Spring 2019

Healing Through Art

Moving beyond stigma and isolation after loss.

By Helene Ragovin

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Detail of a painting from “The Opioid Project” exhibit.

Inspired by memories of family weekends in Maine, Bryan painted his canvas: two stick figures riding snowmobiles with a smiley yellow sun beaming down on them. Rendered in bright, simple strokes, it looks as if it was created by a child at a classroom table, and not by a father grieving his adult son. “Love ya, kid. I’ll see you soon, at some point,” Bryan says, his voice infused with sorrow.

Bryan’s artwork and an audio recording of his experience of losing his son to addiction are among those in “The Opioid Project: Changing Perceptions Through Art and Storytelling,” a traveling exhibit and workshop led by Nancy Marks, the community-service learning coordinator at the School of Dental Medicine, and Annie Brewster, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and founder of the nonprofit Health Story Collaborative. Through “The Opioid Project,” those touched by the ongoing drug epidemic—whether they have lost loved ones, are in recovery, are still struggling with addiction, or are first responders—use art and storytelling to process their emotions, as well as be part of prevention education efforts.

The project started in 2016, at first for families and friends in mourning. “There is a double stigma that hits people who have lost someone to the opioid epidemic,” Marks said. “You have people who don’t know how to talk about death, and you have people with lots of preconceived notions about addiction, poverty, and mental health. Family members—parents in particular—are left with a devastating hole after losing someone to drug overdose, and they are also isolated in a particularly unique way.”

In addition to her role at the dental school, which is a joint appointment with Tisch College, Marks is an artist who also has been a public health advocate and community organizer. Earlier in her career, for example, Marks worked with women living with HIV/AIDS. The stigma and spread of misinformation that surfaced during that epidemic are akin to what is happening now with opioid addiction, she said, as are the lives of those left behind. “People hyper focus on how someone died, not the beauty of who that person was,” she said. “Behind every person who has lived with the complicated and fraught life of drug addiction and its many cofactors, there is a human being with lots of hopes and dreams.” Because of fear, she said, we “flatten out” the many dimensions of people with substance-abuse disorder.

Samples of the artwork and audio are posted on the project’s website (theopioidproject.oncell.com). Marks and Brewster offer workshops throughout Massachusetts where the art and audio used in the exhibits are created. Sets of framed prints are also available on loan for exhibit at such venues as high schools or libraries that want to raise awareness. Recent collaborations include McLean Hospital in Belmont, community groups from Natick and Newton, and the city of Medford.

Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the country, and the local response to “The Opioid Project” has been considerable. When Marks and Brewster organized their first workshop, they put out a call for participants on a Friday night. By midafternoon Saturday, more than fifteen people had responded.

Participants are usually motivated by the need to process the pain of their loss and find emotional relief or the desire to tell their story so that it can reach others, and potentially interrupt the cycle of addiction and death, Marks said. “It’s very humbling and moving.”

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