Portraits of Heartbreak and Hope: A Mother Paints To Raise Awareness About Opioid Use Disorder

Portrait of Jackie, painted by her mother.

Anne Marie Zanfagna’s portrait of her daughter, Jackie. (Image by Anne Marie Zanfagna.)

Anne Marie Zanfagna is co-founder of the nonprofit Angels of Addictions.

In October 2018, Anne Marie Zanfagna, a grieving mother from Plaistow, New Hampshire, was asked to display 150 of her paintings near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) invited Ms. Zanfagna to display her portraits of people lost to addiction for the public inside the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. Ms. Zanfagna lost her daughter, Jackie, to addiction. Here is her story in her own words.

My daughter, Jackie, was addicted to opioids. Jackie died on October 18, 2014, from a heroin and fentanyl overdose. She was 25. I didn’t want to get out of bed for a long time after that. When I did, I wanted a way to grieve, and to remember who she really was—without her addiction.

Although I had painted for a while, I had never painted a portrait. But I decided to paint Jackie’s portrait. As I painted it, it felt like I was spending time with Jackie, and it brought back so many memories of her.

Jackie was an independent girl from when she was little. Even though she was more of an introvert, she never tried to blend in. As she got older, she liked to shine. She was kind and generous.

She also got very angry, and kicked walls and threw chairs. As she grew older, she showed symptoms of bipolar disorder, but despite the help we sought as parents, she was never treated for that. Jackie’s addiction grew from a place we didn’t understand. We had good days and bad days—sometimes both in the same day. But she was ours, and her dad and I loved her as best we could.

My grief will never leave me, but it has changed. And it has changed my husband and me forever.

I have learned so much since Jackie died.

Before Jackie developed an addiction, I didn’t understand addiction very well. Today, it seems to me that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s connection. Addiction isolates. Jackie isolated herself so much. She looked for connection, but she found it in unhealthy places with other unhealthy people. Addiction provides a false sense of connection—until it removes everything healthy from a person’s life.

I have also learned that mental illness needs to be talked about freely and treated well, just as we talk about physical illness and treat it well. When we published Jackie’s obituary, I printed that Jackie had overdosed from heroin and fentanyl. I never wanted to hide the struggle she had suffered.

After I painted Jackie, I met other parents who had lost children to addiction, and they asked me to paint portraits of their children, too.

Eventually my husband Jim and I started a nonprofit, Angels of Addictions, so I could paint those who have lost the battle with substance use disorder and display their portraits.

It’s devastating, the number of people who are dying this way. We try to put faces on the numbers. We hope the portraits will educate and raise awareness, so that others won’t lose their loved ones. To date, I have painted more than 183 portraits, and I have a waiting list that will take close to a year to paint.

I will continue to paint until we can say that the disease of addiction is no longer killing a generation.

Anne Marie Zanfagna painting a portrait for Angels of Addictions. (Image by Anne Marie Zanfagna.)

Angels of Addictions portraits were displayed in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, in October 2018.
(Image by Anne Marie Zanfagna.)

Learn more: A fire chief’s compassionate response to the opioid crisis.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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