It was a night of remembering.
More than 100 people gathered Tuesday night to honor the men and women whose lives have been cut short by drug addiction, 19 of whom have died in Loudoun this year so far.
The Vigil for Lost Promise was not the typical drug awareness event, where law enforcement leaders list statistics and politicians talk policy and accomplishments. It was a quiet evening to share the stories of those whose lives have been taken by addiction and to hear encouraging words from those who are seeing success in their recovery.
Nick Yacoub, who described himself as an addict in long-term recovery, said he always equated drugs to fun. He first started using drugs at 10 years old and thought he’d be bored if he ever stopped using. Now, eight years sober, he’s found he loves camping, the movies, enjoying a good meal with friends, and he has a goal of going skydiving.
“All kinds of stuff that I totally ignored when I was out there getting high,” he said.
Yacoub told those who gathered for the vigil that the community could go a long way in fighting back the rise of drug use if the shame associated with recovery was eliminated.
“I think the shame and the stigma of the disease is one of the biggest murderers out there,” he said. “I’ve been known for saying that recovery is not about bad people trying to be good, it’s about sick people trying to get well. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral deficiency.”
Jennifer Ashby, who lost her brother Justin to a heroin overdose a year ago this week, talked about how difficult it is for abusers to get help. She started using drugs when she was 13 and introduced Justin to drugs when he was 11. She didn’t know until four weeks before her brother’s death that he was using heroin. She said he was trying to get clean and was considering rehab.
“But he was afraid he’d lose his job or his dog. He wouldn’t go,” she said.
Ashby wanted to share her brother’s story at the vigil, as well as her own struggle with addiction, to let people know the obstacles in the way of many addicts who want to recover.
“When I decided to get clean, my mom couldn’t get me into anywhere. Things were expensive, there were insurance issues,” she said. “I wanted to speak because I feel the community should be aware of the severity of this, but also to help somebody. I hope we as a community can fight for more preventative programs and more affordable treatment.”
Karl Colder, special agent in charge of DEA Washington Field Division, looked around the room and stressed how the epidemic has touched people from all walks of life. “There’s no demographics associated with it. White, black, Hispanic, Asian—it has no boundaries. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how poor you are. No one is exempt.”
Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman said he recognized many faces in the audience, many of whom have lost loved ones to overdoses. “I’ve talked to many of you in the last couple of years who’ve lost a sibling or a child to this nationwide epidemic,” he said.
He said some progress has been made in recent years to prevent more lives being lost from opioid abuse. More than 150 county deputies are now trained to use Narcan, which can immediately counteract the effects of heroin or other opioids, and which Chapman credits with saving about eight lives this year so far.
His department has also worked with Loudoun County Public Schools to expand the D.A.R.E. program to eighth grade, and partnered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and businesses to set up collection boxes for unused prescription medicine. “That effort removed 8,000 pounds of prescriptions from medicine cabinets in Loudoun County,” he added. “Medicine cabinets are often the place addiction starts.”
The vigil was held at the DEA’s traveling museum, “Drugs: Costs & Consequences.” Loudoun is one of just 12 jurisdictions in the U.S. that have hosted the exhibit. It will be in town—at 750 Miller Drive, SE, Suite F-1 in Leesburg—through Sept. 3. Learn more at drugexhibit.org.