Courageous family at work to help others following tragic overdose death

  • Cara Moser with a photo she took of her daughter, Eliza Harper, in South Deerfield Thursday. December 6, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 12/19/2018 9:39:14 PM
Modified: 12/19/2018 9:39:23 PM

We still have so much to hear, understand and accept about the addiction crisis that has enveloped our country. Yes, awareness is more widespread than it was five years ago when the Recorder first began reporting on the opioid epidemic and the regional Opioid Task Force first took shape. But there is much more to do.

The task force, composed of Franklin County and North Quabbin government leaders, educators, criminal justice and medical professionals and others, has made a major part of its work teaching the public about the nature and dangers of opioids, which lurk like a viper in the grass poised to strike if you get too close.

Education has begun to spread from news articles to schools to medical offices to courthouse counseling rooms to living rooms. Perhaps the most powerful, the most compelling voices in this chorus are the friends and families of those struck down by addiction at an early age — often after long struggles with the stranglehold addiction can have on a person’s very mind. Addiction is a disease of brain chemistry; not an affliction of weak will.

That’s why we were so impressed and grateful when the parents of 26-year-old Eliza Harper of Deerfield reached out to the Recorder to tell the story of a daughter they knew to have been open, supportive, authentic, beautiful, funny and smart, and a nurturer. But she had been fighting heroin addiction for the past five years until an accidental overdose last month on her birthday. Can it get any worse?

Before the addiction took hold, Eliza was what every parent would want in a daughter: she was a good sister to her four siblings, played soccer, competed in track, graduated from Frontier Regional School in 2011 and attended Greenfield Community College, where she got A’s.

Her mother, Cara Moser, her father, Daniel Harper, and two of her sisters, Kate and Izzy, now want to help others who struggle with addiction. They reached out to the Recorder to tell her story and held a large public memorial to which they invited Dr. Ruth Potee, a member of the Task Force and a leading voice in its drive to educate the public about the disease.

Eliza’s family has become motivated to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction. “She taught me so much in all of her unusual ways,” Moser told the Recorder. “We need to try and raise awareness about this.”

Eliza had depression and anxiety, for which she began to self-medicate with marijuana, and that led to other drugs, her family said. “There is still a lot of stigma and shame. These people are continuously struggling; they need continuity of care and support, not ignorance,” said her mother.

“It would have been different if she had cancer and she got treatment, then it came back,” her father told the Recorder. “Addiction is similar in that sense, but society deals with it so differently.”

At Eliza’s memorial, Potee compared the opioid crisis to the 1980s epidemic of AIDS — when at first families were ashamed to even speak the word. Potee said that there needs to be a shift in perspective on addiction similar to the shift in perspective that occurred around AIDS.

Opioid addiction is “a serial killer on our streets,” said Potee. The grip heroin and prescription painkillers have on the brain’s chemistry is tenacious and tight, so that “relapse defines the disease,” she said. Eliza was nine months in recovery before she experienced the relapse that ended her life.

“Eliza died holding a long and complex arc that was bending towards hope,” said the Rev. Matilda Cantwell, who presided over the memorial. “We must carry that forward.”

For family and friends grieving a loved one lost to addiction, speaking out publicly is courageous and heartbreaking — and yet so valuable to the community because their message is indisputable, born from searing pain they don’t wish anyone else to experience.

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