Addressing a crowd of about 40 local Jewish women, Ashley Potts talked about her struggle with heroin — how it led to her running away from home as a teenager, how she lost contact with her family and eventually became homeless, how she was charged with 100 felonies and how she feared she wouldn’t live to see her 21st birthday.
“I was a prisoner of my own self and I didn’t know how to get out,” Potts said.
Now in long-term recovery, Potts is a licensed social worker with the Allegheny Health Network and works with a team of physicians, nurses and psychiatrists to help people struggling with addiction. When she talks to others about her own story and her work, she said she likes to remind them that everybody is somebody to somebody.
“We are all equal in my eyes,” she said. “No one raises their hand and says, ‘I want to be a heroin addict.’ There is always more to the story.”
In order to shine a brighter light on that message in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, the National Council for Jewish Women, the Jewish Women’s Foundation and Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh hosted a June 11 panel discussion at Temple Sinai on the opioid epidemic in Allegheny County. Potts spoke alongside Abby Wilson, director of public policy for the Allegheny County Health Department, and Rosa Davis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Organization for Women in Early Recovery (POWER).
This is not about poor judgment. This is not about willpower…This is an illness.
The discussion was part of the Ladies Who Lunch series, which hosts three events each year for women to network and learn about timely and relevant issues in the Pittsburgh area.
The organizers chose the most recent topic after receiving several requests at past lunches to discuss the opioid epidemic. Despite those requests, they felt the topic was still taboo in the Jewish community.
“When we hear a story like Ashley’s, we think ‘Oh, that’s not our story,’” said Charlene Tissenbaum, moderator for the panel. “The Jewish community needs to know that addiction and recovery is very much part of our community too.”
Judy Greenwald Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation and one of the women who planned the panel, said the Jewish community’s focus on “excellence” could make it harder to talk about the presence of something such as addiction in our own families and communities. “We set the bar so high so when you see these kinds of issues they go against the ‘norm’ of what Jewish people should aspire to.”
At the same time, awareness about Naloxone, a drug that can help reverse the effects of an overdose, has also increased, Wilson said. Of the approximately 120 police departments in Allegheny County, at least 100 now carry Naloxone, compared to fewer than 50 three years ago.
“People are seeking and they are getting help,” Wilson said, adding that she doesn’t want anyone to get overly optimistic. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Wilson said the Health Department is focusing efforts on increasing access to Naloxone and sterile syringes and increasing awareness about medical-aided treatments for addiction.
Davis, who noted that POWER started in 1991, said that while some things have changed about the opioid epidemic over the years, like the age and race of people who are affected, many things have stayed the same. For example, trauma and genetics are still the two biggest predictors of addiction.
To illustrate the point that addiction can happen to anybody, Davis told the crowd the story of how she met a woman who was born on the same day in the same year at the same hospital where she was born. They met at an event for POWER. The woman was there seeking help.
“I just can’t imagine that one [of those two babies] would grow up to struggle with addiction and one would be executive director of a program she would turn to for help,” Davis said.
“Make no mistake that addiction has always affected everyone,” she continued. “This is not about poor judgment. This is not about willpower…This is an illness.”
Each of the presenters said that moving forward, the best thing the ladies at the event could do was work to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction by watching the language they use to talk about addiction and the way they treat people in recovery, as well as staying informed about new research and treatments.
For Greenwald Cohen, the panel was just the start of the conversation. She hoped it would lead people to start “chipping away at the stigma” and to recognize that “there is something all of us can do.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at email@example.com.