293 in Knox Last Year: Annual Event Remembers Those Lost to Overdose, Offers Hope to those Still Str
At last year's International Overdose Awareness Day, Selena McClelland was in the audience, trying mightily to shake an addiction she'd fought for 20 years.
This year, she was on the staff of Tennessee Overdose Prevention, the grassroots nonprofit that sponsors the annual event.
It took losing her fiance last year to an overdose to change her path, she said.
"I knew after losing him that I had to get involved," McClelland said. "I didn't want another family to have to go through this. It was time for action."
Next month, McClelland will celebrate one year sober.
Now in its fourth year, the Knoxville observation of the international event has always had a consistent theme: "We do recover." Speaker after speaker hammered home that point Friday night at Volunteer Landing, offering hope to those in the audience who might not be quite there yet.
And, between those speaking and those listening, rows of empty shoes symbolized those who didn't get that chance. In Knox County so far this year, a suspected 198 people have died from overdoses, said Tennessee Overdose Prevention founder Nancy Carter Daniels — and she said many of those attending Friday night's event knew at least seven who died within the last two weeks.
The nonprofit took a lead in training and distributing the opioid antidote naloxone in the Knoxville area, including in drug court, said Ron Hanaver, director of the Knox Recovery Court and the Knox County Veterans Treatment Court.
It also advocated for laws to make it easier for people to get and administer the antidote, and has had an ongoing series of billboards featuring people whose lives were saved by naloxone.
Melissa Payne isn't on one, but she could be. On Friday night, she was among those decorating crosses with the names of loved ones who had died from drug use — hers, a man she'd dated, though "I've lost a lot of people to overdoses," she said.
Payne, 38, began using drugs 13 years ago and overdosed 11 times, she said, once needing three doses of naloxone to be revived.
But on her 10th time attempting recovery, she'd made it to 133 days sober on Friday and continues intensive outpatient therapy through a local program. This time, she wants that sobriety more than anything, she said.
"I want a new life," said Payne, who's hoping to regain custody of her two children. "I love the feeling of being free. I don't feel lost and lonely anymore. I feel whole again."
Throughout the four-hour event, volunteers manned booths of resources for those struggling with addiction and recovery. At dusk, with the Henley Bridge lighted purple to mark overdose awareness, those present gathered in a circle for a candlelight vigil, speaking the names of loved ones lost to addiction just before blues musician Michael Crawley played "Amazing Grace" on the harmonica.
It was Debbie Thompson's first time attending. Thompson lost her 31-year-old son to an overdose last year and recently moved to Knoxville with his two children, of whom she now has custody.
"I wanted to be close to the mountains," Thompson said. "I just needed some peace after his death."
She came to Overdose Awareness Day yearning to remember him and connect with others who understood her loss. She brought pictures of him, in case anyone wanted to see. Her son, she said, tried for years to get clean. He was working in Florida, cleaning up storm damage, when the withdrawals hit and "he went and got just a little bit," she said. He didn't know "it was straight fentanyl."
"He wanted to quit so badly, and he just couldn't," Thompson said. And while she enjoyed hearing people speak about their recovery, "I just wish he'd been one of them."