Roaring Fork Valley teen memorializes sister with Overdose Awareness Day event in El Jebel
On April 28, Ashley Adams lit two candles.
The first was celebratory. She turned 17 that day, one year closer to adulthood and in the waning days of a COVID-19-interrupted junior year at Glenwood Springs High School with a full life ahead of her.
The second was in somber remembrance and celebration of her sister. Exactly one year earlier, Ashley and her family received a phone call they expected to be from her older sister, Emily, wishing her a happy 16th. Instead, they learned that Emily had died from what they later discovered to be an accidental fentanyl overdose.
Ashley was a full six years younger than Emily, but Ashley still remembers her sister’s kindness and affinity for baking and the advice she would receive from her older sister via text.
In 2016, Emily was in the full throes of addiction. She lost considerable weight and was noticeably weaker. Over the next three years, Emily struggled through the journey of recovery but found her way to sobriety. That fateful April day, however, Emily procured what she thought were counterfeit prescription pills to combat extreme tooth pain. Her toxicology report showed no drugs other than fentanyl.
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More than a year after the tragedy, Ashley is back in-person at Glenwood Springs High for her senior year, with masks on faces and desks distanced as the pandemic continues. Even with mouths and noses covered, Ashley says she still notices the looks.
“Kids look at me differently because of my sister,” Ashley said. “They don’t know my story, and they don’t know hers. … Going back to school, I like it, but also everyone knows.”
The pandemic delayed Ashley’s inevitable confrontation with her peers and the relatively small community in Glenwood Springs. A full 16 months after Emily’s passing, Ashley is still facing the stigma surrounding addiction.
Even the well-wishers can prompt unintended but still real damage.
“It can be in public, anywhere, any place,” Ashley said. “You never know how grief hits you at that time. You can be like, ‘Oh, thank you,’ or you can totally break down.”
Ashley and Cath wanted to combat the stigma and focus their extended period of grief. For Cath, her daughter’s death gave her own life a new meaning and purpose: to spread addiction awareness and warn others about the fake pill epidemic that took Emily’s life away. She founded Aperture of Hope shortly after the tragedy to help others locally in their own addiction battles and share their stories to destigmatize the disease of addiction.
It started with the placement of 52 purple flags last year at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, one for each of the local overdose deaths from 2017-2019, for International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. This year, there are 72 flags each at nine different locations.
A lone white flag accompanies them, inscribed with a quote from Emily to her mother over text.
“I will always try to be a light in someone else’s life, no matter the circumstances.”
For Ashley, the involvement is less direct but just as passionate. She was advised by her grief counselor, Laura Irmen, to get more involved with addressing the stigma and helping others combat addiction to work through her own pain.
The result is a full-on event on this year’s International Overdose Awareness Day at Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel, Emily’s backyard growing up. Ashley is the official event coordinator.
Speakers will tell their own stories of addiction or those of their loved ones. Local businesses will have booths set up to provide information on addiction resources. Narcan nasal spray training will be offered. There will be live music and an honor walk in remembrance of those lost to addiction.
For the Adamses, it’s a continuation of Emily’s life and continuing to be that light she texted her mother about.
“She saved many lives herself,” Cath said. “When she was in recovery, she helped many people. She led many people to recovery homes, talked to them. … Moving beyond the judgment, the stigma, the shame and really getting to know she wasn’t her addiction.”
Ashley is currently exploring nursing schools with the goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. Her experience learning about addiction and understanding the disease helped shape her mindset about treating people.
“Nurses and doctors deal with addiction a lot. This just gives me more of an idea of what people are like and having some more compassion for them because I grew up with it. Having that side, not just the medical side.”
What: International Overdose Awareness Day; organized by Aperture of Hope with music provided by Matt Harrington and friends and Narcan training provided by High Rockies Harm Reduction
When: 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31
Where: Crown Mountain Park, 501 Eagle County Drive, El Jebel
More information: ApertureOfHope.com
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