Evangeline White of Bangor overdosed on opioids twice, and twice her overdose was reversed by naloxone, a drug that helps revive people long enough for them to get help.

After years of struggling with addiction, Evangeline is now on the road to recovery and Friday evening in Bangor, as part of International Overdose Awareness Day, she spoke out on behalf of the 418 Mainers who in 2017 did not survive an overdose. In Deering Oaks Park in Portland, another group gathered for a candlelight vigil for the people lost to Maine’s opioid crisis.

Evangeline is a trauma survivor who by the age of 16 had already faced homelessness and drug addiction.

“All of my pain was gone. Drugs made all of my pain and depression disappear,” Evangeline told advocates at the Maine Health Equity Alliance (HEAL). “I was self medicating because I didn’t have the ability or tools to change what was going on in my life.”

At Friday’s gathering in Pickering Square in Bangor, Kayla Kalel of the Young People in Recovery-Brewer Chapter read aloud names shared by friends and family members of some of the 418 overdose fatalities in 2017 and then she asked the crowd for a moment of silence.

Then Evangeline shared her recovery story. She has spent much of her life struggling with substance use disorder, facing down her past emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and now she has put herself through massage therapy training, and is focused on raising her three-year-old daughter, Clover.

“I’m not perfect,” Evangeline said. “I’m trying my hardest. I’m fighting hard to make our lives good, happy and meaningful.”

The state has not kept a record of overdose fatalities, but many surviving friends and family members shared the names of loved ones with the event’s organizers to honor their memories.

The number of opioid deaths in Maine spiked by 40 percent in 2016, and climbing again by 11 percent in 2017 — while other states have seen reduced numbers of opioid overdose deaths in the last year.

According to Andrea Littlefield, director of development and communications at HEAL, the opioid crisis is devastating Maine’s working poor.

“It’s kind of a misnomer, that people that use drugs don’t have jobs,” Littlefield said. “Nearly everyone we work with is employed.”

Littlefield helped organize Friday’s gathering in Bangor. The goal was to create a space where community members could come forward to share how they have each been affected by the opioid crisis.

“It’s an opportunity to connect with people to understand the opioid epidemic,” Littlefield explained, “because there is so much stigma around the topic, it helps to be in place where people are not stigmatized and are getting together and working towards the same cause.”

Maine bands Summit and Great North Woods, each having members in recovery, played to the crowd in Bangor Friday night.

And volunteers trained anyone interesting in taking a free naloxone kit on how to administer the life-saving drug.

Keep Calm and Carry Naloxone

This is the second year HEAL has carried out their “Keep Calm and Carry Naloxone” campaign, where they raise funds to give out free naloxone kits throughout the year from their offices.

All during the month of August, HEAL raised money to purchase one kit of naloxone for every Mainer who died of an opioid overdose in 2017. At $75 for two doses of the nasal inhalant, they are trying to reach $31,350 — and going into Friday’s gathering they still had not yet met their goal.

“Anyone who comes in off the street who says I want to learn how to administer naloxone,” Littlefield explained, “they get trained, and we send them out the door with naloxone.”

Since 2016, advocates with HEAL have been trying to convince state lawmakers and community leaders that while other campaigns to provide naloxone kits to first responders, such as firefighters and police officers, are important, it is even more effective, they argue, to put naloxone into the hands of opioid users and their friends and family. According to HEAL’s own reporting, of the 252 naloxone kits they gave out in 2016, at least 60 of these, or one out of every four, were used to save a life.

“I think it’s really important for people around people who use drugs to learn to do this so they know how to save someone’s life if possible,” Littlefield said.

Through stories they have heard, the advocates at HEAL also understand the reality that opioid users sometimes avoid calling the police or 911 when they are with someone who is overdosing.

“It’s just horrible,” Littlefield said, recalling stories of overdosing users getting dropped off alone at hospitals, adding it is “just out of fear of what repercussions they might face.”

By making naloxone free and readily available among drug users, they hope to reduce the number of deaths that can arise when users avoid calling for help.

“Our thought is that because naloxone is being distributed a little bit more, that number of 418 [overdose deaths in 2017] probably could have been a lot higher,” Littlefield said.

HEAL’s month-long campaign to raise funds to give out free naloxone kits is just one part of the groups’ interventions into Maine’s ongoing opioid crisis. HEAL is also advocating for increased funding statewide for sober-living homes, clean syringe exchanges, and getting more Mainers health coverage through Medicaid expansion, while providing their own treatment services, including walk-in medical clinics for people without medical coverage, mental health counseling, as well as case management services for people living with HIV and AIDS.

The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance.

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