Winchester Star: Addicts Come In all Sizes, Shapes (Castiglia, 9/1)
BERRYVILLE — That addiction does not discriminate based on age or economic class is a truism held throughout the drug world — one made clear by the diverse crowd of addiction-torn families that gathered at the Lights of Change solidarity event here night.
It’s part of the message Stephens City resident Kristi Fernandez would like to deliver following the death of her 19-year-old son to a heroin overdose.
“He was a football player, boy next door, lots of girlfriends,” Fernandez said of Jesse Bolstridge, a Strasburg High School graduate who died in September 2013. “He was friends with everybody.”
Bolstridge — who now has a scholarship fund in his name managed by the Shenandoah Community Foundation — died the day before he was set to go to rehab in Florida. It would have been his second stint in recovery.
Fernandez said she believes her son got started on drugs after a football injury, or when he was diagnosed with Lyme meningitis — both of which warranted him having prescriptions to take powerful pain medications.
“If parents think it’s not gonna be their child, better think again,” Fernandez said.
The story is all too common in the region. There were 33 fatal drug overdoses in the Northern Shenandoah Valley in 2014 — up from 21 in 2013 and one in 2012. So far this year, there have been 12 fatal overdoses.
Bolstridge’s mother, grandmother, and two sisters were just one of the families that gathered at the Rose Hill Park and Gazebo in the town night.
Lights of Change is an annual event sponsored by Change Addiction Now (CAN) held in communities throughout the United States. It coincides with International Overdose Awareness Day, which is observed all over the world on Aug. 31, having originated with the Salvation Army in Australia.
The day is also a kickoff to National Recovery Month, which is sponsored by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration “to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance-abuse issues, and celebrate the people who recover.”
Stas Novitsky — a recovering addict and advocate with the McShin Foundation, a Richmond-based recovery community — spoke to the crowd about “life after addiction” and the need to actually want to recover.
He said an addict’s best chance is to find solace in those who have similarly struggled with addiction, and beaten it.
“Your desire to get clean and stay clean has got to outweigh your desire for drugs,” Novitsky said. “The best way to recover is to help other people recover.”
The event featured several other speakers — including pastor Brad Hill of Grace Community Church, Tim Coyne of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Council, and Marianne Burke, founder of Change Addiction Now — who offered practical ways to prevent overdoses in the community, spoke about legislative responses to the drug crisis, and talked about eliminating the stigma of drug addiction that drives families away from seeking help.
Lisa Wilkins, assistant director of Virginia Change Addiction Now, said that the Northern Shenandoah Valley needs to put on more community events to raise awareness and provide support for families.
Wilkins — who lost her son Chip Wilkins to an overdose in 2011 — said that a mother or other loved one can be afraid to take action because of the stigma surrounding addiction, which she says is a disease.
“You’re afraid to say anything, because you’re afraid everyone is going to blame you,” she said.
She said events like Lights of Change can help alter how people view addiction and make the community realize that addicts most often need help more than punishment.
“Public perception changes public policy. We need to change the perception,” Wilkins said .
The event also featured informational tables from a variety of community organizations to help educate and empower families in the community suffering from the effects of substance abuse.
It ended with a candle-lighting ceremony in recognition of those whose lives have been lost or damaged.
Fernandez said the most important thing she would like to see in the community is for people to “hate addiction, but love the addict.”
“Addiction is a disease,” she said. “Addicts need love, and they need treatment.”
— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at ocastiglia@winchesterstar.