Gone Too Soon:
“Angels of Addiction” Portraits Immortalize Young Lives Lost to Opioid Epidemic
Paintings by Anne Marie Zanfagna remember heroin’s young victims – including her daughter Jackie, bottom left.
Losing a child to heroin overdose is a sorrow that is unfolding across America. One grief-stricken mother finds solace in a unique labor of love: painting vivid portraits of young people whose lives were cut short by addiction.
When heroin claimed her daughter Jackie in 2014, Anne Marie Zanfagna spent a year in a fog. She lived like a recluse, struggling to get through days of profound sadness.
“I thought I needed to do something to get outside of my own head,” she recalls.
So the New Hampshire artist decided to paint a picture of her daughter. Using Jackie’s favorite pink and purple colors, Zanfagna created a bold, pop-art image that captures her daughter’s soulful eyes and pensive smile.
“It was like spending time with her,” Zanfagna recalls. “It provided a lot of comfort.”
Zanfagna showed Jackie’s portrait to other bereaved parents, who asked her to paint their sons and daughters. Some, like Amanda Jordan, met Zanfagna through “Mercy Street,” a monthly gathering of people affected by addiction, which Zanfagna attends with her husband Jim at First Baptist Church of Plaistow, New Hampshire.
A painting of her son Christopher helped Jordan cradle memories of a big-hearted young man. “Christopher was always the kind of person who would talk to anyone, just so they knew someone cared — even it he didn’t know that person,” she says. “His smile and laugh were contagious and lit up a room.”
Christopher died of a heroin overdose on September 5, 2015. He was still grieving the death of his girlfriend, who met the same fate a year before.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t look at this picture more than once,” Jordan says of the painting. “It makes me feel there is still a piece of him with me.”
Christopher’s painting is a source of strength for his family, his mother says. “I just remember thinking how amazing it was because she captured his smile. I showed it to my other children and they love looking at it.”
Today, about 40 families from New Hampshire to California are the beneficiaries of Zanfagna’s art therapy, which has given her new purpose. She started a non-profit, “Angels of Addiction,” using her paintings to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic.
“That is my number one mission, I want to put a face to the number,” Zanfagna says.
The statistics that drive the heroin epidemic are staggering. Deaths from heroin overdose have tripled since 2010, and the drug claimed 10,574 American lives in 2014, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
New Hampshire recorded the nation’s largest increase in deaths from opioid overdose – which includes heroin and prescription narcotic painkillers – from 2013 to 2014. Nationwide, there was a 14 percent increase in opioid-related fatalities during that time period, but in New Hampshire, opioid deaths skyrocketed 73.5 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Jackie’s death was especially poignant for her family, because she had been in recovery and was drug-free for 11 months when she overdosed on Oct. 18, 2014.
Addiction experts say that’s a common cause of heroin-related deaths: users resume taking the drug after a period of abstinence and are especially vulnerable to overdose, since they have a decreased tolerance for heroin. Others accidentally overdose because of heroin’s higher purity in certain markets. Or they may switch from abusing prescription opioids to cheaper, more accessible heroin and take their chances with every batch (in the eastern United States, highly potent fentanyl is sometimes mixed with or disguised as white powder heroin, according to the DEA).
Putting a human face on the heroin epidemic helps Zanfagna in her efforts to de-stigmatize addiction. Painting also helps her recall more positive memories with Jackie, whose battles with bipolar tendencies preceded her heroin use.
“After Jackie died – and I found this true with all the other mothers – their memories are shot,” Zanfagna says.
She’d prefer to reminisce about the joys of motherhood, instead of the countless doctor visits to get her daughter help, or the chaos of addiction that led the family to lock up their valuables and install an alarm system.
Jackie, her mother recalls, was also a kind soul and caring Aunt who much preferred a sunny beach to cold New England winters. She dabbled in modeling and was an accomplished cook – often making dinner for her father when her mother worked nights. And Jackie adored animals – especially her adopted Labrador, Rayna, and her cats Cookie and Otto.
“When I paint people, I try to bring out the best in them, make them vibrant and happy. It’s just the way I like to do it,” Zanfagna says. “Right now, I’ve been thinking, ‘What are some of those good memories that I have of (Jackie) in the last year?’ She asked me to brush her hair the week she died, because it was very long, and so I would brush it for her. And that was a nice moment. It’s sad to think that’s what you’re holding on to.”
Zanfagna exhibits the “Angels of Addiction” collection at local libraries and art galleries, and hopes to display her portraits at the New Hampshire statehouse. Earlier this year, she joined a New Hampshire delegation and brought her paintings to Washington, advocating for greater treatment access and funding for recovery care. Zanfagna’s non-profit also awarded its first college scholarship in 2016.
Despite these efforts, the artist says there’s an urgent need to change the landscape before more lives are lost and families shattered.
“If you go five minutes any place around here – in any direction – you can get heroin,” Zanfagna says. “It’s still a big problem.”
To see more portraits and learn about the non-profit “Angels of Addiction,” go to www.angelsofaddictions.org
Portraits are free and given to families of teens and young adults who have died of drug overdose. Donations are accepted, and a link to support the work of “Angels of Addiction” can be found on the website