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Play helps parents talk with teens

The opiod epidemic has hit Rhode Island hard. Ana Bess Moyer Bell’s play helps educate and heal those affected by addiction.

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See the play “Four Legs to Stand On”

May 6: 6 pm, Block Island Maritime Institute, 216 Ocean Avenue, New Shoreham. Free.

May 7: 7 pm, Brown University Kassar House Foxboro Auditorium, 151 Thayer Street, Providence. $18.

May 11: 7 pm, Westerly High School, 23 Ward Avenue, Westerly (co-event with Chariho Youth Task Force – see page 15.) Free.

June 2: 7pm, Jamestown Arts Center, 18 Valley Street, Jamestown, $20.

Visit the calendar at www.coaast.org for more information and to purchase tickets. The Westerly event is sponsored by Westerly Hospital in collaboration with the Washington Coalition for Kids, South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, and the Dunns Corner Church.

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By Susan Gale

What Ana Bess Moyer Bell wishes most is that when she was in high school, the adults in her life had talked about it.

Her South Kingstown High School boyfriend was top in his class, a varsity wrestler, and well-liked. But when he died from a heroin overdose in 2012, no one talked about how he died. It led Moyer Bell to assume that his death was an isolated incident.

“It wasn’t being dealt with in a healthy way. I found it complicated the grief,” she said. “And then there is all the shame and guilt that goes on top of losing someone to drug abuse. A lot of asking why didn’t I say something?”

Opioids include pain relievers available by prescription such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and others. Heroin is also an opioid, and surveys have found that nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin. They often turn to heroin because it is cheaper.

In Rhode Island, more than half of high school students admitted misusing prescription drugs in the 30 days before they took a survey by the Rhode Island Department of Education in the 2013-2014 school year.

A growing local problem

Rhode Island has the dubious distinction of being fifth in the country when it comes to deaths caused by overdoses, with 28.2 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2015, 310 people died from overdoses in RI, which was a 20% increase over 2014, when 247 people died.

For Moyer Bell, the devastation was all around her. While at New York University working on her master’s degree in drama therapy, three friends died from overdoses over a three-month period.

Feeling overwhelmed by her grief and confusion, Moyer Bell put up a Facebook post about the epidemic. The responses from local people came in fast – dozens of people affected by drug overdoses wrote to her, including nurses, teachers, and pharmacists.

“As soon as I started talking about it, people came out of the woodwork to talk to me,” she said.

Drama therapy incorporates the tools of theater to help people deal with trauma and loss. Moyer Bell began thinking about how a play could help to educate and heal a community ravaged by opioid abuse. She mined the many stories she had heard.

“I used those stories, the themes of them, and that’s how I wrote the characters and plotline for the play.”

Her 35-minute play, called “Four Legs to Stand On,” is a “therapeutic theater” production done with professional actors and is being shown locally in May and June (see sidebar for dates). In it, a son returns from college with an opioid addiction which started when he took pain relievers his father had for cancer. At the dinner table, cancer can be talked about, but addiction remains a secret – the play explores this dichotomy.

Turning grief and pain into healing

Moyer Bell has taken her experience with the play and transformed it into a non-profit called Creating Outreach about Addiction Support Together (COAAST). The group’s mission is to provide community-engaged, arts-based programs to address the opioid epidemic.

She has three goals with the organization: to improve prevention, create clearer communication between parents/adults and children, and to destigmatize the conversation about opioid abuse. COAAST also offers a prevention education curriculum.

Moyer Bell’s play has been performed almost two dozen times over the past two years in locations from community theaters and rehab facilities to churches and high schools. Each showing includes a 20-minute talkback discussion at the end to help the audience process feelings of trauma and loss.

Talking is a necessity

It’s important to warn children about misusing prescription opioids, because they often have easy access to them at home, or at the house of a relative or friend. They can also be prescribed opioids, for instance, for a sports injury, and not understand the addictive power of the medication.

“This is a really scary topic but at this point we can’t not talk about it,” Moyer Bell said. “Talking aids in prevention but also if [teens] do misuse opioids, at least the line of communication is open – parents saying, you can talk to me about this, I’m not going to judge you.”

The play helps people, Moyer Bell said, because they identify with the characters. It allows the them to safely explore and reflect on their own lives at the same time.

Some parents may wish to use the play as a way to open the conversations with their teens. (The play is for ages 13+ and has humor that a younger child might not understand.)

“The play will give them and their teenager a reference point. Storytelling and performance art is so powerful and we can then have the conversation about the really uncomfortable issue without talking about ourselves directly.” Moyer Bell said. “We can project onto the characters and have the conversation that way.”

Susan Gale is Founder and Publisher of Rhode Island Parent Magazine.