AfterParty Hero: The Grieving Mom Who Rallies against the Stigma of Addiction
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AfterParty Hero: The Grieving Mom Who Rallies against the Stigma of Addiction


Susan MacMillan lost her son Mark to a heroin overdose in 2011 when he was just 18. Together with 17-year-old Anne Pless, who lost her older sister to heroin in 2013, she started Team MacMillan and organized the Hope Against Dope Walk. They rallied over 400 friends and family members of 14 local teens and young adults who had overdosed to march across the affluent New Jersey suburbs of Ramsey and Allendale. The march aimed to raise awareness about the dangers of opiates like heroin and oxycodone and even more importantly to break down the stigma attached to drug use so addicts and their families no longer had to suffer in shame.

“We watched the drug consume them and devastate loved ones and friends, destroy their ability to rationalize or listen, surviving only for the drug, and yearning to just feel normal again without the stigma or shame,” the women wrote on the event page. “We wiped their tears as they told us they were just lowlife addicts. We miss them every minute of every day. This is a club we want, hope, and strive to see no others join, a club we hope to see lose its charter. We walk in honor of them, and the many we have lost! Please join us! Who do you walk in honor of?”

The answer was clear as mothers marched with pictures of their children. “There’s no hero in heroin,” says one homemade sign. Another reads, “End the silence, end the shame.” Many had kept the truth behind their loved ones’ deaths a secret for months before MacMillan and Pless organized the march. “If we can stop one kid from dying, or prevent one family from experiencing the pain we’ve gone through, it’s worth it,” said Roxanne Davis, who for months had publicly attributed her son’s death to a “mysterious infection.”

At least 50 people in Bergen County OD’d between January 2011 and March 2013.  And just this year, 19 more young adults have died. MacMillan and Pless believe that the stigma associated with heroin drives addicts deeper into secrecy and perpetuates the epidemic. “The stigma is as dangerous as the drug itself,” said Pless, who had also lied initially about her sister’s cause of death. “People are dying. It’s that simple.”

Team MacMillan brought in speakers, who encouraged the marchers and onlookers to speak openly about heroin. There were even red and purple ribbons, courtesy of Young Adults Against Substance Abuse, who partnered with Team MacMillan. While participating in the walk was free, donations were strongly encouraged. The money raised went to support Eva’s Village, New Hope Foundation and To Write Love on Her Arms.

Police in Bergen County will soon be supplied with hand-held Narcan injectors, which can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose. But MacMillan is campaigning for wider access. “Anyone with a narcotics addiction should be able to get a prescription for that and have it in their home in case of emergencies,” she said.

A similar march occurred last year in Butler County, Ohio. Since heroin use has spiked throughout suburbia, we can only hope that this becomes a national trend. After all, we can’t fight this battle in the dark.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.