WINCHESTER — As blues guitarist David Roy played Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in memory of fatal overdose victims at the fourth annual Addicted to Hope Rally on Saturday at Handley High School, Caleb Comer was wearing a memorial T-shirt honoring his first cousin Desirae Lynn-Miller.
Lynn-Miller, a 34-year-old mother of five from Stephenson, fatally overdosed on Feb. 23, 2018. Comer, a 24-year-old recovering addict, said he planned to light a candle for Lynn-Miller at the end of the rally. He said Lynn-Miller had attended the inaugural rally and had been in recovery before relapsing.
“She was an awesome person,” he said. “It’s just really sad.”
Lynn-Miller was among the more than 200 people from Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties who have died since 2012, when the national opioid epidemic began to have a major impact locally. At least 23 people have died this year in the region.
Speakers at the rally honored their memories and praised those in recovery. While relapses frequently happen to addicts, speakers stressed recovery is possible.
Julie Funkhouser recalled rocking back and forth in the fetal position while strung out in heroin in a St. Louis apartment as a 19-year-old. Now 31, Funkhouser has been sober since 2008 and is a drug counselor and CEO of The Recovery Connection, a home for recovering female addicts. Funkhouser thanked her family for supporting her.
“It doesn’t mean that they weren’t fearful. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t angry and it doesn’t mean that they weren’t hurting,” she said. “It meant that they loved me and they always have.”
Funkhouser, a mother of two, fought back tears as she recalled her husband, Danny Gordon Funkhouser II, who fatally overdosed on Sept. 11, 2018. She said she plans to honor her husband by maintaining her sobriety, helping others maintain it and advocating for more drug and mental health treatment.
“He left me with a story to tell and a fight in my soul,” Funkhouser said. “I will continue to raise our beautiful children and show them the powerful resiliency of the human spirit. Their dad is with them always and I will make sure they know the depth of his love for them and the irreplaceable vitality of his soul. Today I choose to see that life is happening for me, and I refuse to see it any other way.”
The rally, which was organized by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coaltion, drew at least 200 hundred people. It included a few information tents for helping addicts and their families. They included Nar-Anon, a 12-Step support group for relatives of addicts, Northwestern Community Services, an area provider of drug and mental health treatment, and the Valley Light Foundation, a Christian-based provider of transitional housing.
As the opioid epidemic has spread, more people see addiction as a medical problem, and there has been less ostracism of addicts. But shame and stigma over addiction continues.
Speaker Michael Partlow, president of Partlow Insurance, said the fight against addiction can’t be waged in the shadows. He called for community solidarity and transparency.
“We have to fight it and the stigma that comes with it together. We have to have these conversations together,” said Paltrow whose company helped fund the rally. “It has to be OK to ask for help. And we, supporters, families and our community, need to stand ready to help, however we can, when it is asked of us.”
Speaker Jeffrey Franklin Washington spent 22 years in prison for a 1994 robbery and murder in Winchester before being paroled in 2016. He said he regularly drank and did drugs, in and out of prison, before finding Christianity and sobriety in 2008. Washington, who regularly speaks to inmates in jails and prisons, emphasized rehabilitation is possible.
“Don’t give up on someone who’s struggling with addiction,” he said. “Don’t give up on somebody who might be going back and forth in and out of prison. People want to change.”
About 100 people held hands in a circle for the candlelit ceremony at the end of the rally. They surrounded luminarias in bags with the names of fatal overdose victims. Participants sang Amazing Grace and were then led in prayer by the Rev. Brad Hill, senior pastor of Grace Downtown of Winchester, who is a recovering addict and alcoholic.
“I pray Father, your comfort on each person in this circle who has lost someone to this disease,” he said. “Lord, as a community, I pray that you put a burning desire in each and every one of use to make a difference when it comes to addiction, but more so when it come to recovery.”