Stop the Stigma: How This Pittsburgh Woman Came to Devote Her Life to Fighting the Addiction Narrative
It’s a role she never wanted, a role no mother ever deserved, but Sherry Jo Matt’s mission changed when her daughter died from a fentanyl overdose.
Sherry Jo Matt wrote her daughter’s obituary at 4 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2020, mere hours after speaking to detectives on what is still an open homicide investigation.
Where obituaries typically paint over an overdose as the cause of death with “died unexpectedly” or omit one entirely, Matt blamed “the demons of mental illness and the shackles of addiction” for the death of her 21-year-old daughter, Siena. In an urgent call to action, she demanded of readers to “stop the judgment!”
Pulling from those fortuitous lines, still locked in the ravages of grief, Matt and her husband, Tom Bott, who live in Franklin Park, founded the Stop the Judgment Project just weeks later to end the stigma surrounding opioid misuse and mental illness.
Stop the Judgment Project takes a multifaceted approach to destigmatization, and though still in its fundraising phase, has already pushed Allegheny County to change how toxicology reports are released to families. Months after her daughter died, Matt recalls being blindsided by the fateful report saying Siena died from a fentanyl overdose. A neighbor found her crumpled beside ger mailbox.
She says it’s a role she never wanted to take, a role she says no loving mother ever deserves, but when her daughter, Siena died, Matt says she decided to devote her life to ending the stigma surrounding addiction.
Mandy Tinkey, laboratory director in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office, says the effort to make the delivery status of toxicology reports transparent to bereaved families came as a direct result of conversations with Matt and her husband. Much like one would track a package being delivered, families in Allegheny County waiting on toxicology reports can now follow their status online and will get a call from the lab just before delivery.
“The benefit for any of the families that have this option is honestly the comfort and control of the information so that way they know there’s a place they can go, and they can get information when they need it, and they can continually check on it,” Tinkey says.
Now, the nonprofit aims to develop an app to immediately connect families to available rehab centers as well as to improve addiction education in public schools.
“I truly believe that my daughter gifted me with the right time to be the right voice, and there’s many of us that have lost children,” she says. “So I’m not in this alone, and I don’t feel alone.”
Siena, named after the Tuscan city in central Italy, grew up in Franklin Park in a affluent suburb amid picturesque houses. Matt describes Siena as intelligent and kind, the type of person everyone was drawn to. The North Allegheny Senior High School graduate was a cheerleader, an avid hiker and a proficient sailor. Really, she just “loved being outdoors.”
When Siena started suffering from a dual diagnosis of borderline personality and bipolar disorder at age 12, and then later opioid misuse disorder, Matt says the family thought they had everything they needed to fight it. Moderately wealthy, she and her husband were able to provide years of therapy and rehab, but for Siena to willingly receive help “it took the lining up of the sun and the moon and the stars,” she says.
“As a family, you’re grasping at straws, trying to find a place to help them,” Matt says. “But as the addict, you don’t want to admit you have a problem, you want to believe that you can control it, but you cannot without the right and the proper treatment.”
Matt says it was her daughter’s fear of being branded as an addict and judged by her family and friends that stopped her from seeking treatment.
Without the guidance of professionals, Siena tried to force herself to withdraw from the prescription pain medication Percocet one final time over the summer. She relapsed and overdosed in her bedroom in September 2020 — the pills she took were laced with fentanyl.
The Allegheny County Health Department would have included Siena’s death in the greater portion of the 689 accidental overdoses reported that year. According to the department, in 2019 87% of overdose deaths were due to opioids, usually in combination with other drugs. Fentanyl makes up 77% of that total.
Mary Hawk, an associate professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh, describes the stigma addicts face as an obstacle to seeking treatment, even when it’s offered.
She’s also the founder of the Open Door Inc, a harm reduction housing center for the chronically homeless living with HIV.
“You know, we see lots of examples of people who use drugs, who have been told repeatedly, from people who loved them, from the health care environment, from media and social media, that they are less valuable because they use drugs,” she says. “And I can only imagine how hard that makes [it] to reach out or even to grab a hand that’s reaching out to us.”
Hawk highlights the value of storytelling in confronting the stigma that addicts face. She says stigma is perpetuated because “we see people who use drugs as faceless and othered.”
“I think getting to know people who use drugs as humans, with lots of value as people we can care for and love can be really important to understanding people’s stories.”
Matt says the best thing she “unknowingly did” was name the disease for what it was in Siena’s obituary. By calling out the addiction, she says, there were no rumors to hide from, that she could go out to dinner or go grocery shopping without the fear of judgment.
“If I could do one thing, I would beg and implore parents that are going to lose children because unfortunately, there are going to be many, many, many more children…But if parents would be honest in their obituary, it is so unbelievably helpful,” she says.
“That obituary allows me to hold my head up high, that I did nothing wrong, that I was a good mother with a bad, bad, horrible, horrible situation.”
It’s the same advice she gave to her friend, Dayna DiRienzo.
DiRienzo and Matt’s families are prominent in the community, both owning local businesses and both with many friends. Siena would carpool with DiRienzo’s own children. When Siena overdosed, DiRienzo remembers first thinking “it could have been any of our kids.”
Three years later she would have to write her own nephew’s obituary. Noah Vith died on Feb. 17 2023 at the age of 22 from what the obituary called “the medical condition known as opioid misuse.”
DiRienzo, a writer by trade, says Matt called her when she learned she would be writing the obituary and asked her to be “honest” — as she was in Siena’s. Though the family had already decided to candidly name the cause of death, she said this reinforced their feeling that “sugarcoating wouldn’t help anyone.”
“On Feb. 17, at the age of 22, Noah’s bright light was extinguished prematurely by the demon that is the medical condition known as opioid use disorder,” DiRienzo wrote in the obituary.
“A sensitive young man with a huge heart, Noah loved and felt so deeply that the beauty and pain of life was too much to bear, which makes his loss all the more senseless and gut-wrenching for the many family members and friends he leaves behind.”
In the little more than a month since the obituary was published, DiRienzo says she has had acquaintances reach out to her — people she didn’t know were going through opioid misuse rehabilitation — and thank the family for their openness of the obituary. She said she’s even had several people tell her that when they attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, others would be there with copies of the obituary.
DiRienzo, like Matt, never wanted to join the fight against stigma. “Believe me, my sister and brother-in-law and I never wanted to be the poster child for this — ever,” DiRenzo says, “But if it opens up a dialogue for people or if it helps anyone, then we feel like being open, being honest about it was the right way to handle it.”
In the obituary, DiRienzo requested donations be sent to Clear Recovery, a mental health and addiction treatment center, and Matt and Bott’s Stop the Judgment Project. She says as long as addiction is treated as taboo instead of the medical condition that it is, the problem won’t get any better.
“The thing about Noah that was the most amazing, was the fact that he didn’t judge people. He was a nonjudgmental person,” she says. “And I just think if the world could follow his example, it would make it easier for people who have problems to come to other people for help. Because nobody wants to be judged.”
If you or a loved one is suffering from substance misuse disorder please call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Hotline at 1-800-662-4357.