From Caribou to Portland, 49-year-old Glenn Simpson seeks out the opioid crisis’ most isolated stories and then, one by one, connects them. An alcohol and drug counselor as well as a social work graduate student at the University of New England, when asked about the project, Simpson is quick to recall a TED talk by journalist Johann Hari who posited that the opposite of “addiction” is actually connection.
“That clicked for me, that recovery is like a puzzle,” Simpson said. “That while our individual stories are important, it’s that connection we make as a community where real healing begins.”
Simpson said that the AIDS Memorial Quilt –which he described as an instance when art was used to “push back against stigma”– and its individual, personalized panels always resonated with him. Simpson, who is himself in long-term recovery and took refuge in the arts, said he was interested in what creative form could push back against the stigma of substance use in Maine.
“I thought, how can I do something similar? I’m not a quilter, but I’m a painter, I’m an artist,” he explained.
So he devised Pieces of Recovery, a project working to change the way the public sees substance-use disorder and recovery by highlighting Mainers’ stories on large puzzle pieces and bringing them together to show the greater narrative at play in the crisis.
The project’s first round was 57 pieces, or the number of people who died from opioids in Portland in 2017. Simpson had initially tried to cut the pieces himself from foam board, but was able to secure funding from Dignity for Opiate Users to have the puzzle professionally made.
Initially, to find people interested in the project, he reached out to various recovery and rehabilitation centers and promoted it on Facebook. Simpson hoped that enough people in recovery, as well as their family members and allies, would be interested and willing to document their stories. In less than two hours, all 57 pieces were filled with vibrant hand-drawn images, magazine cut-outs, and sometimes just the storytellers’ own words.
“What was really amazing about it was you’d have a mom in recovery from substance-use disorder creating a puzzle piece with her 10-year-old daughter, who she’d only recently reconnected with, and then her own mom would come and do a puzzle piece,” he reflected. “We’d have a group of six or eight people from one of the recovery residences all creating together, with folks talking, connecting.”
That connection is vital for those new to recovery. Substance-use disorder disconnects people from their friends, work, school, and community, Simpson explained– and sometimes disconnects them from their own emotions. Designing a puzzle piece, telling a story and watching as others next to you tell theirs, can help rebuild relationships that seemed otherwise lost.
After the 57 pieces were completed, Simpson put the puzzle, which was 50-feet wide, on display at the Southern Maine Harm Reduction Conference. When his UNE professors saw it, they told him to apply for more funding so he could continue the project.
“I teamed up with students from the occupational therapy department and we were able to get a grant that funded the rest of the project, a couple thousand dollars,” he said. “It pays for the pieces, pays for some of the art supplies. Some of that I fund myself.”
The goal of the project’s second phase is to produce a 418-piece puzzle, representing the 418 drug poisoning deaths in Maine in 2017. Since the whole state was impacted, Simpson said, he and the other students want the whole state to be able to tell their recovery story.
“We’ve been travelling around the state, connecting with recovery community centers, and have been from Bridgton, to Bangor, to Caribou, of course Portland, Alfred, Sanford, and Falmouth,” he said, adding that he hopes to expand the project to the Lewiston-Auburn area and Down East Maine.
Once the puzzle is complete, Simpson says the it will be displayed at the University of New England Portland campus in the spring and afterwards across the state. With the departure of the LePage administration, Simpson also hopes for it to be shown at the State House.
People who viewed the original puzzle were impressed, Simpson said, as it helped them appreciate how recovery is perhaps not all the media has made it out to be. Like with the Memorial Quilt, the puzzle pieces are an effort to clear away the stigmatized objects and images of substance-use disorder—like dirty needles and a questionable character shooting up drugs behind a dumpster— and expose others to the real thoughts and feelings of those in recovery.
“Folks who have viewed the art, it has quite an impact when you see the puzzle pieces put together. I think it’s powerful,” he said.
While participants have described the experience of designing a puzzle piece as “heavy,” Simpson said they are overwhelmingly optimistic, which reveals itself in the bright colors and images many use to define their own recovery process.
“Generally, they’ll ask if they can do another one,” he added, with a smile.
When asked whether the pieces give these stories permanence, Simpson agreed that the puzzle can allow a person’s story to endure, even if their life is cut short.
“I’ve lost so many friends in the last five years. Beautiful people,” he said. “I think of this one woman, in her twenties, she’s recently reconnected with her children, she’s back in school. She’s making progress. One night she uses drugs again, and she’s dead. There’s dozens of stories like that.”