In the tiny Massachusetts town of Agawam, people talk about the friends they've lost like it's a war zone. In any given month, a few more might be gone, lost to the heroin epidemic that has swept the state. But when people tried to bring up this sad reality on an online forum for the town, the posts kept mysteriously disappearing.
"We figured [out] that if you write about heroin, it gets deleted," said Kristen Trauschke, a lifelong Agawam resident who estimates she's been to 25 funerals for friends and loved ones who have overdosed. "Quite literally, it was bullshit."
The stigma attached to drug addiction seemed to be pressuring the community into silence.
In response, Trauschke, 36, and a friend created a defiant Facebook group two months ago called Agawam (& friends) Against Addiction. In it, people struggling with all aspects of opioid addiction post out in the open, with their real names, sharing stories and leaning on one another as they work toward sobriety together.
It's a "coming out," if you will, suggested Trauschke.
Addicts, recovering addicts, family members of the addicted, and friends of all stripes have taken to posting in the group, often sharing deeply personal details. One post might be a woman mourning a recently passed loved one, another celebrating a milestone of sobriety, another on the verge of relapsing and looking for help. Lists of open beds in nearby treatment and recovery facilities are posted daily. Documents describing warning signs of addiction and other resources are available for download. A separate email for anonymous sharing with the group has also been set up.
To date, there are nearly 2,000 members. The town has a population of only about 28,000.
"A lot of us got here because we're so desperate," said Betsy Mason, who became a moderator of the group a few weeks ago.
Just days before the group was founded, Mason's best friend's son died of an overdose. And while she's not certain that her own son isn't still shooting up, she estimated that he's been clean for 11 months now. Still, every day she carries Narcan with her—a lifesaving drug that can reverse a heroin overdose.
"It confirms that you're not crazy," Mason said of belonging to the group. "There's this feeling that a lot of people have, that you're all alone, that there's no one to talk to. But we know that 100% of the community is affected."
The popularity of the group marks a turning point in the conversation surrounding addiction, said Mason. When people start talking about it in the open, it changes things.
"For the longest time, people didn't talk about cancer," she said, "but when they started coming out, the research dollars followed."
Even in the short time since the Agawam Facebook group was founded, the national conversation about heroin and opioid addiction has been shifting. Members applauded when President Obama recently encouraged the public to see addiction "as a public health problem and not a criminal problem.”
The epidemic has stricken the northeast the hardest, as Fusion has reported. It has in part been spurred on by prescription-drug addicts looking for a cheaper high. As a result, authorities say that the amount of heroin seized by police in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the last five years.
For 2014, the latest year available, about 1,173 people died of heroin or opioid overdose in Massachusetts, according to state data—more than double what it was in 2010. While the 2015 figures aren't out yet, they were on track to even surpass that number.
For lifelong Agawam resident Abbey Halpy, 30, the circumstances leading to her joining the group were disastrous. Last December, she lost her fiance to a heroin overdose, but the tragedy didn't stop there.
"Since then, I've lost ten people strictly to overdoses," said Halpy, who has been clean of her opioid addiction for a year and a half.
A lack of support in her personal network led her to feeling overburdened, like she had nowhere or no one to turn to, she said. If it wasn't for the group and the real-life friends and supporters that she has made through it, she doesn't know what she would have done with herself.
"It's been a lifesaver," she said. "I feel like I can undoubtedly lean on them for anything."
After her fiance's death, she tried to join a grievance group for people who had lost their loved ones in the town, only to be told she was not welcome, because her husband died of an overdose, not from an accident or natural causes, she said. It was devastating.
But through Agawam (& friends) Against Addiction, she has launched her own grievance group, called Survivors of Fallen Angels, specifically meant for those who have lost their spouses to substance abuse. The first meeting was held early this month, and a handful of strangers showed up, even though the weather was awful.
"I definitely believe in this movement," she said. "We have to say these things in the open in order to get rid of the shame, to get rid of the stigma."
"I see it making a difference. After all these years, this is making a difference," she added.
For her part, Trauschke, the co-founder of the group, said that she knew the virtual group had the potential to break through to the real world and have an impact when days after it was launched town mayor Mayor Richard Cohen joined and commented. In his post, he announced that the town would be setting up its first Addiction Forum.
The forum is scheduled for the evening of April 13.
Just a few hours after the Agawam group was created, one of Trauschke's friends started a sister group in nearby Westfield, which has also been building momentum in the community.
"What I'd really like to see is for people to start their own groups, run exactly like ours, across the country," she said, adding that preliminary steps are being taken to bring the model nationwide.
"All day long I get messages from people telling me 'thank you,'" said Trauschke. "To me, that says that this is working."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.