The headlines are full of stories about the opioid epidemic: about doctors overprescribing pills, lawsuits against drugmakers and the astronomical cost to our social-services safety net.
The obituaries are full of these stories, too, though few of them come right out and say so (the obituary on page 19 is one exception). Addiction is still shrouded in shame and stigma. In many ways, that’s prevented us from confronting the human cost of the crisis.
To change that, Seven Days is inviting the families of those who’ve died as a result of opioid-use disorder to share their stories through an online memorial project called All Our Hearts. It launched in September. Submitting an entry is free and easy to do; we’ve created a form that guides submitters through the process.
These personal remembrances can educate, change minds, awaken empathy and inspire action. We’ve seen it happen….
What Jenna was like as a child
From the get-go, Jenna was a helper and a lover of everyone. I remember her teacher saying to me, “This girl is going to be the president of the United States. It’s amazing what her friends will do for her. It’s like she can talk the whole class into not doing their homework, because ‘That way, we all won’t get punished!’” That teacher came to Jenna’s wake and said that she had made such an impression on her because she was just so freehearted, always smiling and changed the atmosphere at her school.
Jenna Rae loved people and wanted to help everyone; she lived every day to the fullest, always on the cutting edge. From the day she was born, she was off to the races. She wanted to go fast. She wanted to have everything, including roller coasters that no one would go on with her except her father, Greg. She was the most loving soul, with a capacity for generosity unmatched by almost anyone. She was always bringing strays home — cats, dogs, an owl she found on the side of the road, even a homeless person once. She saw the best in everybody and never judged them as a first response.
What Jenna enjoyed
I remember when she first started showing horses. She was at the Connecticut Morgan horse show, riding an older show horse. She was 14, and her horse was a twentysomething former world champion. There were 21 horses in the ring competing, and no one thought Jenna even had a chance of placing. She gathered that horse up, and she made him look like he was a million bucks. They were the most unbelievable team. She won the championship.
She always seemed to rise to the occasion and would surprise us all.
Jenna could change the energy in a room with nothing more than her presence. She loved people and touched each person who came into her life in a unique, memorable and often lasting way. Her determination and resilience seemed to ignite something in others. As her brother, Gregory, wrote in her obituary: “Jenna never gave up on her journey — her journey to recovery, her journey as a student, her journey to experience the world and all it had to offer. And, in her short time on this Earth, Jenna’s journey was like a rock thrown into a lake: sending ripples ever outward into the future.”
When we first knew something was wrong
She was in her first semester of college when her boyfriend of three years beat her up on Christmas Eve, and she went to the emergency room. The doctors prescribed her 30 days of OxyContin.
Jenna turned into someone we didn’t even know. I remember the first time we found out Jenna had tried heroin. I just started crying on the floor and knew we had to go to a recovery meeting immediately.
At first there was a lot of fear — fear that everyone would know us there. But we knew we had to go, and that was our first step outside the box, saying that we’re affected by this, like so many other families are affected by this disease. That’s when I realized that there’s a whole community of people just like us. We’re not alone. But there are so many people who feel they need to hide because they’re ashamed. One time, Jenna came into the house to talk with her father and me. When she left, Greg looked at me and said, “Who was that? That’s not our daughter.” Jenna struggled with this disease for seven years and went to 22 rehab facilities and numerous Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP) programs.
A vivid memory of Jenna
Most of all, Jenna loved helping others. One story still stands out to me today of a girl named Michaela who came into Jenna’s rehab facility weighing 90 pounds. She was a heroin addict. And she walked in and said, “There’s no way in hell I’m staying here.” She told me that Jenna came hopping into the room with this glow and smile. Jenna said, “Just get through detox. It’ll be OK, and then you can leave. You’ll feel better if you just get through detox.” And after she finished detox, Jenna said, “Let’s just go into the treatment part for 30 days, and then you can go. We’ll have fun; we can hang out.”
Michaela told her she would go to treatment but that there was no way she was going into sober living. When they finished treatment, Jenna went to sober living and told Michaela, “I’ll be waiting when you get there.” And when Michaela pulled up in the van, there was Jenna standing on the steps of the sober home with her arms open, and she ran to Michaela and hugged her and said, “You’re here! You made it!”
Michaela’s mother called me one day and said to me: “Your daughter saved my daughter’s life. That’s something I can never repay you for.” Michaela is still sober to this day. Jenna died of a fentanyl overdose the day before she would have received her 60-day sober chip.
How we’ve responded to Jenna’s death
After Jenna’s death, we started an organization called Jenna’s Promise, which aims to create a network of support for those suffering from substance-abuse disorders. The plans include a community center, called Jenna’s House, located in Johnson, Vt., that will centralize many different resources to serve the substance-use-disorder community. The first event is scheduled to occur in September of 2019. In every facility she went to, Jenna always called with a story of someone she wanted to help. At the time, I would tell her we couldn’t help everybody. While she was at the Granite House, she said to me, “Mom. I’m going to be here. I’m committing myself here for nine months. So when I get out, you and I will be a team. We’re going to find and raise money for these people that want to get better, because I see so many. And they don’t have the money to help themselves. We’re going to educate people and let them know about this disease. And so let’s just promise.” And that became Jenna’s Promise.
If I could say one thing to her today, it would be
You are making a difference in the struggle against addiction with Jenna’s House, as you always wanted to do.