Breaking Down the Stigma of Addiction: A Witness’ Story Through Art

Watch artist and advocate William Stoehr’s intimate testimony, as he shares his story of loss to an opioid overdose and his journey to combat the stigma of addiction through his art.

Breaking Down the Stigma of Addiction: A Witness’ Story Through Art

Video length: 3:54


Bill Stoehr speaking:

I’m William Stoehr. I’m an artist and I’d like to share some of my thoughts about addiction, stigma and my art.

My sister died from an opioid overdose. Emma was 57 years-old and she struggled with drugs and alcohol for most of her life. Emma used booze, pot and meth in high school but when she had the first of her failed back surgery, prescription opiates took over. And when the pain continued, the doctors were all too willing to prescribe more. Now, Emma loved my art And I promised her that I would paint her portrait if she went back to rehab. She agreed. And for five years she seemed to be in recovery. It was wonderful to her laugh and smile. But then her beautiful husband  died. Then more back surgery and more pills. She relapsed. She died.

The loss of my sister to this overdose greatly affected me as an artist.  The voice in my head was whispering what good is your art? What does it accomplish? What does it matter? What are you passionate about? I started to broadly explore victims, witnesses and survivors of violence, bigotry and addiction. Viewers interpreted my work within their own subjective context. It was all related to their own experiences which is exactly what I wanted. But again, the voice returned and asked, how can you honestly relate to these issues?

Well, I can relate to addiction. I wasn’t simply reflecting my feelings. I had in some small way embodied the experience not as a victim but as a witness. Emma OD’ed. But maybe to the millions affected I could be part of the solution. Stigma seemed like the best place to start.  Well, I jumped down the rabbit hole and never looked back. Soon I was painting four-foot faces, then five-foot faces, then seven-foot faces. People had strong, passionate reactions to my first show of Faces. I found my voice. I now had a goal and a purpose. I was in search of this greater reality and my cause was addiction. With alcohol and drug abuse, it’s never just one person that’s impacted and it’s never simply an isolated incident and so the faces I now paint are the faces of those affected, the victims, witnesses, and survivors. And so, the affected now stood in front of my paintings and some of them cried. They bravely shared their stories. They described the silent suffering, the terror, chaos, uncertainty, and helplessness. But they also saw resilience, forgiveness, and hope. Emma said that she was evil. Oh my, where did that come from? No, you’re not evil. No, you’re not alone. Yes, we can discuss this. Yes, there is hope. Yes, we can get help. So, for all of you watching this today, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed.

Don’t assume that you can do this by yourself. Share the load, ask for help. If you know someone, spouse, parent, friend, child or anyone who suffers from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, don’t wait.