Against backdrops of purple — a color symbolizing hope — the photographs stood as mute testimony to lives cut short.
In them: A 40-year-old man held his daughter, maybe age 2, with a hand pressed to her father’s chest and a flower in her hair. A 29-year old woman faced away from a sunset and smiled. A 31-year-old man played acoustic guitar, his wind-blown hair tossed about.
None of those people will ever do any of those things again. They are among the Williamson County residents who have died from drug overdoses this year. They looked on, frozen in time, and those who loved them looked back in memory, as Williamson County hosted its second-annual Overdose Awareness Day program.
“This is a sliver,” said Annie Burwell, who leads the county’s Mobile Outreach mental health team. “This is just from people who know about the (awareness day) initiative … This is the real deal. We had an overdose last night. Not a fatality, but a serious overdose.”
As with the inaugural ceremony held at Prete Plaza in downtown Round Rock, this year’s event held Saturday in the Lakeview Pavilion at Old Settlers Park featured in almost equal measure stories of loss and stories of redemption.
Mark Kinzly said that on an average day 166 people in the U.S. will die from a drug overdose. While street drugs such as heroin claim the lives of many, many also die from the prescription painkillers known as opioids.
“People are using it as a coping mechanism. It’s the warmest blanket on the coldest night,” said Kinzly, co-founder of the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative. Naloxone is a medication used to block the effects of opioids and opioid overdoses.
“We have an appetite in this country for opioids,” Kinzly said. “We comprise 5 percent of the world’s population and consume 80 percent of the world’s Hydrocodone.
“At this point we are looking at an epidemic that is now the leading cause of unintended deaths in the United States and the leading cause of death for people under 50 years of age,” he said.
Kinzly said the Texas is second in the amount of health care costs for opioid disorders, and “Williamson County is no less in the crosshairs than any other county in this state.”
‘This doesn’t discriminate’
Speakers said no one can claim they and their loved ones will be immune from drug abuse and overdoses.
The problem even touches law enforcement families. This year, a sheriff’s office employee lost a daughter. Nearly four years ago Donna Connell — who for decades was District Court Judge Burt Carnes’ assistant — lost a son to heroin.
“I lost my son three and a-half years ago and my second son is in recovery at the moment,” Connell said. “This doesn’t discriminate against anybody.”
Connell said her focus now is “breaking the stigma.”
“It’s not ‘those people.’ Everybody here (in the photographs) is somebody’s child,” she said. “They weren’t living under a bridge. They were loved.”
Connell said she believes a lot of prescription drug abuse stems from “overprescribing by doctors,” noting that nine out of 10 people begin abusing opioids following a doctor’s prescription.
Speakers said that as more becomes known about the nature of addiction and how to best treat it, society is slowly beginning to focus more on rehabilitation instead of punishment.
While acknowledging they are not going to agree with each other all the time, Sheriff Robert Chody said he supports efforts made by Overdose Awareness Day organizers. The group included Lifesteps Coalition, as well as Burwell’s Mobile Outreach responders and Kinzly’s team.
“I believe in the message they are sending out here,” Chody said. “I’ve had personal family members that have been affected by that.”
Words of hope
Dr. Lucas Hill, a faculty member at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy, said naloxone is now being stored at UT dorms, with resident assistants and campus police trained in how to respond to overdose situations.
Michael Dadashi, an Austin native and founder of the Infinite Recovery drug and alcohol treatment center in Austin, said he is now dedicating his life to helping addicts recover.
“I could have been up on this board,” Dadashi said, referring to the pictures on display. “I stated using (prescription painkillers) when I was 15 years old. I eventually started using heroin when I was 18.”
Dadashi says his road to recovery began at age 25. He has been drug-free for the past eight years.
“When I got sober I had meaning in my life — and that was to have a life of service to God’s work,” he said.
Others also joined in on the theme of hope.
Williamson County Precicnt 1 Commissioner Terry Cook of Round Rock quoted South African anti-apartheid activist and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“Hope is being able to see there is light, despite all the darkness,” she said.