Reminders of those lost, as Erie County marks International Overdose Awareness Day
More than 200 simulated tombstones, all representing someone who lost their lives locally in the opioid overdose epidemic, were lined up outside Old County Hall Tuesday, as Erie County marked International Overdose Awareness Day.
The day, August 31 of each year, was first recognized in Melbourne, Australia in the year 2001.
Among the many memorials lined up along Church Street and one of the walkways toward Old County Hall’s Franklin Street entrance was that for Tony Nardolillo. He and his girlfriend died from overdoses in 2018. His mother visited the display Tuesday morning, adorning his sign with beads and other decorations.
Fighting through tears, she explained her son’s path to addiction began as a young man, living in a rural community, where young people turned to pills. But from that point forward, it was a struggle – a disease – that he couldn’t overcome.
“My son Tony told me all the time, ‘Mom, I don't want to be like this,” she said. “It's so hard to fight. And people are so against them having daily medicines, because they think that you're just enabling them. And that's not true. It's keeping them alive and showing them that there is a better way.”
The medicines to which Nardolillo refers include Suboxone, Vivotrol and methadone, drugs administered to aid those battling substance abuse.
She also shared a message to the broader public on behalf of families who have loved ones battling dependencies: don’t judge.
Breaking stigmas and stereotypes remains a significant challenge to advocates and health professionals on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.
“De-stigmatizing is a huge, huge issue,” said Cheryll Moore, director of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force. “Using the right language, not triggering people, not making them feel badly about themselves. We're really going to be focusing on this for the next year. It should be really at the forefront of everyone's mind that we don't make people feel badly that we support them. We help them in the recovery.”
Moore noted that the opioid crisis has touched people in all demographics, in all social and economic sectors. Those remembered among the local memorials included a former law enforcer, a former college football player, members of prominent local families, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.
Moore’s own family has been touched by substance abuse disorder.
“I'm really open with my family story. I've lost a sister,” she said. “Family support is critical to me, that we're there for families. Nobody is a bad parent. You didn't raise somebody wrong, you didn't support them wrong. This is a disease process. There's a chemical change in somebody's body. When we get them on the right medications. They do great with good wraparound, but the families need the wraparound. Also, they need to not be judged that they did the wrong they didn't do anything wrong.”
And through that support network, there are stories of hope. Nardolillo has another son battling the illness of substance abuse. But he has the upper hand.
“If you have a loved one battling addiction, please don't give up. There's always, always hope,” she said.