“There’s power in a mother’s love,” I told the reporter interviewing me at our Overdose Awareness Candlelight Vigil on the eve of International Overdose Awareness Day. “I just think a mother’s love lives on,” I said. I’ve witnessed it in others and I know that I will carry the love I have for my daughter, Emily, in my heart until my dying breath. 

38 pairs of shoes lined the steps of City Hall to represent overdose victims

Pairs of shoes lined the steps of City Hall — 38 of them — to be exact. That’s how many people have overdosed and died since the beginning of 2018, in my community of approximately 200,000 people. Fifteen purple balloons tied to various pairs of shoes represented the number of overdose deaths in the first half of 2019.

Three moms united

Three children lost to fentanyl poisoning

A big bouquet of 60 purple balloons were a symbol of the total number of overdoses this year so far. Many people were saved by Narcan. Two of them were Emily’s friends.   

One was a 22-year-old former champion high-school golfer. I will call him John to protect his privacy. In April, John took what turned out to be fentanyl in his parents’ driveway, got out of his car and immediately collapsed. His parents called 9-1-1, but when police officers arrived it turned they had misplaced the Narcan in their squad car and couldn’t find it. They had to wait until EMTs arrived to administer the drug. Despite that, John lived and was taken to the hospital. He was then sent to jail for violating probation on a marijuana charge. 

His parents called me frantic for help. I was overwhelmed by a sense that Emily was asking me to go see her friend. I’ve learned that when I hear that small voice inside of me, telling me to do something, it’s always best if I just do it. So I left work to go down to the jail. I got on the headset and there was John’s face on the video screen. “I never expected it to be you,” he said into the speaker. I told him that Emily wanted him to live and that it wasn’t his time to die. I told him he had so much potential and he needed to get well. I told him that he had to fight the disease of addiction. He didn’t disagree. John went right from jail to treatment. His parents were incredibly relieved. 

Like many people suffering from substance use disorder, John got out of the 30-day treatment program acting like his old self again. He was enthusiastic about sobriety. He moved back in with his parents. However, in July his dad told me he was worried that he was using again. Then at two o’clock one morning, John OD for a second time. His father gave him chest compressions until the ambulance arrived with Narcan. John ended up in intensive care. Now he’s back in jail, awaiting a court date and hopefully another recovery program. 

I remember all of  the family members I have met who are devastated by the loss of loved ones to overdose. I am amazed by the passion and strength of the two other mothers who helped me put on the candlelight vigil. Melissa’s step son Nicholas died the same month as Emily. Denise’s son Ryan died a month earlier. All three of our kids went to the same elementary school, on a quiet tree-lined street and grew up in “normal” middle class midwestern homes. We three mothers are committed to ending the stigma surrounding addiction and all want to help “at least just one person” avoid the same fate as our children. 

But I also think about the families of the other 45 people, ranging in age from 15 to 70, who overdosed and lived. I think of the anguish I saw in the eyes of John’s parents. It was a paralyzing fear that gripped my heart for seven years, as I watched my child self-destruct. John’s parents are on edge, terrified that what happened to me, Melissa and Denise will happen to them. And it very well may, although I pray to God it will not. John has another chance and that means there is still hope. 

After the vigil was over and everyone had gone home, Melissa and I took the cluster of purple balloons, which represented the living, and released them into the night sky. As I watched the dark outline of the balloons dancing against the deep blue night-time sky, I said a silent prayer, Let them be released of the demon of addiction!

I realized on the surface, the vigil appeared to have focused on the lives lost to overdose. But now, we must put our attention onto those who are still among us; those who have overdosed and lived. There is no guarantee of tomorrow for any of us. However, we must do better to help the Johns of the world find recovery, live up to their potential and give their parents some peace. The words to Amazing Grace filled the air during the vigil and we all sang along: 

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

T’was blind but now I see

Faith,  Hope & Courage,