Mclean Hospital
Opioid Project

Telling the Story of Addiction

January 29, 2019

“That’s the outfit I wore when I overdosed and when I was discharged from the emergency room–the last day I used and the first day of sobriety.”
- Ava Grieco

Ava Grieco’s canvas shows her floating through a blue sky, arms wide and stippled with needle marks. A chain anchors her to a hypodermic needle. Her polka-dotted pants and black top have tremendous meaning.

Grieco, 20, isn’t a visual artist, but for one afternoon at McLean, she and others who have struggled with addiction explored their illness and recovery through painting and storytelling. The Opioid Project: Changing Perceptions Through Art and Storytelling was philanthropically funded by an anonymous donor and brought to McLean by Hilary S. Connery, MD, PhD, clinical director of McLean’s Center of Excellence in Substance Use Disorders. The project is the brainchild of artist Nancy Marks and internist Annie Brewster and has been hosted in other Massachusetts communities.

For several years, Dr. Connery has sounded an alarm about the fact that sometimes what looks like an accidental overdose is actually a suicide. If we ignore that reality and the psychiatric illnesses often at the heart of substance use disorders, a solution to the opioid crisis will remain elusive, she argues. “I could explain with data, experience, and logic why we need to think about overdoses this way, but it isn’t effective,” said Dr. Connery. “I thought the message might have more impact if it was communicated on a gut, emotional level through a vehicle like the Opioid Project.”

Opioid Project
Hilary S. Connery, MD, PhD, Annie Brewster, MD, and Nancy Marks, pose among some of the canvases created during the project

Grieco, a Berklee College of Music student and aspiring jazz singer, knows too well the complex ways that mental illness, suicide, and opioid addiction are interwoven. She attempted suicide for the first time at age 5 and was later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She abused drugs throughout her teens.

She and other project participants spent several hours together creating their canvases. Participants were joined by someone significant to their recovery who also created canvases in a separate room. Ava’s therapist of many years participated in the project as her partner. “The similarities between each pair’s paintings tap into something difficult to articulate but very real: the common understanding that exists in a healing relationship,” explained Dr. Connery.

The exhibit will be displayed at McLean, including the canvases and audio narratives of interviews with the participants.

Learn more about the Opioid Project.