The Opioid Project Comes to East Boston

Co-founder and creator of the “Opioid Project,” Nancy Marks brought her unique multimedia campaign that helps those who have struggled with addiction or lost someone to addiction cope and heal through art to East Boston.

Last week at the ICA’s Watershed in Eastie, the Opioid Project opened during a special teen event hosted by the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s Eastie Coalition.

A local teen creates a piece of art during last week’s “Opioid Project” teen event at the ICA Watershed in East Boston sponsored by the Eastie Coalition.

Marks explained to the group of teens that she founded the Opioid Project with Dr. Annie Brewster of Mass General after adopting her daughter who lost her mother to heroin addiction and AIDS in the 1980s.

“Her mom lived a really tough life,” said Marks, an artist from Jamaica Plain. “So the experience of living with someone who went through a loss like that has kept me connected to the community that struggles with addiction. So when Annie (Brewster) and I started this we started focusing on parents who had lost a child to overdose. At the time parents had no place to go with their sadness and loss and in our culture its very hard to talk about the death of a loved one.”

Marks said her solution was to create an outlet for parents to express their grief through art and storytelling. The project then moved onto helping family members and then finally those who overcome their addiction or survived an overdose.

The result is a four-hour art and audio storytelling workshops where participants find a safe space to process their personal experiences through creating collages and sharing stories. These stories are audio recorded, and, together with the art, contextualize and bring to life the human costs of the opioid epidemic.

At last week’s teen event finished work were hung at the Watershed were each art collage were paired with its recorded audio story.

Using their personal phones the teens participating in last week’s event had the opportunity to hear each participant speak about their experience while visually taking in the art in front of them through a QR Code app. Once the teens scanned the barcode above the art they could listen to the artists describe their experience with addiction and how art had helped.

For example Kevin, a recovering addict who attended last week’s event, showed the group of local teens his art piece and spoke a little about his road to recovery.

Kevin explained that he was born into a white middle class family that was idealistic with no real problems. The only struggle in his bucolic upbringing was Kevin’s struggled with his sexual identity.

“The only thing that was different was that I was born gay,” Kevin said. “This caused a lot of internal things within my own mind at a young age.”

Kevin said when his mother was battling cancer the numbing effect of alcohol took hold and was a comfort for the reality of dealing with his mother’s illness and his own sexuality.

“I just wanted to be in my own head,” he said.

Kevin eventually moved onto to opioid pills and later shooting heroin. 

“It was what I was looking for,” said Kevin.

After several overdoses and intervention from friends and family Kevin got sober seven months ago and joined the Opioid Project to help heal.

Talking about his piece of art that was displayed at last week’s event Kevin said, “I Started thinking about the layers of my recovery process. This piece is about all the layers in my mind. Layers under layers…some which you can see through some…and some you are going to have to chip away at to reveal what is inside. All going in different directions…inward and outwards. You can hold it in any direction. Each time I look at my piece, I see something else. Adding layers and then scraping them away is the only tangible way I know how to describe what I am going through right now.  There is no wrong way to go about making this piece and there is no wrong way to go about each day.”

Other pieces included mothers who lost children to addiction, friends who lost friends and people like Kevin.

After experiencing the art and stories the teens were invited to create some of their own art with the help of Marks and others.

“Each event includes a community dialogue with the goal of increasing public understanding about stigma and supporting advocacy efforts around addiction and access to mental health services,” said Marks. “Exposure to the art and messaging cannot be overstated: beautiful visuals make people take notice and the voices make the stories come alive, creating a unique and impactful experience.”

Through community-based partnerships like the Eastie Coalition, The Opioid Project seeks to increase public awareness and to change how people perceive and treat those touched by addiction, including active users, those in recovery, first responders and those grieving the death of a loved one to overdose.

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