At rally, a call for understanding about addiction

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Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect the proper spelling of the name of Rachelle Gayle and the gender of her children.

PITTSFIELD — Rachelle Gayle wishes people would see her late brother for the man he was, not the accidental drug overdose that killed him.

That brought Gayle and her children Saturday to Park Square, where they joined over 60 others at a Smash the Stigma rally.

To Gayle, stigma over addiction reduces people to their disease, ignoring the whole person. Her brother, Dan Root, died from an overdose last year, just weeks before the first Smash the Stigma rally here in downtown Pittsfield.

"The hardest part was people asking me how he died, because of the judgment," Gayle said. She felt people couldn't see past her brother's disease to the person her family knew: father, chef, husband and "an amazing uncle."

Saturday's rally was the brainchild of Gary Pratt, a Pittsfield man who is in recovery and works at Berkshire Medical Center's Clinical Stabilization Services. Pratt said he was chatting with a client around Labor Day last year about stigma and how addiction is a disease that carries more blame and judgment than other medical diagnoses. He started a public Facebook group, "Smash the Stigma," that has over 900 members. A few weeks after that conversation, he hosted the first "Smash the Stigma" rally.

"I'm blown away by the turnout," Pratt said of this year's rally. "I'm overwhelmed with gratitude, really."

Opioids have killed more than 20 people a year in Berkshire County since 2012.

Additions to this year's rally included tables staffed by area agencies offering pamphlets, candy and, for some, solidarity in the recovery process.

Amy Borden of Pittsfield staffed a table run by The Brien Center, where she works. The nonprofit agency offers a variety of services, including residential recovery homes for men and women. Borden, who is in recovery, emphasized that stigma about addiction negatively affects those who are sober and looking for work.

"People tend to discriminate because of our past," said Borden. Her job at The Brien Center is the first workplace where she can speak openly about her struggles with addiction and recovery. Her experience helps her to relate to women in the residential program. Many don't believe her when she talks about her past because she comes across as a put together, professional woman.

"I told them I was going to bring in a mug shot," said Borden, although she hasn't dug one up yet.

Spectrum Health Systems, Alternative Living Centers, Refuge Recovery Pittsfield and SMART Recovery all hosted tables. The participating agencies can be contacted directly by people seeking treatment options.

Speakers talked about ways to end stigma. They were followed by an open mic session. Pratt opened by underscoring the need to seek help.

"That's what this is about, seeking treatment," he said of those facing addiction.

Shannon McCarthy, director of behavioral health at Berkshire Medical Center, went up to the mic with her daughter, both sporting "Smash the Stigma" T-shirts. McCarthy described how addiction works and advocated ways to reduce stigma. She wants people to understand that addiction changes the brain.

Social stigma has been a barrier to treatment and recovery, McCarthy said. "Only slightly more than 10 percent of people that need help, seek it."

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McCarthy emphasized that recovery isn't a one-size-fits-all problem. She cited many resources available in Berkshire County: detox, residential houses, peer recovery, private counseling, structured outpatient recovery centers, Narcotics Anonymous and medication replacement, to name a few.

Sheryll Ellery, a senior clinician at Clinical Stabilization Services, focused on the stigma that persists within the recovery community. She said there are no "right" or "wrong" ways to be in recovery.

"I don't care how you got to recovery," Ellery said. The best approach is "whatever helps you."

Meg Tillingast, clinical services director at Spectrum Health Systems, echoed Ellery's statement and used her time to focus on distrust of methadone, a daily medication given out by medical professionals. Some consider methadone replacing one substance with another or consider it "liquid handcuffs" because methadone users go to a clinic daily to receive their dose.

Tillingast's message is that for some, methadone can be an integral part of "living a successful life, whatever that means to you."

Andrea Harrington, the Democratic candidate for Berkshire District Attorney, shared that addiction has affected her personal life. In her professional life, she has seen people trying to prosecute their way through the opioid crisis.

"We need a new approach," she said.

The open mic session brought laughs, tears and hope. Sierra Desmond, 18, shared her struggle to find treatment options for teens.

Jennifer Delorge choked up when she mentioned the "sick, dark, twisted places" she's been in because of her addiction and described her heartbreak over losing her girlfriend, Ashley, to addiction.

"It's my job to show you how I live my life today, clean and sober," she said.

Family's loss

Gayle, who volunteered with both rallies and is an administrator on the Smash the Stigma Facebook page, attended once again with her children, Rayah, 7, and Gage, 6, making signs for all three of them to hold up to passing cars.

The children's signs read: "He was not his addiction, he was my uncle."

On her sign, Rayah drew hearts and wrote: "He was a friend of mine. I wish you were here but I guess you will be in our hearts."

Rayah explained her sign. "I love Uncle Dan and I didn't want it to be a regular sign. And I like decorating," she said, pointing to hand-drawn hearts.

The family's presence Saturday was about more than honoring her brother. Gayle also views it as an important, continuing lesson.

"I don't want my children to hear people speak poorly about their uncle. I don't want my children to grow up with judgments," she said, referring to how people see addiction and those who use.

"My purpose in life for a long time was to try to keep my brother alive," said Gayle. She paused. "I couldn't do it."


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