ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I recognized some of them in the crowd, people whose stories I have heard, people whose stories I have told, people whose stories I hope to tell but wish they never had to be told.
“We’re becoming familiar faces,” Janean Gilliland said. “We’re in a club we never wanted to be in.”
This “club” consists of parents and families who have lost loved ones to opioid overdoses, and its membership keeps growing.
We come together at gatherings, such as the one Thursday at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day, which is Saturday, and to honor those of us who shared our stories for the museum’s exhibit “Drugs: Costs and Consequences” from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Thursday evening, a proclamation from the Bernalillo County Commission was read, announcing Thursday as “Lost Talent Recognition Day” – so named for a section of the exhibit that features stories, photos and videos of local casualties of the opioid crisis.
A limestone memorial dedicated to the grieving families was also unveiled at the museum’s “Walk Through New Mexico” exhibit on the building’s south exterior.
Other government officials spoke, and refreshments were served.
But what was most important to many of us was the chance to be among those with stories similar to our own.
For some, the pain is fresh. For others, death struck years ago but only now are they able to emerge from the shadows cast by the stigma of an overdose death – or only now have they found other people like them, like us, to reach out to.
We carry our pain, raw or weathered, like a jagged rock in our pocket, always there, hidden, until its sharp edges make us cry out or the burden of its weight is too heavy to bear.
At events such as the one Thursday, it is OK to share what we each carry. It lightens our load, at least for a little while.
“The pain is deep,” said a woman named Terese whose son overdosed on heroin in 1999. “I’ve done everything to deal with this pain, but I want to touch him. I want to smell him, and I can’t.”
He was her only child.
A woman standing near her touched her arm and whispered to her that she, too, lost her only child to an overdose.
Bernadette Miller, one of two parents who spoke at Thursday’s memorial, shared the story of her only child, Chuck Miller, just as she had in this column last December, 90 weeks after seeing his foot sticking out from under a bedsheet.
“Then it was real,” she said.
Chuck, 21, died of fentanyl poisoning in March 2017. On Thursday, she counted again – 128 weeks now gone.
Jack Bryson, the second parent who spoke, described the brilliant mind and tormented soul of his talented son, Quinn, who died in October after ingesting alprazolam, known by the brand name Xanax, laced with fentanyl. Three days before his death, Quinn had listed the things he was thankful for, among them his youth, house, bed, bath, cat, clothes, cousin and parents.
“Mama,” he wrote, “thanks for not giving up on me.”
Few of us had given up on our children until the choice was no longer ours to make, if it ever was.
Gilliland told about how hard it was to find a good rehabilitation center for her son Ryan, 18.
At one rehab, Ryan was able to order heroin on craigslist and have it delivered in a baggie thrown over the facility’s fence, she said.
“Even in rehab our children aren’t safe,” she said.
He died in May 2016.
And so it went Thursday, sharing our stories, our pain, our jagged edges.
“We tell our stories hoping anyone who listens can benefit,” Jack Bryson said.
DEA Special Agent Kirk Lemmon told another story – how an average of 500 people in New Mexico die each year of drug overdoses.
Last year, he said, enough fentanyl was seized in New Mexico alone to kill 6.6 million people.
Hours before the event, I finally listened to my own story, recorded in a video that is part of the “Drugs: Cost and Consequences” exhibit. Although the exhibit has been up since February, it was the first time I was able to bring myself to see it. Sometimes, it is easier to hear others’ stories than to hear about the loss of my son Devin, who died of a heroin overdose in March 2017.
At the end of the evening, family members were invited to paint small rocks as a way to tell the stories of our lost loved ones.
The rocks, donated by Rocky Mountain Stone, will be displayed as part of the exhibit. They are river rocks, smooth, without jagged edges.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.