LEWISTON, Maine — The clothes hang from a pressed-tin ceiling in the middle of a narrow storefront — worn T-shirts, tattered jeans, a limp sweater, a dirty work boot.
They seem unremarkable, except for this: They came from the bodies of overdose victims, nearly all of whom had been killed in Maine by heroin.
One woman’s top is stained by vomit. Nearby, a lettered T-shirt extols the buzz of prescription drugs: “Eat All You Can Eat.” And a leopard-spot coat, all bright and splashy, hangs perkily in the middle.
“This was my niece’s,” Marty O’Brien says as he touches the jacket, part of an art exhibit called “The Poppy Fields of Maine.”
O’Brien is the founder of Grace Street Services, a substance-abuse recovery center in one of the poorest cities in New England. It is typical in many respects, with counseling and medication to curb the craving for heroin.
But what separates Grace Street is its philosophy that visual art, poetry, and writing about one’s journey — from the torturous past to a hope for the future — can help drug users navigate the winding road to a better life.
“We’re saying, let’s start writing our own story,” O’Brien said. “We ask, if they could have the opportunity to build a new life, what would that look like?”
‘This drug war has failed miserably. We need to rethink our way out of here.’
The clients use their writing to look ahead one week, one year, or longer. The exercise offers a sense of ownership over their stories, and a chance to articulate values and envision the future.
“This drug war has failed miserably. We need to rethink our way out of here,” O’Brien said at his Grace Street office, off a scruffy sidewalk not far from the separate, downtown space where “Poppy Fields” is installed.
Kenney Miller, cofounder of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance, called O’Brien’s approach an innovative way to ease the stigma many drug users feel.
Using the arts, particularly story telling, “may help rehumanize people and empower them to feel they have a voice and they have something worth saying,” said Miller, whose alliance connects groups involved in substance abuse treatment and other health issues. “The more we can empower people in the recovery process, the more successful it can be.”
For O’Brien, who founded Grace Street in 2010, finding a way forward means confronting the consequences of behavior. In this way, the clothing of the dead serves as a compelling reminder that overdoses are much more than statistics. Those empty jeans once belonged to an addict headed pell-mell toward death.
“It makes you think, you don’t want your shirt up there,” said James Whirley, a 32-year-old recovering heroin addict, who sat beneath the exhibit recently.
Near Whirley were six transparent human forms, some standing, some sitting, some hunched over. They had been created by wrapping clear packing tape, sticky side out, around Grace Street clients and volunteers who acted as immobile models, often for hours, before the molds were removed.
It was an easy step to imagine those see-through sculptures filled with real people, wearing the clothes above them.
Off to the side stood “Choices,” an exhibit that featured an old-fashioned gum-ball dispenser with three options: a section with syringes, another with prescription pills, and a third with bubble gum.
Although the storefront installation is expected to end in mid-August, art is always visible in the 6,000 square feet that Grace Street leases at a sprawling, former mill that is a legacy of Lewiston’s once-bustling economy and now is a symbol of its struggles.
Nearly a quarter of the city’s 36,000 residents live in poverty, a figure that is close to twice the state average, according to US Census data. In Grace Street’s neighborhood, O’Brien said, the figure is nearly 70 percent.
“We are the final line,” O’Brien said, “and people are walking in sick, really sick.”
When those clients walk into Grace Street, a for-profit business, they pass a welcoming group of birch saplings in a large open space. There is a wall covered with “Gimme a Fix,” repeated over and over. Nearby is a silhouette of a little girl, presumably innocent and unaware of the perils of addiction. And there is indoor skateboarding.
“That’s the best counselor we have,” O’Brien said, nodding at the wooden skateboard area. Skateboarders from their 20s to early 30s will sometimes drive an hour to use the half-pipe ramps, O’Brien said, “and then they ask the question: What do you guys do here?”
If birch saplings and skateboarding symbolize life, a cavernous space used for group meetings contains an ominous symbol with its spartan reconstruction of a teenager’s “bedroom.”
Framed by thin, wooden walls, the room holds an empty bed, a bureau, and an autopsy report on a hanging panel. That report records the death of O’Brien’s niece Erin, a 19-year-old who overdosed in 1998 from a combination of heroin and cocaine.
Shawn Dobson, a 40-year-old recovering heroin addict, said Grace Street presents its message in stark but compassionate terms. If not for the counseling and medication he receives there, Dobson said, “I’d probably be dead, for real. I’m not one to do just a few pills. It’s go big or go home.”
Now, Dobson, who said he was dropped from Medicaid this year, is one of about a dozen clients who receive free care at Grace Street. Governor Paul LePage, who grew up impoverished near the mill, has rejected federal funds to extend Medicaid to 70,000 Mainers.
Demand is surging for Grace Street’s help, but many drug users lack insurance, and the recovery center can provide only so much free care, O’Brien said. As a result, many are turned away.
Through it all, the dirty boot hanging in the art exhibit is one of the reminders of the recovery mission, O’Brien said. Last worn by a man who died of an overdose in 2006, the boot represents another life lost, another missed chance for recovery.
As a result, O’Brien said, “that boot will remain in my office until I stop doing the work.”