The message was loud and clear.
“We do recover!” The words were repeated by several people attending the sixth annual International Overdose Awareness event Monday night at Crossroads Community Park in downtown Seymour.
People like Jennifer Hopkins of Seymour, who is celebrating five years of sobriety from drugs, and Laura Nowling of Austin, a former elementary school teacher who was arrested twice on drug-related charges and later lost her son to a drug overdose.
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Nowling served as the keynote speaker for the event.
For the 170 people who attended the event, “We do recover” is more than a slogan. It’s a lifesaving message of hope and love. It’s the battle cry of an army fighting the very personal war on drugs.
But as in any war, there are casualties. Since Aug. 1, 2019, eight individuals from Jackson County have died from an overdose, said AmyMarie Travis Lucas, Jackson Superior Court I judge and president of the Jackson County Drug-Free Council.
“We are here to honor the lives of the eight people we lost to drug overdose in the past year and to honor their families and to honor their memories,” she said.
Nationally, around 200 people die from a drug overdose each day. To make that statistic visual and more real, Carla Wright of Commiskey collected the same number of pairs of shoes and lined them up along the steps of the pavilion so people could see the impact.
Each pair represented a life lost to overdose.
“It’s just so sad,” Wright said. “That’s somebody’s someone that filled those shoes, and now, they’re gone.”
During the pandemic, the number of overdose deaths is expected to increase by 20 to 30%, she added. If that holds true, Wright said they will need a lot more shoes for next year’s event.
Wright, who is the sole harm reduction volunteer at the Jackson County Health Department, knows what it’s like to see a loved one struggle with drug addiction. Her sister, Cindy McCormick, died of an overdose in 2019. Her son also has addiction issues, she said.
Joining Wright at Monday’s event were her parents, Gary and Linda Sweet, and her niece, Cindy’s daughter, Lauren Cutter, all of Cincinnati, Ohio.
In addition to the shoes, which Wright is donating to organizations that serve the poor, she distributed free supplies of the opioid overdose medication naloxone or Narcan to those who wanted it.
“Events like this are important to show and remind the community what is happening and to reach people who need help, to give them hope,” she said.
Along with honoring those loved ones who died of overdose, International Overdose Awareness is about celebrating those who are in recovery, Lucas said.
“We are also here to talk about recovery and that recovery happens and it’s real and it can be there for you if you need it,” she said.
Several recovery and addiction counseling organizations attended the event to provide information about services and resources available locally.
Hopkins, who helps organize Jackson County’s overdose awareness event, is well known in the area for sharing her story of addiction and recovery and reaching out to anyone going through the same. She also lifted up her voice to God, performing several songs of worship with friends Scott Larrison and Dwight Hendrix.
“2020 has been a very eventful year. We have lost a lot of things,” she said. “But if you look around, I just want to remind you that we serve a God who is in the habit of taking things that the devil intended for bad and using them for good.”
The Rev. Ralph Blomenberg of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour opened the event with a prayer, bringing attention to how all life is precious to God, including the sparrows that fall to the ground.
“On our hearts this evening are persons you know whose lives have been shortened by drugs and overdose,” he said. “Those eight lives lost this year are tragic to us and to you.”
Blomenberg thanked God for the intervention of first responders and family, without which the number of lives lost would have been much higher, he said.
“We also thank you, Lord, that you put words into actions, loving us not from far away but up close and personal,” he said. “Drugs are just one of the enemies that seek to deprive of us of life and joy, but you offer us redemption and hope and a new start every day.”
Nowling, who felt she had lost everything to her addiction to methamphetamine, said the one thing she was able to gain from it was a relationship with God.
This December, she will celebrate her four year anniversary of being clean.
“It is the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said.
On Feb. 26, 2016, Nowling was arrested at Austin Elementary School for possession of meth. She was a second grade teacher.
“At that time, many people thought and I thought that my life was over,” she said. “I lost everything — my house, my car, my family, my teaching career, which I had done for 25 years.”
Her two oldest children also were in active addiction at that time, she said.
During her 47 days in the Scott County Jail, Nowling did not seek help but instead became bitter and resentful of her situation and decided to show God and everyone how much of an addict she could be.
“My addiction spun out of control,” she said. “I don’t even know who I was.”
On Dec. 4, 2016, she was rearrested on a Level 4 felony dealing charge. While in jail the second time for two and a half months, Nowling said she stopped listening to the devil and began to listen to God.
“I just knew that I had to do something different,” she said. “Not only did I take myself to jail that last time, I took my older two children with me because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
That’s when she began to pray, she said, and surrendered everything to God. She was baptized in the jail, and that is when she felt her chains were broken, she said.
“God loves in our mess, but he loves us too much to leave us in that mess,” she said.
But after her baptism, Nowling said she still had to serve her time. Her daughter was released and went to a rehab facility in Florida. Her son, Kameron Draper, was released and went to West Virginia to participate in Appalachia Teen Challenge, and her youngest daughter went to Howe Military Academy.
She was able to bond out of jail and was put on house arrest for 14 months, living with her mother.
Once again, Nowling reached out to God.
“He said, ‘Your recovery is not going to come knocking on the door. You have to go after it,’’’ she said.
So she did. She began attending meetings and participating in the recovery community. She was asked to speak at an overdose awareness rally in Scott County. Her son came home from West Virginia, and they were able to walk together in the event.
“Our lives were turning around,” she said. “We were sober, and we had God in our lives.”
But then her son relapsed. He started hanging out with the people he used to hang out with, she said.
“As a mother in recovery, I didn’t know how to handle that,” she said.
But with prayer and God in their lives, Nowling said she was able to get Kameron into treatment, and it seemed to work. But addiction is strong, and recovery is difficult.
In July 2019, Kameron died of an overdose of fentanyl and cocaine.
“He wanted to use just one more time,” Nowling said. “He was rewarding himself. If you’re having a great day, the devil says, ‘Wow! How much better would it be if you got high?’”
Nowling said the only way she was able to deal with her son’s death was to ask God to take away the shame and guilt. It also comforted her to know Kameron had given his life to God and that he was now in a better place.
“I was at a crossroads that day,” she said. “I could have made some phone calls and I could have been as high as I wanted to be and I could have made that pain stop.”
But instead, she called upon her recovery family, including her pastor’s wife, Lisa Herald.
“God put all these people in my life so that they could surround me in my time of trouble because at that point in time, I couldn’t think of what I was supposed to do,” she said. “They were angels God put on this earth to keep me safe from myself.”
Now when she speaks, Nowling said she brings along a copy of the Recovery Bible she used when she was in jail.
“I remember when I first got out of jail, my mom asked me if I wanted a new Bible, and I was like, ‘No. I want this one because it has everything marked that is important to me,’” she said. “It’s tattered and torn on the outside just like my life was, but on the inside, I knew there was something special that God just had to bring out.”
Nowling hopes what she has gone through makes a difference in other people’s lives.
“This is our family’s story, but it doesn’t have to be yours,” she said.