Healing the Losses from Opioid Addiction

Making art helps family members and friends suffering addiction’s devastation

painting depicting a woman in clouds held by a chain attached to her ankle

Inspired by memories of family weekends in Maine, Bryan painted his canvas with two stick figures riding snowmobiles, 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 the losing his son to addiction are among those in The Opioid Project: Changing Perceptions Through Art and Storytelling, a traveling exhibition 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.

Nancy Marks, left, and Annie BrewsterNancy Marks, left, and Annie Brewster
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—and be part of community 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 worked as a public health advocate and community organizer. For a previous multimedia endeavor, The Intimacy of Memory, Marks asked participants to make mementos from deceased loved ones the focus of artworks, to encourage healing and conversation. The Opioid Project follows a similar path, using both multimedia artwork and the spoken word.

Earlier in her career, 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, and the lives of those left behind are likewise similar.

“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.

Art in “The Opioid Project” exhibitionArt in “The Opioid Project” exhibition
Samples of the artwork and audio are posted on The Opioid Project’s website. Marks and Brewster offer workshops throughout Massachusetts where the art and audio used in the exhibits are created. Sets of framed prints can be loaned for exhibit high schools, libraries or other venues that want to raise awareness of opioid addiction issues. 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 mid-afternoon 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, Marks said, or the desire to tell their story so that it can reach others and potentially interrupt the cycle of addiction and death. “It’s very humbling and moving,” she said.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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