When Missy Owen heard that the non-profit National Safety Council was putting together a memorial for opioid victims called "Prescribed to Death" and was, in effect, looking for personal stories to help put a human face on the crisis, she was excited.
“I was like, 'oh yes, this is a great idea,'” Owen said, “This is an awesome project, yes I’ll do that!”
The project would be another way to try and keep the memory of her son Davis alive. Not only that, but it could potentially help make an impact on others in the hopes of one day ending the epidemic that takes 22,000 lives a year.
“I knew that it would help other people,” she said.
But months went by.
“I procrastinated, and I procrastinated," she said.
Owen said bringing herself to fill out the paperwork — to spell out, in detail, the pain she suffered when she lost her 20-year-old son, an honor student and class president — was so painful that she waited until the very last day the organization would accept submissions.
But in the end, she said she knew this memorial would be something people would remember.
“You look at all this, and you go up to it, and you see it, and you see those faces so close,” she said.
With this exhibit, being close is the only way to experience it because it consists of 22,000 pills, one for each opioid death that occurs in the U.S. each year.
Owen said when she sees the enormity of it, she thinks of 22,000 families that learned to “live differently,” as she had to.
“(These families) learned their new normal, and learned to live without someone that they loved and cared for deeply,” she said.
But there’s one more layer to the exhibit — each of the 22,000 pills has a likeness carved into it by a 3D printer. The faces are modeled after actual victims of the crisis.
Among the 22,000 pills is Davis Owen.
“I haven’t found him,” Missy Owen said, staring closely at the rows and columns of tiny white pills. “But I know he’s here.”
Owen has seen it several times now. But it’s still an emotional experience. She recalls how Davis fell down the path of addiction.
Davis was gifted, Missy said, but his brain had trouble “shutting off.” He had trouble sleeping when he was stressed, and one night he took a seemingly innocuous trip to the family medicine cabinet.
“I’m supposing he was looking for something like Advil PM or Tylenol PM, something like that,” she said.
He grabbed an old, leftover Vicodin prescription that Missy estimates may have had 30 pills in it. Its label: ‘May cause drowsiness.’
“And he was one of those one in 10 people that have that euphoric experience when taking an opioid medication. And he continued to use that bottle until it was gone. By that time he was completely addicted,” she said.
It soon turned into a need for the recreational opioid heroin, and that, in turn, led to his overdose in 2014.
One of the hardest aspects for Missy Owen come to terms with is that his death, and those of so many others whose faces are now etched onto that wall, was preventable.
“Davis’s story is so sad,” Owen said, “and so awful.”
“But it’s not uncommon,” she said.
She said she hopes the memorial can help to humanize the epidemic for people who haven’t had to suffer the loss of a loved one, in the hopes that we can stem the epidemic.
Maureen Vogel, spokesperson for the National Safety Council, said people have walked away visibly moved.
“(People say) ‘it’s encouraging me to change. It's encouraging me to talk to my doctor,’ and ‘it's encouraging me to talk to my own family,'” Vogel said.
The exhibit premiered in Chicago late last year, and it goes on display outside the White House this month. Vogel says 14 other cities have expressed interest in hosting the memorial so far.
“Data only tells part of the story,” Vogel said. “You have to put a face on the statistic for people to really relate to it,” she said.
Missy Owen said she hopes this year is the year the epidemic turns a corner.
“We are losing a whole generation of people. It has to be a turning point," she said.