with each of us. In honoring the memory of those lost, let’s cultivate a society that cherishes every step of the recovery journey. Only then can we truly hope for a future with fewer purple flags on our hills.