Marlborough, Hudson recognize International Overdose Awareness Day

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By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter

Michael Blanchard speaks during the vigil.
(Photo/Laura Hayes)

MARLBOROUGH – Michael Blanchard had a proverbial tape recording playing in his head. 

“I am an addict, alcoholic,” it said. 

“My drugs of choice, as they say, were vodka and Xanax, though I probably would have taken anything to quiet the noise in my head,” Blanchard continued in comments during the International Overdose Awareness Day vigil that took place in Marlborough on Aug. 31.

He had given up. Overdose was his suicide. 

“Luckily, I had some angels in my life and they were called police officers,” Blanchard said. 

Since that overdose, Blanchard has vowed to thank every police officer that he meets. In July, Blanchard marked 11 years of sobriety. 

Blanchard, who is a photographer on Martha’s Vineyard, was the keynote speaker of this year’s vigil. 

That vigil, in turn, was one of several events and efforts throughout the region seeking to recognize, memorialize and seek change on behalf of those who have died due to overdoses.

“It took me a long time to boldly say in front of people that I was an addict alcoholic,” Blanchard said.

Marlborough vigil memorializes lives lost to drug overdoses

Addressing the crowd, Blanchard spoke about stigma. He also described how he found his voice in a camera while also sharing stories about people who have come into his gallery.

Flags stand in front of the Walker Building in honor of residents lost to overdoses. (Photos/Laura Hayes)
Flags stand in front of the Walker Building.
(Photo/Laura Hayes)

“The people that came in needed reassurance that sometimes addicts make it back,” Blanchard said.

One recurring message throughout the night was “we are not alone.” 

Blanchard asked people to look around them.

“You’re going to see soulmates,” he said. “These people that took the time to show up and come here tonight; they didn’t just come for themselves, they came here for you. You have people here that understand. These are the people that can help you. It’s incredible that you show up for each other.”

As Blanchard spoke, 2,104 purple flags waved in neat rows on the grass behind the crowd. 

Those flags represented each person who lost their life to an overdose in Massachusetts last year according to the latest estimate from the state. Data will likely change as medical examiners’ reports are still coming in. 

“We’re still moving in the wrong direction,” said event coordinator Kathy Leonard.

“The Rock” near the Hudson/Marlborough border bore a mural recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. (Photo/courtesy Nancy Tobin)
“The Rock” near the Hudson/Marlborough border bore a mural recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.
(Photo/courtesy Nancy Tobin)

“These purple flags represent our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, significant others, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, coworkers,” she continued. “And I can guarantee you that no one chooses to have this disease anymore than they would choose to have any other disease.”

CDC data released earlier this year estimated that more than 95,000 people died of overdoses nationwide in 2020. That marked a 30.9 percent increase from 2019, when the overdose epidemic claimed just under 73,000 lives.

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Leonard said.

Leonard lost her son, Jonathan Testa, to a heroin overdose in 2014. 

This is now the sixth year that the vigil has been held, though it was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The one thing that my grief journey has taught me is that we don’t have to do this alone,” Leonard said. “I really wish that we did not have to do it at all, but here we are. I can’t think of anybody that I’d rather be with than the people who understand exactly how I feel without me having to say a word.”

Hudson holds Overdose Awareness Day vigil 

State legislators Kate Hogan and Jamie Eldridge and congresswoman Lori Trahan join Hudson Director of Public and Community Health Kelli M. Calo, Tracy Carter and Substance Abuse Prevention Program Coordinator Lauren Antonelli for a group photo at Hudson’s overdose awareness vigil on Aug. 31. Photo/via Hudson Health Department
State legislators Kate Hogan and Jamie Eldridge and congresswoman Lori Trahan join Hudson Director of Public and Community Health Kelli M. Calo, Tracy Carter and Substance Abuse Prevention Program Coordinator Lauren Antonelli for a group photo at Hudson’s overdose awareness vigil on Aug. 31.
Photo/via Hudson Health Department

Across town lines, the Hudson Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition organized its own event in recognition of Overdose Awareness Day. 

Tracy Carter shared “a beautiful story about her personal experience,” the Health Department wrote in a Facebook post. 

The Hudson Police Department collected unused medications for safe disposal while state legislators Rep. Kate Hogan (D-Stow) and Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) also made appearances. U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan (MA-3) was in attendance as well.

Elsewhere, Nancy Tobin and two other area mothers painted “the Rock” near the Fort Meadow Reservoir with a mural recognizing Overdose Awareness Day. Tobin and those two other mothers have all lost children to drug overdoses. 

 

‘No one needs to carry this grief alone’

Kathy Leonard speaks during the vigil.
Kathy Leonard speaks during the vigil.
(Photo/Laura Hayes)

Back in downtown Marlborough, meanwhile, Learn to Cope, which is a support group for families with loved ones battling addiction, showed people how to use the overdose-reversing drug Narcan. 

Dominic Esposito, founder of the Opioid Spoon Project, spoke during the vigil itself, as did Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant. 

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the overdose epidemic to be put on the back shelf, he said. “The only thing is, [the epidemic] never stopped,” he continued. “It just made it more difficult for people who are having issues. So we need to bring it back in the forefront.”

“We will never ever forget the loved ones that we’ve lost that these flags represent, but we do learn to smile and laugh and live and love,” Leonard said. “It hurts and feels impossible sometimes; that’s for sure, but no one needs to carry this grief alone. That’s the message that I hope you all get this evening.”