Empty pill bottles signify pain of addiction

From a distance, the pill bottles look like orange flowers. They are arranged in neat rows, forming large, sprawling words: sometimes “FAITH,” often “LOVE.”

Hundreds of these empty prescription drug canisters will be laid out Aug. 22 in front of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, when master of fine arts graduate Kyle Schalow, 33, brings the second annual traveling Rx Epidemic Memorial to his alma mater.

The outdoor installation pays tribute to those who are suffering or recovering from prescription drug abuse and addiction, allowing passers-by to place the empty pill containers in formations of their choosing.

“I tell everybody that I got off lucky,” Mr. Schalow said of his family’s struggles with addiction.

The Toledo, Ohio, resident has been exposed to the problem from two sides: as a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict and as a husband who watched his family unravel over the course of his wife’s prescription drug addiction.

April Schalow, 32, became addicted to Vicodin after her doctor prescribed it for back pain. She hid the habit from her family, inventing stories about visiting her father and sister while she took to the streets in search of her next high.

“The first thing that you think of when you wake up is, ‘How am I going to get my pills?’ ” Ms. Schalow said, recalling the “hell” she endured every day while she kept her condition from her family.

Just before Christmas Day in 2011, after nearly two years of addiction, her “second life” came crashing down.

Mr. Schalow confronted his wife about the holes in her stories, which were starting to come apart thread by thread. Eventually she told him the truth, and the couple began to heal.

Since then, the Schalows have become advocates for drug addiction awareness and prevention.

After appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s “Lifeclass in 2012” — in a segment called “Family Secrets” — they decided to take their mission of breaking the silence surrounding addiction on the road. The couple have traveled with their work to Monroe, Mich., as well as to several cities in Ohio.

The Rx Epidemic Memorial will be on view outside the Art Institute at 420 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown, from 7:30 a.m. and culminate in a candlelight vigil in the evening. The Schalows invite the public to contribute their own empty pill bottles to the piece. The bottles, Mr. Schalow said, have often been accompanied by stories.

He added that the work will have particular resonance in Pittsburgh, as the ubiquitous orange containers resemble Andy Warhol’s signature Campbell Soup cans and his countless variations on the same theme.

Local addiction help groups such as Sage’s Army and Young People in Recovery Pittsburgh will be in attendance to support the Schalows’ message. Volunteers will bring pill bottles with personal photographs stored inside them.

Irwin resident Carmen Capozzi, 47, founded Sage’s Army after his son Sage died of a heroin overdose two years ago. He said the Rx Epidemic Memorial makes the severity of the issue more tangible and, in turn, easier to grasp.

“People don’t realize how much medication we really consume,” Mr. Capozzi said. “When you see all those pill bottles in front of you, you understand.”

Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @yananw.

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