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Student Group Aims to Uncover Boston's Opioid Crisis

You are not a student at Boston College if you’ve never heard of Newbury Street. As the foliage from the Boston Public Garden is left behind, the scene shifts to one of multi-million dollar brownstones, overpriced food, and Boston’s elite, walking briskly, toting bags from Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom.

Moving up the street, the scene begins to shift again—stores become slightly less expensive, and the surroundings become slightly less attractive. The overflow of wealth empties at the top of Newbury into Massachusetts Avenue. A ten minute walk from there transports you to another world—and into the heart of Boston’s opioid crisis.

This summer, a group of Boston College students participated in an abridged version of BC’s PULSE program through the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program. Stationed throughout Boston, the students volunteered at a wide range of community service organizations. What many of them had in common was their proximity to an area of Boston referred to as Recovery Road.

Recovery Road, also known as Methadone Mile, is a one-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue that is the epicenter of the opioid crisis in Boston. Once their placement time was up, the experiences from Recovery Road stuck with them and inspired their photo exhibit, “Overlooked and Overdosed: Stories of Recovery Road.” The exhibit’s goal was to destigmatize addiction through the stories and experiences of those personally affected by Boston’s opioid epidemic as well as those whose professional careers have played an inherent role in aiding or combating the crisis.

Recovery Road is characterized by two sides that are inherently different but intrinsically linked: one side is Boston Medical Center and a myriad of other recovery services whose primary goal is to aid those powering along the road to recovery. This is juxtaposed with the slippery slope of Recovery Road: low-level dealers line the sidewalk like loose rocks, waiting for outpatients to emerge from recovery centers, sweating and aching, to misstep and slip off the edge back into their old habits.

“While reflecting [on our experiences], we found that one of the threads that tied everything together was drugs and addiction,” says Reed Piercey, MCAS '19, a member of the organizing group. “Most people aren’t aware of the issue, despite the fact that it’s a ten-minute walk from Newbury Street, where every BC student has been or at least heard of.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as of 2012, an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. Deaths from overdoses of opioids and heroin are the leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 467,000 people are addicted to heroin, with 80% of new heroin users having first been prescribed opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin. This isn’t hard to believe when one of these prescription medication pills costs $45 on the street, with its alternative being less than $20 for a quarter-gram of heroin, which offers an astronomically more intense high.

Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin to the market in 1996 as a cure-all to pain while concealing the drug’s addictive properties. Since its inception, opioid addiction has skyrocketed and Purdue Pharma has been entangled in a series of legal battles regarding their concealment of OxyContin’s addictive properties and their subversive advertising of the drug to doctors.

“While interviewing people [for our photo exhibit] we heard some crazy stories,” says Piercey, “including that of big pharma executives having doctors over for dinner and serving them cakes with OxyContin written on them in frosting.”

Meanwhile, doctors continued to prescribe OxyContin at alarming rates, millions continued to slip into the quicksand of addiction, and pharmaceutical executives continued enjoying their cake.

Opioid addiction is not an epidemic contained in a corner of some inner city. This crisis is far-reaching and its grip has proven difficult to break free of, mainly due to the chemical alterations that take place in a user’s body. These chemical alterations give way to horrifying withdrawals, which have lasting physical and emotional effects. According to drugfree.org, one in every ten Americans over the age of twelve is addicted to alcohol and drugs. A blind eye cannot be turned—those affected are our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, our family and friends.

“The existence of the Road, which is located very close to Newbury Street and the center of the city, is symbolic of how close to home the crisis lies, despite relative invisibility until very recently,” says group member Shaan Bijwadia, MCAS '19.

This invisibility that Bijwadia alludes to is the fact that the opioid crisis has been silently growing since the late 1990’s, but no one has seemed to have taken notice until recently. Many attribute the recent surge of public concern to the increase of cases in which opioid addiction has found its way into more affluent, white suburbs.

This is exactly the sentiment that Overlooked and Overdosed is hoping to dispel. The “Stories of Recovery Road” exhibit, held on Tuesday, November 1st in Yawkey Center's Murray Function Room, featured a photo gallery and accompanying quotes from individuals from all walks of life—individuals whose lives are intricately woven together with the thread of addiction that has impacted each of us in some way. One portrait in the exhibit tells the story of Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player and BC alum, who battled addiction all throughout his life and professional career, often playing games while high. On the opposite end of the spectrum was a portrait of a Boston Globe reporter who chronicled the plight of a middle-aged man named Shaun suffering from addiction. Shaun would often saunter along the mile-long stretch of Recovery Road, panhandling for money just to take his girlfriend to see “Captain America: Civil War.” The exhibit also shared the insights and stories of BC professors, administrators, and even an anonymous student.

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” says group member Sydney Apple, MCAS '19. “It’s an issue that spans all races, genders, religions, and socioeconomic classes.”

Apple continues on, citing a main reason for the lack of awareness and services to be the stigma attached to those affected by it. “Elected officials don’t want to help because of the stigma attached to these individuals,” she says. “‘Let’s help drug addicts’ are not words that most of the public wants to get behind.”

Of all the touching stories that were shared in the exhibit, one in particular stood out among the rest. Featured event speaker Brendan Little, a college graduate of UMass Boston, has worked to change the lives of at-risk and gang-related youth in Boston and is the Policy Director at the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, which systematizes Boston’s various recovery services in an effort to connect resources into one, efficient recovery network. The Office of Recovery Services is the only addiction recovery office in the United States.

A lifetime Boston resident, this issue hits close to home both literally and metaphorically for Little. He was in a juvenile detention center by age 13, dropping out of high school a few years after. More importantly, however, he is a recovering drug addict and living proof that there is light at the end of the dark, dark tunnel of addiction.

“This is not just about addiction,” he says. “I am concerned with the question of why people are in pain.”

A chief aspect of Little’s philosophy is promoting recovery through the arts. Whether he has artists quilting with women in recovery, helping to “patch together fragments of their lives,” or collaborating with a group of BC students on a photo exhibit, Brendan Little has shown that the arts won’t cure the opioid epidemic, but it will surely help cure the suffering of those affected by it.

The event filled the Murray Function Room, drawing a large crowd of BC students and faculty, as well as community members and a handful of those featured in the exhibit. Following the opening words from Little, attendees were able to peruse the photo gallery and read all of the touching and critical stories and experiences documented. There were also tables featured by campus groups, including one by FACES facilitating discussion on how race plays into the opioid crisis, and one by BC EMS providing information and showing demonstrations of Narcan, an anti-overdose drug.

“One of the most important things that people need to understand about the opioid epidemic is that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” Bijwadia says. “Those who suffer from addiction must be treated with the compassion and empathy that they deserve as human beings. We structured our event as a photo gallery to emphasize the humanity of those affected and to put a face to crisis. Every person we interviewed is incredibly inspirational, and we hope that the gallery will impart that spirit on those who attended.”

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