Why Gary Pratt declares himself to be one of 'those people'

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PITTSFIELD — Apologies to "Star Wars" fans, but Gary Pratt has his own "rule of one."

If the rally he is assembling at Park Square on Saturday helps turn around one life from drug addiction, he'll call it a success.

For the second year, Pratt will lead the charge at a "Smash the Stigma Rally," from noon to 3 p.m. in the city's center.

As the opioid death toll mounts, Pratt is pressing a campaign to improve public understanding of addiction, foster communication among recovery groups and encourage people affected in any way by substance abuse to come out of hiding.

"I don't think people with this disease need to suffer in the shadows anymore," he said. "We need to put faces to recovery, to give examples that it can be done."

Pratt, 42, is one of those faces.

By his reckoning, he spent almost half his life addicted, starting at age 12, not long after moving to Pittsfield as a child.

He didn't achieve recovery from the use of alcohol and heroin until he was 32. Two years ago, after several jobs in human services, Pratt began helping people confront addiction. He works with Berkshire Medical Center's Clinical Stabilization Services program.

"The CSS opening up was kind of the stars aligning for me," he said.

Five people die from opioid overdoses every day in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey recently noted. Over the past five years, Berkshire County has averaged 28 opioid-related deaths a year.

"People are dying left and right," Pratt said. "I'm honestly tired of people dying."

Though he labors Monday to Friday on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, Saturday's rally is on Pratt's own time.

Late last month, he stepped forward as one of the speakers at a vigil outside BMC on International Overdose Awareness Day.

"I'm a product of people not giving up on me," Pratt told a crowd of about 80 people Aug. 31. "I'm just grateful that you are all here. What we do have is a lot of compassion."

Due to a last-minute issue, that vigil almost didn't happen.

When Pratt came to the microphone, he said he would have turned up, even if it was only him and a candle.

On Saturday, a half-dozen local programs will be present to speak about their services. Participants are expected to include The Brien Center, Spectrum Health Systems, Alternative Living Centers, Refuge Recovery Pittsfield, Living in Recovery and SMART Recovery.

Speakers will fire up a public address system around 1 p.m. Later, anyone who wishes to tell their story will have that opportunity.

A public Facebook page that Pratt created, #SmashTheStigma, already has been rallying people to the cause, with 1,200 followers.

Pratt said he decided to mount a frontal assault on stigma after hearing the issue come up time and again with clients. "The general population doesn't accept that addiction is a disease," he said in an interview Thursday.

Instead, an outdated notion of moral right and wrong sits atop the problem, cultivating shame within victims and families and depressing the numbers of people willing to seek treatment, Pratt said.

"We don't treat addiction with the same urgency that we treat other diseases," he said. "The idea is, `you did it to yourself and you need to suffer the consequences.' "

One of the signs created for last year's rally put a fine point on that. Pratt held it up when people gathered at Park Square. It read: "I am one of `those people.' "

On Saturday, people making signs will gather at 10:30 a.m. in the basement of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

Stigma itself kills, Pratt reasons, because it keeps people from seeking treatment. He notes that just 1 in 10 people with addiction diseases seek care.

He delayed getting help for many years.

"I refused to accept that I had a problem," he said. "I think the more open we are, the better off we'll be as a society. We're still stuck in that mentality — that you did this to yourself."

People fighting addiction face enough punishment, Pratt said. In his life and work as a counselor, he has seen how addiction hollows people out, taking away everything they prize — family, health, home, work, self-respect.

"People lose everything," he said.

In client meetings, he often asks what addiction has cost them. "When they say `everything,' I completely understand what they're talking about."

In the decade of recovery, Pratt has been working to rebuild what he lost.

"I pushed everybody away. Some of those relationships still need work; others are flourishing," he said of family members.

Many who attended the Aug. 31 vigil, and who are likely to join Saturday's rally, are family members of people struggling with addiction. They know perhaps better than anyone what the obsession and compulsion associated with the disease do to relationships.

"We burn up all our `sorrys' — they don't mean anything. People become very forgiving when they see you living a different life. That's what recovery's all about," Pratt said.

As for his old social scene, Pratt moved on, except for one close friend who also managed to stop using. "Those old friends weren't really friends to begin with."

On his own path to recovery, Pratt was a frequent flyer at the hospital's McGee Recovery Center.

"I would cycle in and out, in and out," he said. Today, he remembers not being judged by staff. "It was always, `I'm glad you're back. What are you going to do differently?' They didn't give up on me."

"Recovery is a verb, it's not an endpoint," he said. "It's a constant journey. It's not like you wake up one morning and you're all better."

Flyers that Pratt created for Saturday's rally include what's meant to be an exhaustive list of all who are invited. But the message could be simpler, he notes.

No one who wishes to lift stigma should feel excluded. "Even people who are using. Everybody's welcome."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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