As I enter my final month as Miss Massachusetts, 21 young women from around the Commonwealth are busy practicing their talents, hitting the gym, reading up on the news----and preparing to take my job. I've invited each contestant to be a "guest writer" on my blog and contribute a piece that demonstrates her unique personality, interests and experiences. Over the next several weeks, members of the Miss Massachusetts Class of 2017 will be featured in this series as we "Countdown to the Crown". This week's featured contestant is Miss Brookline, Summer Foley.
What an awesome opportunity Alissa has given all of us-- a chance to share your story. My own story has shifted drastically within the past month, and I've gone back and forth over the level of exposure I should give it, but it is so fresh and relevant to who I am right now and (I hope) resonates with so many others that I feel it is too important to bypass opportunities to tell a tale that has potential to ease, help or inspire. So here it is...
I come from a truly remarkable family. My mother is a former model, a business woman (she's founded, owned and operated her own small business for 20+ years!) and super human, my father is a successful contractor and can drive around my hometown saying he built virtually everything, and one of my older sisters (there are 2) is a lawyer and negotiator for one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. No pressure for me, right? Not one to hang in a shadow, I worked tirelessly throughout high school to achieve accolades for performing and singing, as well as my academics, and landed myself acceptance letters to some of the most prestigious conservatories in the country, including The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Now I mentioned above that I have 2 older sisters, but only talked about one of them. My other older sister, Jaimie, was accomplished too. My other older sister, Jaimie, was a semi-pro surfer, state-ranked soccer player and extremely talented musician and artist. My other older sister Jaimie lost sight of all of this, though, at 16 when addiction began to consume her life. My other older sister, Jaimie, passed away last month, suddenly, at 28 years old.
Growing up witnessing my big sister's entanglement with this demon--that can only be described to those who don't know what it's like as a cancer--was surreal, intangible. At just 10 years old, I knew there was something happening to Jaimie, but at that age, it was hard to tell what exactly it was. I watched her experience such serious anger that she would scream at the top of her lungs, hit my parents and try to peel her skin off of her body as if she were trying to escape from the tentacles of an octopus. She lost so much weight that she had times when she was down to 80 pounds--literally skin and bones, and she was in and out of jail and rehabilitation multiple times before the age of 21. She lied, stole, and hurt my parents and me and my sister so deeply that it was unfathomable to think we were even related. And it was all so confusing to me. How was I supposed to feel? How was I supposed to think? How did my best friend, the person who dressed me up and twirled me around the living room become someone I feared for and someone who scared me?
By the time I was preparing to graduate high school, I noticed that it wasn't only Jaimie in my hometown but so many others too. It's like there was this evil black smoke unfurling throughout my quiet little beach town with these drugs and the weird power they had. I could not wait to find a new world unburdened by addiction. I thought that by moving far away from home, diving into a focused environment and living in a more accepting and busy community I could get away from it all. I was wrong. The issue that ultimately took my sister away from me, that infected my hometown and that here in Massachusetts steals thousands of loved ones haunted me.
Respite was distracting, but the ghost of my memory would always be there. I needed to do something. I realized it’s not something to escape. It’s ok for it to be part of my story, and to embrace the reality. Pageants get plenty of flack, but one aspect no one can negatively criticize is the philanthropic voice each delegate gets in the form of a "platform", and that has been my vehicle for action, for embracing my reality.
I don't know what the antidote to addiction is. It's a chronic disease, and I don't think there is a single answer to the issue. The genesis of my sister's relationship with substance abuse has been linked to a childhood trauma, but I've heard stories of so many different ways people get into it--some are injured playing sports and were prescribed painkiller medication that triggered their addiction and others just think they are trying the chicest new thing to take the party to a higher level. So my "platform," Drug Abuse Prevention and Awareness, has not taken the shape of promoting a single charity or honing in on one specific point--it's a forum, a conversation, a resource. It is multi-faceted because addiction is multi-faceted.
One area of prevention I passionately believe in includes instilling self-esteem, confidence, and self-love in people at all ages. My sister always was insecure--she was bullied in school, and not just by the mean girls. She actually had a teacher once tell her in a classroom full of other students that she was nothing like her accomplished older sister. So she always felt down about herself, and when her addiction was triggered that insecurity intensified. When you come out of your second or third rehab program at 21 years old, and all of your former friends socialize by telling stories about their sorority events and drinking where your only stories from the past couple of years are about wiping out your bank account or trading sex for drugs--its a little hard to relate and feel good enough about yourself to press onward. And she had a lot of tattoos and was bi-sexual, characteristics a small conservative town certainly judges people for. So knowing how much self-esteem affected Jaimie's experience, I've worked with various programs promoting self-esteem and confidence like The Elegant Way Foundation, founded by Loretta Neff, which teaches character development and education to Title I schools (schools that have a higher than average percentage of low-income students, and get additional funding from the federal government under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and children in low-income communities throughout the country. Teachers and administrators have reached out to me after I've spoken and just hung out with these kids at one of the Foundation's book-readings or other events, and will tell me of the significant shift in the classroom dynamic they observe and that through these light-hearted, sheer fun, interactive sessions (activities I would never have otherwise thought could be so truly impactful), these kids have a better sense of self. And it's not just The Elegant Way Foundation. I've worked with Macaroni Kids and the D.A.R.E. program, speaking on acceptance of others regardless of differences. I tell the kids (sometimes who listen and others who I have to just hang out with and be more subtle and "cool" to get them to listen) that it will never hurt you to go sit with the kid, or person who is sitting alone. Ask them questions you would be excited to answer, and respect that they may think or act differently than you. This goes for people my age, the generation above me and the generation above that! To target more mature audiences, I also actively promote the #statewithoutstigMA (use that hash!) campaign funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which is an initiative to dissolve the stigma attached to addiction. Stigma is kind of a strange word so for those who aren't as familiar with it--when someone is struggling with addiction openly, that person instantly becomes prone to judgment, ridicule, and the ignorance of others. I believe this stigma, this negative attention towards those who struggle with addiction, which is NOT a choice, but a disease, is what kept my sister socially isolated. She was treated with shame and people were constantly judgmental or just outright mean. Jaimie's lack of self-esteem lead to her loneliness and her loneliness only further sunk her self-esteem. Sometimes I just wish someone would have, out of pure kindness, asked to take Jaimie to lunch in these later years when she was so deep into this world that she had lost all touch with society. It would have made her feel so good to think someone just wanted to be her friend, and I hope anyone I speak to or who reads this is motivated to do that for the person sitting alone.
Crossing into both the prevention and awareness initiatives, I also use my platform and voice to collect facts (real, not alternative!), statistics and articles so I can educate. Did you know that in 2014 alone, there was a 40% increase in opioid-related (meaning drugs like heroin, codeine, oxycodone, etc.) deaths in Massachusetts from the year before, ploughing the Massachusetts state average so high that it was double the national average that year? And the numbers of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts has increased year over year since then. The Massachusetts state government website is an amazing resource for information as it is taking the opioid epidemic by the horns and actively working to improve the state condition. Governor Baker in 2015 signed into law Chapter 55 of the Acts of 2015, which authorized the state to get the education it needed on the issue--analyzing a variety of data sets on opioid use to gain a better understanding. One fact that is also often misunderstood is cause of death. People have been amazed to hear my sister did not die from an overdose (as far as we know right now). She died because her heart stopped working. She was admitted to the emergency room on the day of her death with heavy breathing and acute endocarditis, which is an infection in the lining of the heart and a common complication of intravenous drug use. So yes, you can use and avoid fatality but people should know it's not just the drug alone that can kill, its the environment--the lack of cleanliness, awareness, judgment. I hope that even the person just scrolling past my article can at least catch a slight glance at something I've written here to think about drug abuse and at least be aware of it if not educated or more.
So that's me right now, in this moment. That's my story. My sister was in a world of physical and emotional pain, and I know she is finally at peace and would want me to share her story. I have been so well-supported by my pageant family in Massachusetts through all of this, and am so excited for what may come in the Miss Massachusetts pageant next month, but beyond all of that I hope that this story, my work on all of this (in or out of the pageant world) has a positive impact on at least one life. It's hard to talk about it but I know it's important, and should anyone reading this want to reach out or share or have someone to talk to about it, please feel free to reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.