It was the early days of the epidemic. In 2013, Sheryl Hirsh’s 23-year-old daughter Melissa Rae Koppel died of a heroin overdose — one of 194 people claimed by the drug in Cuyahoga County that year. Since sharing her story with Cleveland Magazine [“Good Girl Gone,” October 2014], Hirsh has turned from grief to advocacy, raising around $10,000 for educational outreach and organizing an annual substance misuse series as part of Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. Before the series kicks off Sept. 14, Hirsh discusses the importance of using your voice to advocate for those we’ve lost and those still struggling with addiction.
It was when everything sort of broke, so you didn’t see it every day in the news until after Melissa died.
Telling my story was really helpful in putting all the pieces and parts together. It gave me a sense of how and when and where Melissa had gone from painkillers to being clean to doing really well to sort of falling down the drain. The biggest part of not wanting to tell people came from being worried and scared of people changing in their minds about who Melissa was as a human being.
I wish now that there would have been someone like me who had these educational programs so that I would have known before what was going on.
I thought, I need to save other people from this grief. I wanted them to know the signs to look for. This is not what you think it is. This is not a bunch of kids at a party shooting up and then sort of being out of it. This is: “I’m taking this in order to get through my day.” I realized it was attorneys and doctors and police officers and people in the public taking this.
So when people say to me, “Why use Narcan? Why save these people? They’re only going to go back and use it again,” I say, “Because you can save them 10 times, and maybe the 10th time, they’ll become president of the United States.” You just don’t know what they’re going to do with their lives and how they’re going to give back. // as told to James Bigley II
Opening up about stories of addiction and survival isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. “By sharing your story even one time, it could easily save 10 lives or more,” says Sheryl Hirsh. She offers three ways to find your voice and use it for change.
Start small. Make a list of the people in your inner circle, then meet each one individually for an intimate conversation. “It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale,” she says. “You don’t have to change history. You just have to be who you are and speak from your heart, and you’re going to change somebody’s life.”
Stay positive. “When somebody dies, part of the grief process is figuring out how to change your relationship with that person,” says Hirsh. She suggests doing what feels right to you and surrounding yourself with people who care. “There is no way I could be where I am today if my glass was ever half-empty.”
Gear up. Attend local community opioid task force meetings to join other conversations and arm yourself with knowledge. “The impact you have on people is amazing and the impact those people have on you is an unbelievable feeling.”