An iconic image from the mid-1980s came from a group of New York City artists, who had “gathered over several months to provide support for one another in the face of AIDS,” as the Village Voice noted, and decided to make a poster “to address the epidemic then decimating their world.” It was a pink triangle — a symbol of gay pride, after it was reclaimed from the Nazis — and a simple, powerful message: “Silence=Death.”
It was born from the frustration so many felt, in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, that so little information was available about the disease sweeping through the gay community. But it also took aim at the stigma surrounding those with the disease, because staying in the shadows was dangerous, and it kept the world from seeing the magnitude of the health crisis. Only by talking about it, acknowledging the toll it was taking, and lifting the stigma to treat it like any other disease did it finally win the resources and commitment to finding effective countermeasures.
In the midst of a chilly, persistent rain, and an atmosphere heavy with emotion, those who gathered on a recent Saturday in Hampton Bays to remember those who have succumbed to opioid abuse—a new epidemic—had a message that echoes “Silence=Death” in a new generation.
“Tell everybody you know,” said Drew Scott, well-known for his many years as an anchor on News 12 Long Island, but now also a recognizable face as the member of another group: families who have lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. He continued: “Fight this epidemic. Talk about it. Don’t sweep it under the rug.”
Other speakers at the vigil said the same thing: “Hearing everyone’s stories, it’s nothing to be ashamed of — it’s a disease,” said Mr. Scott’s 17-year-old granddaughter, Mackenzie Jenkins, there with her grandfather to mourn her cousin, Hallie Rae Ulrich, who died last year at age 22.
More pointedly, Danielle Alberti of Hampton Bays said aloud the name of her older sister who died in October 2014 at age 21, Melanie Lynne Alberti. “Don’t stop saying your loved ones’ names,” she said, quoting an old adage that a person dies a second time the last time the name is spoken.
But there’s more to listing the names than simple tribute. It’s also about owning the tragedy and its cause. It is, as the teenage Ms. Jenkins said, “nothing to be ashamed of—it’s a disease.” Until that stigma is lifted, the opioid crisis is in danger of being something that too many people believe happens to other people, even as most everyone has a story to tell about a family member, a friend or themselves.
The stigma remains. Even at the vigil, many people declined to speak about their personal connections to the epidemic, or even to give their names. There’s a nagging perception that acknowledgment of addiction is shameful, or, worse, that it can bring harmful results. It makes clear that there is plenty of work to do, not just encouraging more openness but making sure that everyone, including employers, recognize addiction as a disease that needs to be treated, not a secret to be hidden.
Another parallel: In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the cause of death was often dropped from obituaries, or even listed simply as “cancer” or some other seemingly respectable ailment. In retrospect, it seems cruel and misinformed. Yet obituaries regularly appear today for young people, victims of opioid overdoses, with no cause of death listed. It helps draw a curtain around the problem, instead of shining light on it. There should be no shame — in celebrating a person’s life, there is honor in naming the reason it was snuffed out far too soon.
Today, with the opioid crisis, victims and their families are not alone — and they should strive, every day, not to be faceless either. “Fight this epidemic. Talk about it. Don’t sweep it under the rug.”