Sharon Bailey speaks Wednesday during an International Overdose Awareness Day event at Mill Park in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — In June 2015, Phil Widener, who was in recovery from a heroin addiction that began when he was 19 years old, lost his only son and a nephew to fatal drug overdoses.

On Wednesday evening, for the first time outside of substance use support group meetings, Widener, 64, of Gardiner spoke publicly about that devastating loss, the worst thing he has gone through, in the hope doing so will help remove the stigma endured by those suffering from substance use disorder and their loves ones.

He also hopes to increase the chances they will seek help for their addiction, instead of possibly dying from an overdose.

“Now that I’m clean, I want to help people like my son, like myself,” Widener told about 50 people who gathered at an International Overdose Awareness Day gathering at Mill Park in Augusta. “I want to prevent people from having the same pain I have.”

Widener said he first went into recovery from heroin addiction when he was 26, but later relapsed. He said over the past 36 years, he was clean and sober for 25 of those years, but relapsed multiple times. As of Oct. 9, he will have been sober for three straight years.

“Heroin addiction is a real monster,” he said of his fight for recovery from the highly addictive opioid made from morphine.


His son, Phil Jr., died at 25. He would have now been 32.

Now Phil Widener Sr. volunteers as a peer recovery counselor at the Augusta Recovery Reentry Center at 2 Bangor St., where he said people with substance use disorder or in recovery can find help — from counseling to finding connections to resources or a recovery house — five days a week, when the center is open.

Attendees at the event said they believe the stigma of substance use disorder is waning as awareness about the disease spreads.

Melody Robin Thornton, a peer recovery coach with Groups Recover Together in Augusta, said when she was in recovery from her drug addiction, she thought she could heal in silence. She then saw a friend die of an overdose and other friends suffer the same fate, to the point “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

She decided to recover out loud to help remove the stigma of seeking help for substance use disorder. She decided to talk about her recovery and spread the word it is not something of which anyone should be ashamed or a topic people should avoid discussing. She said she carries with her memories of her best friend, Eddie, who died of an overdose, because they keep her going.

“I’m that nonjudgmental ear in a hard time,” she said of her peer recovery coaching role. “I just share the things I learned in recovery to help support people. So many people are afraid to ask for help. The stigma keeps people from reaching out for the help they so desperately need. We all have addictions. It’s important we learn to love each other, even with our faults, because love is what heals.”


International Overdose Awareness Day is an annual global event held Aug. 31.

Sharon Bailey, one of its local organizers, said the event was meant to provide education and resources to the community, and bring about awareness in order to reduce stigma and help prevent overdose deaths. She said it was also a time to remember and honor those lost to overdoses. It was hosted by ME Team Sharing, a nonprofit group created for mothers and fathers who have experienced the loss of a child through substance use.

Bailey’s son, Matthew, was 20 when he died of an overdose in Jefferson on Sept. 7, 2012. His fiancee, Jessica, died just 2 1/2 months later, also of an overdose.

Ann Cookson speaks Wednesday during an International Overdose Awareness Day event at Mill Park in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Bailey is a founder and facilitator with the Augusta chapter of Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing, an online support group for people who have lost loved ones to overdoses. Louise Atkinson, mother of Matthew’s fiancee, Jessica, joined her in GRASP.

“After I lost my son, I felt so much stigma. I was alone, basically,” Bailey said. “I started that group so no one else would feel alone if they need somebody to talk to, like I did.”

Jon Reynolds, who is in recovery and now lives in Augusta, said drug addiction is rampant in Waterville, where he is from. The 31-year-old said he has lost more people in his life to overdoses than the number who have gotten married or had children.


Reynolds urged people to reach out for help with substance use disorder. At Wednesday’s event, he wore a shirt from A Hand Up, a recovery organization that provides housing to people transitioning out of incarceration.

Some attendees made luminaries to honor their deceased loved ones, and attendees could leave photographs of those they have lost on a remembrance table, to be recognized at a ceremony at the end of the event.

Last year, more than 630 Maine people died from drug overdoses. It was the deadliest year on record, representing a 23% jump in deaths from 2020.

As of June, according to state data, the number of fatal overdoses this year in Maine was 9.7% greater than at the same point in 2021. There were nearly 5,000 overdoses in Maine through June 2022, an 18% increase from the previous year, according to

So far this year, 329 Mainers have died, and fentanyl — used alone or with other drugs — was suspected to have had a role in 77% of those deaths.

U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee said in a statement released to the news media that International Drug Awareness Day highlights the need for a coordinated effort to help those experiencing substance dependence, while also stopping the flow of drugs into Maine.


“Through the first half of this year, every single Maine county, from the largest to the smallest, had seen at least four overdose deaths,” McElwee said. “One county, Franklin, had already surpassed the total number of deaths in 2021, and several other counties and the state overall are on pace to do the same. This is not just an issue for the state’s more urban areas. This is an issue from Aroostook County to York County.”

McElwee urged those struggling with a substance use disorder, and their family members, to talk to a doctor or pharmacist about naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, which can reverse an opioid overdose. She said people with loved ones who use opioids should have naloxone handy.

Naloxone was available at no charge during Wednesday’s event. Representatives were on hand from both MaineGeneral Medical Center and the Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety, or OPTIONS, group.

Dawn Kearns, an OPTIONS liaison in Augusta, said the event also had fentanyl test strips, which allow drug users to test their drugs to see if they are the highly dangerous fentanyl, and Deterra, a kit that allows people to dispose of medications safely, making them inert and keeping them out of the hands of those who might abuse them.

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