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Recovery Aroostook holds second annual Overdose Awareness Vigil

CARIBOU, Maine — Recovery Aroostook, a Caribou-based addiction awareness organization formed last year, held their second annual overdose awareness vigil at 9 p.m. on August 30.

The event was held outside the Caribou Theater on Sweden Street following one of the city’s “Thursdays on Sweden” events. Last year, the event honored the lives of 378 Mainers lost to drugs.

This year, that number is 418.

Shelly and David Yankowsky of Glenburn told those attending how they lost two of their sons to drugs.

“Helpless, hopeless, shame, overwhelmed, hurt,” said Shelly to a silent audience, “we felt all of this and a lot more when Adam overdosed the first time.”

Shelly, who works as a dispatcher, described Adam as “brave, smart and really funny.” They loved him unconditionally, and would “move mountains” for their children.

After years of trying to help Adam however they could, whether it was obtaining medication for his depression and withdrawals or arranging counseling, he died for the first time on August 1 of last year, but medical personnel revived him with Narcan and treatment.

“In a matter of three hours, from his death to coming back to life, he was back home,” she said. “We wanted to get him help. He was dead, then alive again.”

Less than a week later, Shelly found him on the floor of his bedroom, bent double, like he had “been folded at the waist.”

“His arms and legs were purple,” she said. “I tried to unfold him, but he was stuck that way.”

Her husband David, who works as a state trooper, recognized that rigor mortis had already set in.

“I kept trying to feel for a pulse,” she said, “but he said there was nothing we could do. My son was dead again, this time forever.”

Between his two deaths, Adam had been living with his parents and came home late one night from his restaurant job.

“He asked me if he was being too loud,” Shelly said, “and said, ‘I know this week was rough, and I’m sorry.’ I told him I loved him, and we hugged for the last time ever.”

In June of this year, their son Sean passed away after staying at a friend’s house. Shelly and David received a knock on the door and were greeted by the police and their priest.

“You know it’s never going to go well when the priest is there,” she said.

They informed the parents, who had lost one son less than a year ago, of Sean’s death.

“Sean had been dealing with demons just like Adam,” she said. “He started smoking marijuana at 13 years old, and after Adam died he’d say ‘Mom, I didn’t just lose my brother; I lost my best friend.’”

She said they now feel “empty” from dealing with the grief and a whirlwind of emotions at the two sudden losses in their family.

“It’s not easy to stand up here in front of you and tell you about Adam and Sean,” she said. “We stand here today to speak to you about our sons because we know that it should be spoken about. If you know someone who is suffering from addiction, talk to them. Love them, whether they decide to get help or not.”

Yankowsky said she and her husband have been sharing their story throughout Maine in the hopes that their experience can impact the community.

“We’re never going to stop talking,” she said, “because if we help just one family, then Adam and Sean didn’t die for nothing.”

 David said it can often be difficult to handle a child who is fighting a battle with substances.

“We tried everything,” he said. “We tried love, screaming at them, tough love, the cold shoulder, everything we could try to get them to understand. The biggest thing is that they have to want to help themselves. They have to want to get better.”

The couple said it can be hard to accept that addiction can cause profound psychological changes in a person.

“It’s hard,” she said, “because the kid you’re seeing is not the kid you raised. You don’t know what’s happening, and they don’t either.”

Recovery Aroostook member Erik Lamoreau thanked everyone for coming out, and said that Maine is the “sixth worst state” for drug-related fatalities.

“Seven hundred and 96 people died of an overdose in the last two years,” he said. “That’s a whole community gone. It’s serious, and important that we continue to hold these kinds of events, to remember the ones we have lost and we are going to lose in the future.”

After a moment of silence and the Serenity Prayer, the Yankowskys received gifts, including flowers and even a bag of Aroostook County potatoes.

“Addiction can affect any one of us,” said Recovery Aroostook Vice-Chair Sarah McLean. “A lot of people have judgement towards those dealing with addiction, but it can affect any one of us or our family members, regardless of socioeconomic status or race.”

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