Sunday morning, Alexis Johnson drove from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to spend 3½ hours getting covered head to toe in black body paint. A friend plastered stark, white warnings like “silence kills” over and over again, on her face, chest, and legs.
Two years sober, Johnson was returning to the city where she used to score heroin in the early days of her addiction.
People passing by City Hall may have spotted her for a few hours in the afternoon Sunday, lying apparently lifelessly on the ground, surrounded by signs saying “shatter the stigma” and “end the hate.”
She wasn’t sure how people would react, she said. She just wanted some sort of reaction.
“Whether it’s good or bad, it gets people talking. … There is so much hatred still out there, and I just don’t understand where we lost this empathy for human life.”
Johnson, 34, began her struggle with addiction after a 2008 car accident. For the pain, a doctor prescribed Percocet, an opioid. Two weeks later, her sister died of cancer and she was prescribed the antianxiety medication Xanax. She soon came to rely on the drugs, and learned how to juggle prescriptions from multiple doctors.
As the cost of the drugs grew, she turned to heroin and crack cocaine. She was in a tailspin. There was a DUI, stints in prison, seven overdoses. Two times she had to be given Narcan, the spray that blocks the effects of opiates and likely saved her life.
“I was as far down the scale as one could have gone,” Johnson said. “A lot of people told me there was no hope for me. I either deserved to die or I deserved to rot in prison.”
After serving five months, she decided to turn her life around. She managed to stay sober for 2½ years, she said. Then in 2014 she was prescribed Percocet again after an emergency hysterectomy, and for nine months she was using heroin again. After another stint in prison, she wound up in a Salvation Army rehab center in Harrisburg, where she now lives.
As of this past Thursday, she has been in recovery for two years.
Now, she does anti-addiction advocacy, as well as modeling and bodybuilding. She also works in sales and marketing for a used-car dealership.
With her black-and-white statement she hopes to highlight the hypocrisies in the way addiction is viewed compared with other afflictions.
“If a cancer patient comes down with lung cancer after smoking, honestly you don’t get too many people saying, ‘Well, that scumbag deserves to die, they chose to smoke,’ ” she said. “But because a person was put on Percocet from a car accident and ends up shooting heroin it’s, ‘Well they deserve to die, they’re a junkie.’ ”
Part of her activism involves photo shoots intended to shock. She’s worked with several photographers to convey overdose scenes.
On Sunday, she chose Philadelphia, where she hit the depths of her addiction.
She planned the shoot with a friend, photographer Ashley Lynne Sherick from Trevose.
“She’s always been very open and honest about fighting against drug addiction,” Sherick said. “Although I don’t have a history, I fully stand behind somebody trying to help other people.”
For several hours Johnson lay on the ground on the north side of City Hall, garnering stares and confused looks from rubbernecking passersby. Some looked stunned when she called out to greet them, just blue eyes and a smile not masked in black paint. Some stopped to snap pictures. A few approached to inquire further.
One such person was Dr. Debasis Basu, a diabetologist and preventive cardiologist, who drew a connection between her message and his work as president of a diabetes awareness organization in India, as well as the drug-addiction problems in his own country.
“This is urgent,” he said of the epidemic. “It’s also for us, for the doctors, to understand … primary-care physicians only take care of the immediate problem,” but he added that they should undergo training to address the long-term implications of opiate prescriptions as well.
Other medical professionals took interest, including Nancy Manubay, a physician assistant in Reading who stopped to chat with Johnson. She immediately walked over to tell her husband, Dr. John Manubay, about it. He said he sees about two deaths from heroin a week at the hospital where he works.
“I think it’s really cool what she’s doing,” Nancy Manubay said.
Tyra, a 32-year old Philadelphia native, saw the demonstration and stopped to chat about her own recovery from heroin addiction. She asked that her last name not be used because her family doesn’t know about her addiction.
“I want to bring my friends around here because they’re still doing methadone,” she said.
Afterward, Johnson walked around Dilworth Park, the sun beating down as she walked among families and small children playing in the fountains. A few, like Spinelli Byrd, stopped to ask questions.
“I think she’s very selfless because she’s out here and there’s a lot of ridicule that could come, a lot of backlash,” Byrd said. “I didn’t know what she was going to say. And then for her to be like, ‘I’m a survivor,’ that’s awesome. You’re choosing to use your life to help others.”
Byrd then turned to her young daughter to explain.
“She wants to bring awareness to something she believes in,” she told the girl. “And she has a friend that died, so she wants to make sure everyone knows about it.”
With her ghostly spectacle, Johnson aims to humanize drug addiction.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a junkie scumbag and screw my life up … ,’ ” she said. “Whether it’s a disease or a choice, it’s still a human life.”