New-Age and Stigma-Challenging Approaches
In the time it takes to read this article, there will be an estimated 20-25 non-fatal overdoses in the United States. In that same span, one person will die of a drug overdose. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are nearly 44,000 fatal overdoses in the United States each year but the numbers are on the rise. The U.S. is in the grips of a gross epidemic. With four times as many opioid overdose deaths in 2014 than in 1999, the realities of addiction are bleeding into mainstream life. Prescription painkillers line the shelves of suburban medicine cabinets and parents are still peeping in teens’ sock drawers to reassure themselves that their child is being safe. America is out of touch with a struggling piece of its population. The piece that said, “it’s only once;” the piece that didn’t think it would come to this; the piece that said they could kick this thing; the piece that is getting smaller because for some it is too late.
Heroin addicts are a population in danger. As if heroin was not dangerous enough, fentanyl-laced heroin is becoming increasingly more common. Fentanyl is an opioid that can be nearly 50x more potent than heroin. As drug dealers become more desperate to deliver a quality product, they have begun mixing the two drugs. Unknowing heroin users consume the highly potent product and have begun overdosing at what the DEA has acknowledged as “an alarming rate.” As the number of deaths rise, the sentiment surrounding these deaths seem to polarize further. Many believe that addiction is merely something one brings upon oneself and fail to realize that once addiction has set its teeth, it is a disease.
Addiction is as stigmatized as it gets. As such, overdose deaths are not met with the same dignity as other reasons for death. However, people like SueAnn Ware have begun challenging the notion of “death worth honoring.”
In 2001, SueAnn Ware, Australian artist and academic, constructed what she deemed an anti-memorial to heroin overdose victims. She created a memorial to a population that the general public would rather ignore. This project is heavily rooted in the ideas that Ware presents and the social stigmas that she challenges. As such, I will be analyzing this anti-memorial and comparing it to what I’ve observed as a major medium in the memorial of overdose victims: virtual memorial.
I have chosen the tributes page of overdoseday.org to serve as my baseline for virtual memorial to overdose victims. This is because all of the memorials are user-uploaded and there are much more entries than on other sites. I will also be referring to Facebook memorial groups—one of the most revolutionary developments in the grief landscape.
Losing a loved one in the past year to addiction, I have become more attuned to the climate surrounding addiction, and opiate addiction in particular. In my experience, the grieving of a loved one lost to addiction seemed peculiar. Devastated, the family turned to each other for support, however, there was no mention of his reason for passing. “Addiction” was not spoken of. It still isn’t. I recognized my own hesitance to share my reason for missing school with teachers, coworkers, and even my closest friends. The purpose of this project is to serve as a stepping-off point. It is the act of taking the temperature of the current social climate and analyzing that data. This essay is the first step in understanding the stigma that follows addiction and how stigma is forcing the hand of grieving in a time like now—a time when so many lives are being lost.
In this project, I’m going to explore how anti-memorials and digital memorials to overdose victims humanize addicted persons. I will explore how these different spaces are recognizing addiction as a disease and an epidemic. In hand with this, I will observe both digital and physical memorials to these people and draw conclusions as to how the incarnations of these memorials speak to the current climate surrounding heroin addiction.
In 2000, there were 331 overdose deaths in Melbourne, Australia. Moved by the loss of life in her community, SueAnn Ware felt something needed to be done. Ware cites that she felt as though the deaths would be “nameless and faceless” otherwise. Ware’s expertise lies in landscape architecture so she decided to create an installation—a space that could commemorate the recently deceased. In the fashion of a true monument, she created these anti-memorials in the center of busy districts. In areas of high foot traffic, Ware placed bouquets of poppy flowers and resin-encased plaques dedicated to the addicts. Inside the resin blocks were everyday things that were associated with the deceased. An ink pen, eyeglasses, a watch; all an allusion to the everydayness of life.
On the sidewalks, Ware stenciled personal accounts of addiction and the statements of bereaved loved ones. This particular aspect of the Anti-Memorial to Heroin Overdose Victims encompasses the essence of what the anti-memorial can be—unapologetically confrontational. The mere passing through the space forces an engagement because even if one were to keep their head down they would see the stenciling on the sidewalk. Ware was prepared for pushback and vandalism, however, there was no hostile response to the installation. In fact, the space became a place of communal mourning and “the level of engagement was much more profound than anticipated.” Strangers to the victims came to the site and left flowers, notes, and had “visceral” reactions.
Another part of Melbourne’s 2001 push to call attention to the drug epidemic, International Overdose Awareness Day was created. Sally J. Finn and Peter Streker were humanitarian workers who worked with addicts on a daily basis. They originally planned to distribute silver ribbons to the community, but they were surprised when thousands of people responded worldwide. International Overdose Awareness Day events began to pop up everywhere and with the advent of their website, the organization was able to further globalize the cause. Right now, anyone can go to their site to read and/or post tributes to lives lost to addiction.
The slideshow below is a collection of the some of the tributes that are on the site.
In 2008, Denise Cullen lost her son to an accidental overdose. Inspired by the lack of support for parents who have lost their children to overdoses, she founded GRASP. The organization leads over 60 face-to-face support groups, however, they may be better known for their private Facebook support group. GRASP describes their group’s purpose as “a safe non-judgmental forum, so that people grieving the loss of a loved one to substance use/overdose may share their feelings, stories, struggles, strategies and support with each other.” The page is filled with memorials to lost loved ones, lengthy posts about strategies for coping, and fond memories of the lives lost. The thing that separates GRASP from the digital memorials on the Overdose Day site is the interactivity between members of the group. Mothers will share their condolences with fellow grieving mothers and others will make remarks about the stories shared and express their sympathy. After speaking with an admin from the group, I have decided not to include any particular images or stories from the page out of respect for the grieving process and the private nature of the group.
SueAnne Ware’s memorial was a response. It was a response to 331 deaths in her community. It was a response to the stigma that was surrounding these deaths. Although Ware stated in her article, Anti-Memorials and the Art of Forgetting, that she had anticipated the work “to be ignored in some instances,” by constructing the memorial in such a public place she made it confrontational. People have to walk through these spaces. Even if they did not engage by way of looking at the plaques, they would observe the poppies and the inscriptions on the sidewalk. Ware cited there were complaints that the memorial may signify that the area was a “safe haven for drug users.” However, what really differentiates the memorialization of an addict than that of a teen who died while texting and driving? Where are the people opposing the roadside memorials left to texting-while-driving teens? In an article for thefix.com, Dr. Richard Juman said that the stigma is there simply because it always has been. He writes “despite widespread agreement [within governmental organizations] that addiction is best understood as a complicated behavioral-biological scenario that requires treatment, the system is hard-wired to prolong stigmatization, and stigma contributes to addiction’s lethality.”
With Anti-Memorial to Overdose Victims, Ware has accomplished more than memorialization of lives lost. She has challenged the stigma. Like the concept of an “Apostrophe Law”—a law that is created and named in honor of a deceased person—the anti-memorial met death with social action. The project shed light on the social climate and a pervasive epidemic.
Seemingly, not much has changed in the last 15 years. The stigma is still out there. Devastated parents who share the death news with a friend may be met with awful and discouraging words during the grief process. Many parents and loved ones feel a sense of guilt after the death of the addict. They may berate themselves for not finding the right rehab or not providing the right support—often despite their best efforts. Researcher John R. Jordan contends that the grieving loved ones may not share the news of their addict’s death because of fear that further blame may be placed upon them or because of the view that the addict may be “better off dead because [they were] already doomed from lifelong mental illness or drug addiction.”
Because of the current climate, many grievers may turn to the wide expanse of the internet for support. The Overdose Day tributes oblige that need. These memorials serve as a digital tombstone that anyone can come to pay tribute to at any time. As opposed to grieving publicly at a particular time and at a particular place, digital memorials offer the opportunity to grieve publicly whenever one wants. This is the upside to the memorial opportunity created by Overdose Day. However, where these memorials fall short is their lack of any ability to interact in a forum style. The companionship and support from peers who “get it” is invaluable. Without that, these memorials exist in a void. Like a tombstone, they can be visited, however, they will be visited by the isolated individual looking on from the comfort of a computer chair.
Facebook has revolutionized a lot of things; social networking, politics, digital content, and now—grief. As of the composition of this article, GRASP’s Facebook support group has 4,357 members. All of these members have to be approved by a page moderator prior to entry into the group. To sort out people with ill will and “bots,” a moderator sends a private message to anyone who wants to join, asking “please share with me a few words about yourself and why you would like to join.” While this may seem to be a tedious step, it reassures the members of the group that the page is a safe place for non-judgmental sharing. This fosters a community of people who are more than willing to share their stories with others who have had similar experiences and offer their own condolences to others. In her article entitled “Virtual Grief,” Kristina Morehouse writes “In years past, grief was more a private experience; now, increasingly on Facebook and other social media sites, the grief is public. Public and two-way communication means everyone can participate in the grieving over someone’s death.” This two-way communication creates a virtual support system that can help the griever work through their depression and guilt.
Digital memorial and virtual grieving have entirely transformed the landscape of bereavement. They have allowed for people from all over the world to mourn together at any point in time. That said, these memorials cannot exist in a vacuum. Without input and support from others, the sense of community is much less present. While grievers may find comfort in posting in a designated digital space, a lack of engagement suggests that these memorials are created and then left to exist with little true meaning beyond the act of constructing and publishing it. The engagement in Anti-Memorial to Heroin Victims is what made the project so effective. The physicality of having to kneel to observe the resin plaques and the effort of squinting to read the sometimes illegible stenciling on the sidewalk—it solicited action. The action of the onlooker created ownership in them, much like the ownership one may feel commenting on a Facebook memorial, that in turn made the process more visceral and memorable.
Despite the widespread definition of addiction as a disease, the stigma persists. SueAnne Ware challenged the stigma with her anti-memorial. As did the Overdose Awareness Day campaign. However, as digital memorials to addicts (as they exist now) become more prevalent, as does the possibility of a persisting stigma.
SueAnne Ware’s anti-memorial was an active challenging of the stigma. Private Facebook memorials and sparse webpage memorials are a reaction to the stigma. Individuals feel as though they need a private, non-judgmental space to mourn their loved ones because of the stigma associated with drug addiction. As mourners, if we are ever to live in a world where we do not feel as though we have to lie about our loved one’s stigmatized death, we must challenge the stigma as Ware has. Creating public memorials, raising awareness, and being unapologetically confrontational with our grief is the only way to destigmatize the current epidemic of fatal drug overdose.
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