MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Lauren Privitera lost her son, Nicholas, to a heroin overdose on Feb. 8, 2015. He was just 23 years old.
Since then, Privitera has sought to end the scourge of the opiate-addiction epidemic by shining a light on the problem and removing the stigma often attached to the illness.
Saturday, Aug. 31, marked the fourth year Privitera has helped lead the Hope and Healing Candlelight Memorial in Chamber Park in downtown Mahopac, an event that traditionally features guest speakers, a slideshow of those lost to addiction, a candle-lighting ceremony and more. The ceremony is held each year on Aug. 31 in conjunction with International Overdose Awareness Day.
“When I started this in year one, I was going into the second year after my son passed away and I felt like I really needed to do something and have some sort of purpose,” she said. “It was truly healing. We called it Hope and Healing and it lived up to its name. I felt I could heal by taking this on. We partnered with Friends of Recovery and the Putnam County Prevention Council and they’ve helped with from year two on. Without them, I wouldn’t have had the bandwidth to do it.”
Privitera said she thinks the “hope and healing” message is getting out there.
“I really think it helps the community,” she said of the event. “It’s nice and small; it’s not a political event. It’s to honor the loved ones that we have lost.
“We are showing people that addiction is a disease and we are not afraid to stand up and say, yes, we lost someone to an overdose,” she added. “It’s not something to be ashamed of and we are trying to stop the stigma so more people can get help.”
Jon Cassidy from the Friends of Recovery advocacy group paid homage to the late Judge James Reitz who oversaw the Diversion/Treatment Court in Putnam County. Cassidy said getting arrested is what set him on the path to recovery.
“I wanted to take a moment to remember Judge Reitz, because if it wasn’t for him there is a good chance I’m not in recovery,” Cassidy told the crowd. “I would never have made the decision to be here if it hadn’t been made for me.”
Like many of the other speakers, Cassidy spoke of the need to destigmatize addiction and treat it like the disease that it is.
“We need to actively encourage people not to stigmatize. How do we do that? By attending events such as this,” he said. “We show up and support people and organizations that advocate. And we out-love ignorance and fear. That’s all it is. I challenge everyone to bring five people with them next year. This has to grow. We have to become stronger. “
Doreen Lockwood of the Putnam County Friends of Recovery introduced some people in recovery who carried signs that illustrated how addiction, and those who suffer from it, are stigmatized by words. The signs had words such “junkie,” “loser,” and “waste of life,” that were crossed out and replace with other words, including “mom,” “someone’s dad,” and “friend and coworker.”
“Some of our friends and peers have signs in front of them and I want you to think for a minute about the language that we use,” Lockwood said. “When we talk about people who are in recovery, some of these words are not very nice. We had to write these words down and we didn’t really like having to do that. We believe that language really matters. That is one of the messages we would like to send home with you today.”
One of the guest speakers included Brianna, who has been sober for more than four years. She referred to a banner attendees could sign to pay tribute to those they’d lost to addiction.
“Looking at the banner we have over there, last year I put names on it and this year I had to add even more,” she said. “It just doesn’t stop, but it needs to stop. Last year, I was here with my cousin and her boyfriend. He was someone who struggled, and we fought for the help that he needed, and he was doing very well for a while. But this year I had to add his name to the banner. He was here. But now his name is on [the banner] and it’s really sad. It’s as pain that is unexplainable, and it doesn’t go away.”
But Brianna agreed with Privitera: there is hope, and there is healing.
“There are so many ways today where people can find recovery,” she said. “It’s different for every single person. But you can’t treat someone if they are dead. There are many different programs. There are a lot of options now, thankfully.”
The evening concluded with a candle-lighting ceremony as family members and friends got on stage and spoke about loved ones they’d lost to the disease.