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International Overdose Awareness Day August 31st

International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) is held August 31st worldwide; events are held to acknowledge and honor the memories of loved ones we have lost to accidental overdose. The events will acknowledge families, such as mine, who were left behind to grieve. The events will be a platform to speak out about addictive illnesses and fight the stigma that can accompany this disease.

The estimated number of deaths reported may be lower than we think. Currently, the National Center for Health Statics states that Nationwide about 197 people are dying every day from overdose. In San Diego county, the District Attorney’s Office reports that deaths in the county from opioid abuse have almost doubled in the last 14 years. There is evidence that suggests many deaths are not accounted for in these statistics, which includes deaths from related substance misuse and long-term abuse.

International Overdose Awareness Day was founded by Sally Finn because she wanted a special day to fight the stigma against substance abuse. She once said, “Because, after all, the measure of a person’s life is not the way in which it ended.” This statement is true for all of those who have been lost their lives to overdose. Mrs. Finn starting this event in Austria and spread across the World. This day has given loved ones an opportunity to mourn, without the stigma, that is attached to those who have accidentally overdosed or those whose lives have been permanently changed due to alcohol, pills, heroin or other substances. Hopefully, compassion will be felt by the families and friends who also bare this stigma as well.

I can recall the hopes and dreams I had for my first baby girl, Candice Nicole Norton. She was a beautiful little girl with perfect features, laughter that was infectious and her spirit was bigger than her body. I dreamed of her future as I watched her take her first steps, love her siblings and play softball. I watched her grow into a kind-hearted child that had dreams of helping others and becoming a nurse. Candice wanted to be on the Olympic softball player and began practicing every day. All of a sudden, my hopes and dreams for my child had changed. As a teenager, she began her battles with mental health issues and an addictive illness.

Our family struggled with her throughout the turmoil within her. We went through: priests, church support groups, doctors, jail, treatment centers, self-help groups and therapy. Our best efforts pulled our family into a thousand directions. One evening she ran away and was pulled over for a traffic violation. She ate the drugs her and another man were carrying in fear she would be in trouble. She was a young lady of 18 years old when she was arrested and brought into the Los Colinas Detention Facility. They placed her in a sobering cell, her fever spiked, she fell into a coma, and never woke up again. On February 15th 2001, I held her and watched as my child slipped away from this earth. Suddenly, all those hopes and dreams were gone.

As a result, I reach out to others who have had similar losses. I needed to find connection and support. I found support groups for many types of deaths, but only one specific to substance misuse passing. It was Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing (GRASP) and they only had one chapter in 2009. Denise and Gary Cullen took over administration in 2010. As of today, we have 130 chapters internationally (5 in Canada) and more chapters are forming all the time. In 2011, I started a local chapter of Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing (GRASP) in La Mesa, CA. It is a peer support group for those who lost someone to substance misuse. We join together and support each other without stigma or judgements. We grieve together and to us, it does not matter how they passed. We focus on the fact that we loved them and they touched our lives. We help each other through the darkest times of a person’s life. The La Mesa Chapter was the only chapter in San Diego for many years. As overdose death numbers epidemic spirals upward, so do the numbers of families left needing support. Today we have three chapters in San Diego County and the number of members are growing quickly.

The three chapters of GRASP will be hosting a candle light vigil on International Overdose Awareness Day. We would like to invite the public to come out and help us bring awareness to this tragic epidemic. On August 31st, at 6pm we will be gathering next to the Oceanside pier. Together we will honor the lives that have been lost to substance misuse and the families left behind to live without them. For more information, you can contact Shawn Norton at shawnmnorton@yahoo.com or Mike Robinson at pmrobins11@gmail.com.

There are so many who suffer in silence due to the loss of a loved one. I would like to encourage you to reach out and find support. For more information about GRASP please go to our web site for the chapter near you at grasphelp.org.

—Shawn Norton