Alan Slatas doesn’t like the word “clean” to describe a person who’s battling addiction. “They’re not dirty if they’re using,” he said in an interview with The Times. “They’re human.”
Alan’s daughter, Jillian Slatas, died from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl on Nov. 12, 2017. She was 26 years old. Slatas was halfway to her apartment in Falmouth when he got the call.
“She was going to cook me dinner that night,” he said. “Jillian did not want to die. Most addicts do not want to die.”
Jillian’s addiction started about five years before that, when her doctor prescribed her tramadol for abdominal pains. It wasn’t long before she graduated to heroin. Jillian’s family intervened when her friends relayed concerns that she was “in danger,” Slatas said. Jillian went into a 90-day treatment at Gosnold Treatment Center (GTC) in Falmouth. She came out sober, and stayed sober for just shy of three years. She relapsed in April 2017.
“That’s where the overdoses happen — when someone’s in relapse,” Slatas said. “That’s when they’re in the most danger … They start using the same drugs they were when they were using, and with fentanyl, it’s just so dangerous.”
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) website. Fentanyl and its derivatives can be so potent, it’s been determined that two to three milligrams — the equivalent of five to seven grains of table salt — can induce respiratory depression, arrest, and possibly death, according to the DEA. The epidemic has hit the Island hard over the past few years.
After his daughter’s death, Slatas relentlessly researched alternative treatments for addiction. “I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it but learn,” Slatas said. He became especially interested in harm reduction, which refers to a set of principles that reduce the immediate risk of death, prevent the likelihood of subsequent medical diseases that can stem from addiction, like HIV, and provide services that foster relationships and lead to abstinence or nonaddictive drug use. Medicated-Assisted Treatment (MAT) falls under the umbrella of harm reduction, which pairs FDA-approved medications like Suboxone and Vivitrol with counseling to provide a “whole-patient” treatment plan. Harm reduction also includes a social justice aspect that considers the rights of people who use drugs.
“Harm reduction means you meet the addict where they are, and get them out of harm’s way,” Slatas said.
But many doctors and treatment centers advise against harm reduction methods. When Jillian requested Suboxone after relapsing, for example, her doctor said no.
“She was struggling,” Slatas said. “She asked me if I would take her to Peru to do an ayahuasca retreat. I said no. I said, You don’t give a drug addict drugs. That’s not how you deal with it. That’s what I was told. That’s how I was advised … I sided with the doctors, but my thinking has changed quite a bit.”
Slatas’ partner works in healthcare policy for nonprofits. One evening last March, they were talking about the opioid crisis, and what they could possibly do to help.
“The death rates are just soaring,” Slatas said. “At that point, we started talking about starting a nonprofit.”
Slatas connected with experts in the field. He was introduced to Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, an NYC nonprofit fighting AIDS and homelessneess. Through King, Slatas met Andrew Tatarsky, a psychologist, and one of the leaders in harm reduction. “Andrew gave me his book, and a list of people to talk to,” Slatas said.
A year and six months after his daughter’s death, Slatas launched the nonprofit, Jillian’s Angelic Dreams. “I really feel Jillian’s presence,” Slatas said. “I feel like she’s my little angel.”
The nonprofit is aimed at promoting and raising money for alternative treatment programs on the Cape and Islands. The Slatas are longtime seasonal residents, and while Jillian lived and worked in Falmouth, she considered the Vineyard her “soul home,” according to her father.
On Sunday, July 28, the Slatas are hosting a fundraising dinner, auction, and concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. The event will start with tastings from Island restaurants like Atria, Chilmark Tavern, the Red Cat Kitchen, and the Black Dog. Auction items will include everything from Eisenhauer Gallery art to a meet-and-greet with Mark Walhberg. Concert headliners are Deborah Cox, Alyson Williams, Clayton Bryant, and the Ashford and Simpson Allstar SugarBar Band. Tickets are $50, or $150 for VIP. The bulk of the proceeds will benefit Gosnold, but Alan hopes to also donate to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and Bentley University — Jillian’s alma mater. “I’m trying to touch on areas that touched Jillian’s life,” Slatas said.
In addition to receiving treatment at Gosnold, Jillian was also employed there. “Jillian worked at the detox center for about three years,” her dad said. “When she relapsed, she had to quit.”
“She was highly admired by our staff and patients,” said Gosnold chief clinical officer Allie Anderson. “She was very caring, compassionate, and well-admired. She really connected with the recovery community, and was part of the fabric of our organization.”
Gosnold offers two harm-reduction outlets — coaching services and a “connections application” — which links individuals in their precontemplative stages with individuals who are in GTC, according to Gosnold chief operating officer Elizabeth Folcarelli. “We offer both of these services at GTC inpatient and outpatient,” Folcarelli said.
Gosnold also has an MAT program, where they utilize Vivitrol and Suboxone.
“We’re working with Alan and our CEO, Richard Curcuru, to leverage proceeds from [Jillian’s Angelic Dreams concert] to augment what we’re already doing,” Folcarelli said. Proceeds will also enhance Gosnold’s harm-reduction offerings.
“An ongoing challenge for Gosnold and patients we serve is having them successfully complete a detox program,” Folcarelli said. Proceeds will also embed a coaching function into Gosnold’s treatment facility. “We have recovery, counseling, and medical aides on staff at the treatment center, but we don’t have a robust coaching staff,” Folcarelli said. Proceeds will also support coaching function after a patient is discharged, and will support technology to enhance the connections app. Proceeds will also provide Gosnold with further training and professional development with experts in the field.
“Alan has some wonderful contacts he’s willing to share with us,” Folcarelli said. “We’ll implement training with recovery coaches to have them become more knowledgeable and competent in harm reduction.”
Slatas believes there’s heavy stigma around drug use, and hopes his story reframes the narrative. “The only way for me to deal with this is to open up about it,” Alan said. “If we bring more awareness and compassion in humanity to this crisis, I think that it could help bring people together.”
He offered advice for individuals with loved ones struggling with addiction. “Don’t judge. Understand where it’s coming from. Try to help them help themselves. It’s their recovery, not yours, so allow them freedom to choose their path,” Slatas said. “I sided with the doctor who wouldn’t prescribe Jillian Suboxone. It doesn’t work for everyone, but why not try?”
Tickets to Jillian’s Angelic Dreams fundraiser are available at bit.ly/JilliansAngelicDreams.