A new exhibit at the Indiana State Museum wants to break the taboos around addiction and recovery
By Ashley Stimpson
Charmin Gabbard was nine years old when she tasted her first sip of alcohol. She compares the “warm and fuzzy” sensation it gave her to “the way sunshine feels on your face.” This, she thought, “must be what love feels like.”
Gabbard grew up in Connersville, Indiana. Her father was an untreated alcoholic and her mother was a gambling addict. Neither had graduated high school; both suffered from undiagnosed mental health illnesses. The family lived in homes that lacked plumbing. Gabbard and her three siblings bathed in the creek when they bathed at all. Before she lost her baby teeth, Gabbard had watched her father smash tables and break her mother’s fingers, learned to shoplift, and been molested by cousins. Growing up in the 1980s, she was plagued with constant, compulsive dread. “Looking back…it was barbaric,” she told me.
That first taste of beer introduced her to a coping mechanism for dealing with the chaos. During middle school, she used alcohol and weed to blunt her chronic anxiety and find acceptance (with other “kids of trauma,” she knows now). When her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, Gabbard started using her pain killers. “My mom was the first drug dealer I knew,” she said.
In eighth grade, Gabbard missed some eighty days of school but was passed on to high school anyway, where she was placed in a program for troubled kids. By the time she dropped out at seventeen, she had already overdosed twice. When, at eighteen, she became a mother, she swore she was going to be a better parent than her own. Instead, she said, “I became everything I hated about them. I lied. I fought. I stole.”
She also started “doctor shopping” for painkillers. At age thirty-six, when eighty mg of oxycontin no longer got her high, Gabbard bought a cap of heroin for ten dollars. All told, her addiction earned her thirteen felonies and ten years in jail. Each time she was released she “wanted to do different,” Gabbard said, but she was stymied by logistical hurdles like housing, employment, and getting around without a license, as well as her own reputation. “It was impossible to rise above the labels. Especially in a small town.”
Gabbard, now forty-seven and a certified drug and alcohol counselor, told me all of this in thirty breathless minutes over a Zoom call, her cherry red nails flashing across the screen as she gesticulated, her eyes welling with tears and then anger and then tears again. It’s a harrowing story, but one she’s gotten good at telling. “Every time I share this,” she said, “I get a little more healed.”
Gabbard is one of sixteen Hoosiers whose stories are on display at the Indiana State Museum’s new exhibit, FIX: Heartbreak and Hope Inside Our Opioid Crisis. The exhibit runs through August 1 at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis (visitors can get in free by giving the code FIX2021 at the ticket counter), then it travels to Muncie’s Minnetrista. Like Gabbard, museum officials are hoping that a dose of radical honesty—and the conversation it inspires—will help break the taboos that fuel the opioid epidemic and cultivate the empathy needed to end it. But what does that look like in a museum context? Last month, I went out to the museum to see for myself.
FIX isn’t a linear experience, necessarily—Indiana State Museum CEO Cathy Ferree told me it was designed to offer multiple entry points, history for the history buffs, science for the right-brained, art for those who gravitate toward it—but an intuitive lap around the space will guide you from the origins of the crisis to its solutions, from the ‘heartbreak’ to the ‘hope’ of the exhibit’s name.
On the “heartbreak” side, visitors are asked to consider their own threshold for pain and interrogate their capacity for addiction. Do they need caffeine or a cigarette every morning, for example, or get a rush from online shopping? Once an hour, a cell phone rings from a speaker in the ceiling. “Everyone will start patting their pockets,” Ferree said, demonstrating that “We all experience conditioning.”
Elsewhere, visitors may be surprised to learn that opioid addiction is not new—Mary Todd Lincoln was thought to suffer from it, as did beloved Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley and scores of Civil War veterans—nor is society’s knee-jerk reaction to stigmatize sufferers. Displays recall the homophobia of the AIDs outbreak and the racist policies of the crack epidemic.
Once you understand that opioid addition is a disease—not a crime or a moral failing—you begin to see why incarceration is hardly an effective treatment plan. However, according to IU, about ninety percent of people locked-up for drug-related charges do not receive treatment. Seventy-five percent will be arrested within five years of release—if they don’t overdose first; people struggling with addiction are 129-times more likely to die of a drug overdose in the two weeks after release from prison than their non-incarcerated counterparts.
On the contrary, a walk through the “hope” portion of the exhibit reveals the myriad paths to beating addiction. Recovery programs from around the state talk about their organizations in short videos. Visitors can practice yoga poses, conscious breathing techniques, and gratitude journaling. They also learn about the life-saving potential of Narcan, which they are encouraged to learn how to administer (the pandemic dashed plans for on-site Narcan training, as well as additional in-person events like panel discussions, performances, and town hall-style meetings at the museum’s eleven historic sites statewide). Ferree said this is another part of emphasizing hope—empowering museum-goers to see that they can make a difference, even if they aren’t addicted to drugs or don’t know someone who is.
The heart of the space is a circus tent-like brain, which invites visitors inside to watch how quickly and completely opioids hijack neural pathways, a feature that makes them both highly effective at treating pain and cripplingly addictive. “We want you to realize [opioid use] isn’t about fun,” Ferree said as we stood inside the brain’s frontal lobe together. “This is about survival.”
At first thought, the state museum—the spiritual home of the fourth-grade field trip—might seem like a strange place for a frank exhibit on opioids, especially one that doesn’t necessarily cast Indiana in the most positive light. But as CEO Cathy Ferree told me, the museum is actually the ideal spot. “People trust museums,” she said. “They’re places where you’re allowed to be curious and ask questions.” The state itself was on board to help fund the exhibit; Governor Eric Holcomb made the opioid crisis one of his five pillars of state improvement during his first state of the state address in 2017.
According to Indiana University, in 2018, nearly one in twelve Hoosiers—almost a half million people—met the criteria for having a substance use disorder, one in every hundred babies was born addicted to opioids, and deaths related to synthetic opioids had increased by six hundred percent in just four years.
Ferree was aware of these statistics when she took the helm at the state museum, but it was the personal story of a mother who lost her son to an overdose that convinced her to pitch an opioid-related exhibit to the board. The daughter of psychologists, Ferree had grown up attuned to the damaging, dehumanizing impact of the stigma around mental health. She wanted FIX to shatter the similar stigma that exists around drug addiction.
Working with more than fifty community partners around the state, curators designed an interactive experience where few things are off-limits, from the role the pharmaceutical industry has played in the opioid crisis to the usefulness of syringe exchange programs (which were illegal in the state until 2015 and are still rare) to the ubiquity of past sexual assault among female addicts. The exhibit itself is expansive, bright, frenetic—an ambiance Ferree says is intentional. “We didn’t want it to feel dark and hidden,” she said.
Jim Ryser, who was born with spina bifida and developed an opioid addiction after fifty-five surgeries and a lifetime of pain, told me he’s glad the exhibit demonstrates “all types of ways to recover.” Now twenty-one years sober, Ryser, the former director for chronic pain and chemical dependence at IU Health, says FIX “shows us that this disease is one hundred percent treatable—and that treatment is free.” Ryser attributes his own sobriety to twelve-step programs and exercise.
Stigma kept Ryser from recognizing his own addiction for many years. “Addicts were bad. They were scum,” he explained. “I used to think, ‘I’m not like you people, my shit is prescribed.’” Changing perception isn’t just about sparing feelings, he said, but about people finding and getting the help they need.
To that end, FIX’s final appeal to visitors is to reconsider and revise the language they use when talking about addiction and people experiencing it. Some changes are intuitive: not calling someone a “junkie,” or “druggie.” Others are less obvious. For example, praising someone for getting “clean” suggests they were once dirty. Describing an experience as a “relapse” instead of a “return to use” fails to recognize that getting sober is almost always a cyclical process.
Charmin Gabbard says this part of the exhibit inspired her to change her own language. “I always described myself as a junkie,” she told me. “But you know what? I’m actually a person.”
FIX initially opened to the public in February 2020. A month later, the museum was shuttered in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Staff moved quickly to place exhibit materials online and secured a grant to bring virtual programs to Indiana classrooms. Cathy Ferree says while last year’s upheaval threw a wrench into the museum’s plans, she thinks FIX is more relevant than ever. Not only are opioid overdoses up around the country, conversations about trauma, isolation, and anxiety have become increasingly commonplace in COVID’s wake.
Despite being waylaid for much its scheduled run, the exhibit has earned accolades from both museum industry groups and public health officials. The Association for Midwest Museums honored FIX with its 2020 Best Practices Award, a recognition designated for “a cultural institution that has demonstrated thought-leadership through innovative programming and museum practices.” Dr. Eric Yazel, Health Officer for Clark County, in the southern portion of the state, said on a recent podcast that he was “absolutely floored” by the exhibit. “[The State Museum] did an amazing job of tackling the tough questions…and making it appropriate for all ages.”
Gabbard has also kept going despite the pandemic. Last year, she earned her bachelor’s degree and bought her first home. On the morning we spoke, Gabbard was sitting in a booth at Connection Café, a community resource center in Connersville that she will direct when it opens later this month. Connection Café will be more than a place to get free coffee and internet; Gabbard says that those struggling with addiction or working on recovery will be able to get everything from clothing for an interview to help with obtaining a state ID.
The ultimate goal of the exhibit is to change the cultural response to addiction, which in turn can inform policy and resource distribution, supporting people experiencing addiction or working through recovery—like the work Gabbard is doing. In the meantime, Gabbard, whose own recovery was set into motion by a letter of forgiveness from her son and sustained through running, faith, and therapy, knows well how small gestures of support and acts of kindness and can change the trajectory of addiction. Last year, during the grand opening of FIX, she looked on as her own mother watched her video testimonial.
Before we hung up our Zoom call, I asked Gabbard to tell me about her tattoos. She shrugged her right shoulder into frame, showing me the wispy seed head of a dandelion, and traced one of the seeds as it floated away up her arm, “That’s freedom,” she explained. When she turned to face the camera again, she was smiling. “I’m free.” ■
Ashley Stimpson is freelance journalist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Read more of her work at www.ashleystimpson.com.
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