Accidental activist: Sister of overdose victim recalls her journey

Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Addiction

Jessica Akhrass’ brother died from an overdose of prescription opioid painkillers. 

Now, she is working on a memoir about the experience of losing her brother and successfully pushing for changes in state law to tighten regulations around prescription opiates.

“It’s emotionally draining. You have to relive what happened in detail,” says Akhrass, who lives in Lenoir City. 

She says she hopes her book will help fight the stigma associated with addiction and encourage other people to fight for change, even when they’re not sure where to start.

Addison

Akhrass’ 22-year-old brother, Addison, had battled addiction for four years and was clean in the months leading up to his death in 2012. He relapsed with pills after returning home from a family vacation, she says.  

 

“Addison was, I say he was my baby but he was my brother. We were so close and I took care of him. He was cute, he was smart and he was funny, and it was just wrong that he was gone, and it was so bad that I was going to be damned if I let that keep happening to all these other people in the state and do nothing. That was unacceptable to me to let it just keep happening." 

She wanted it to stop

"I was thinking about legislation, but I had no idea what I wanted it to say or what I wanted it to do – so that people in this state would not have to go through what I had just gone through because it was the awfulest thing I have ever experienced, like, pain to the point where I was surprised it didn’t kill me. I was surprised I was still living. It’s indescribable. I didn’t know how to pass a law. I never worked in government before. It’s embarrassing how little I knew about government before I did this. I didn’t know how any of it worked.”

She quickly learned the ropes. Just days after he died, Akhrass threw herself into meeting with state lawmakers, police and medical experts who specialize in prescription painkillers. She formed a broad coalition to lobby in Nashville.

 

“It is the meaning of a grassroots campaign. We did the research ourselves, we called hospitals, we called jails, we called courts. Every month I would pick a topic and we would gather the information. When people say, did you think about it? I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about what I was going to do or how I was going to do it. It was just in me that I knew you have to do this. I don’t know how and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to do it.”

Out of the shadows

She also launched a Facebook page. It soon became a gathering place for Tennesseans from across the state –– family and friends of struggling addicts and overdose victims.  

 

“I gave them a voice. They felt they couldn’t talk about it because there is such a stigma. They’re so embarrassed. It’s such a shameful, hidden, issue and they didn’t feel like they could tell anybody or talk about it openly because they’d be the ones, ‘oh, their kid’s a drug addict, or so-and-so’s kid is in jail.'”

Making change

Only about a year after she began organizing, Akhrass' coalition succeeded at garnering enough support from lawmakers to pass a bill named after Akhrass’ brother, called the Addison Sharp Prescription Regulatory Act of 2013.

State Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman) released a statement praising the legislation:

"Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels in Tennessee. It not only adversely affects the public health, but the public safety and economy. This legislation provides additional and useful tools to fight this scourge."

Read more about Akhrass' law

Akhrass is proud of her coalition's work to pass "Addison's law" but, she says, more needs to be done to crack down on pill mills and other excessive prescribers that make prescription opiates too easy for potential addicts to get, buy and sell.  

A long way to go

Despite the legislation's new rules, and other efforts by state officials to curb prescription opioid abuse, numbers show the state of Tennessee continues to have one of the highest rates of prescriptions per person in the nation. And, as The Tennessean reports, overdose deaths are up.  

Learn more about Akhrass and Addison on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ADDISON-133410670110156/?fref=photo

#FindingAmerica

Jess Mador

Jess Mador is the creator of TruckBeat for WUOT. She's an award-winning public radio reporter, writer, producer and storyteller who has produced stories for news organizations around the country, including Minnesota Public Radio, NPR News and PBS member stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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