Glenwood Springs family combats overdose stigma with visual installations in memory of daughter
Nearly a dozen people gathered Monday beneath sunny skies outside the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Grand Avenue. A slight breeze rippled through the 52 purple flags they planted in the churchyard.
A single white flag stood starkly against its regal companions, and written across its fabric, purple letters spelled out the installation’s only explanation.
“I will always try to be a light in someone else’s life, no matter the circumstances.”
The altruistic quote belongs to Emily Adams, who died of an accidental overdose in April.
Emily’s father, Gregg, wiped tears from his face Monday as he expressed gratitude to the handful of volunteers, who helped plant the flags.
Fifty-two purple banners memorialize the 52 lives lost to overdoses between 2017-2019 in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties. Nowhere in the installation is an explanation that Aug. 31 is International Awareness Overdose Day or that Emily was born and raised nearby, nor will an onlooker find that information at any of the six other similar installations in place around the three counties.
It is simply a visual marker that something more than meets the eye is going on here.
And that’s exactly how Emily’s mother, Cath, planned it.
“You can talk a lot, and advocacy is important, but the visual statement stands out,” Cath, a professional photographer, explained. “I want people to see this and ask questions.”
A life cut short
Cath and Gregg first noticed dramatic physical changes in their oldest and teen-aged daughter, Emily, during the summer of 2016.
“We knew something was wrong when we began to see her lose weight — it wasn’t slow, it was fairly quickly,” Cath recalled. “And, at least at first, we tried to navigate through this by ourselves.”
Emily was seeing an older boy, who Cath suspected was supplying her daughter with narcotics, but Emily — already in the grips of addiction — wouldn’t listen to her parents’ concerns about the relationship or her deteriorating physical presence.
“A person who is addicted can and will say anything,” Cath said. “But still, we were proactive and worked with her in every way we could. We talked to the school about the problem and talked to counselors.”
In 2017, the family staged an intervention, and it worked. Emily agreed to go into a recovery program. But, addiction can be a lifelong illness, and the recovery program was only the first of many stops on Emily’s journey to sobriety.
In 2019, Cath said Emily exited a different recovery program, and this time, she was determined to stay sober.
When she died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in Arizona, Cath said the toxicology report came back clean for every other substance.
“She was sober,” Cath said. “And she was planning to come home soon. We were going to write a book. We were going to go talk at schools. She wanted to make sure no one else ever went through this; that’s just the type of person she was.”
During Emily’s battle with addiction, Cath became a peer support specialist and recovery coach, working with substance abusers in Glenwood Springs and founded Aperture of Hope, a company dedicated to helping people battling substance abuse connect with resources in their community.
But after her daughter’s death, the work was not enough.
“I wanted to do something more, so I started looking around and pretty soon came across International Overdose Awareness Day,” Cath said. “I think this is the best way I can remember Emily’s life.”
International efforts, local impacts
International Overdose Awareness Day began in Australia in 2001 as an effort to increase awareness about overdose deaths in general.
The initiative not only aims to raise awareness about addiction and overdoses, but also to de-stigmatize overdosing in general.
“If the person who was with my daughter when she started showing signs of an overdose had called an ambulance,” Cath said, “I firmly believe she would be alive today, but there is such a stigma — a social shame — that comes with overdosing.”
Cath chose 52 flags because it represented the number of people who died from overdoses in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle county area from the time Emily entered her first recovery to the time she exited her last.
In 2018 — the most recent data available — about 67,000 people died as a result of drug overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control reported. From 2017-2018, about 2,00 people in Colorado died as a result from drug overdoses, in large part because of opioids and their synthetic counterparts, such as fentanyl.
“If this is something you’re going through, there’s a team of people here in the valley who can help you,” Cath said. “A big, important part of recovery is walking that journey with them.”
Go to http://www.apertureofhope.com or call Cath at 970-948-3621 to learn more about peer support, recovery coaching and community partners in the effort against drug overdose and its emotional toll on family and friends.
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Garfield County Public Health does not have immediate plans to run an off-site community drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic like the one now operating in Pitkin County.