Good Grief - Part I: The Background
This post contains opinions and subject matter which may be offensive or difficult to read. Content covers drug use, addiction, and societal views of these subjects.
I got the call on September 24, 2011. My step-father informed me my younger sister, Rachel, was dead. That’s how he said it - dead. No “niceties” no cushioning the blow, nothing. I told him he was lying, that he had to be because he wasn’t crying. He sounded emotionless. I asked if she was really dead, then what had happened. He said he wasn’t certain, but he and my mom found a syringe, a spoon, and a lighter on the table next to her bed, so they thought it was a drug overdose. The autopsy later confirmed; it was a heroine overdose.
To the knowledge of myself, my family, and my younger sister’s (ex) boyfriend, she’d only shot up and used herione twice, maybe three times. How does someone who ISN’T a junkie, who barely knows anything about (hard) drug use, who is AFRAID OF NEEDLES overdose on herione? In spring of 2011, Rachel was diagnosed with endometriosis. For those of you who aren’t familiar, endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus; the tissue can be found on the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or the intestines. The result is intense physical pain - in the lower abdomen, lower back, pelvis, rectum, and/or vagina. Endometriosis may result in infertility. The treatment Rachel’s doctor prescribed was a monthly shot which my mom had to administer since Rachel was scared of needles. Think about the physical pain. Okay, now think about, as a woman who LOVES kids, the realization that the likelihood of you having kids just went from what you thought was 100% to what you now know will be a struggle which will involve special medications and higher risk of miscarriage or complications, IF you can even get pregnant at all. The mental and emotional pain was a LOT.
Now let’s take it a step further. Rachel is one of five children in our family. My older sister is married with three amazing children. My older brother, at the time, was living with a girlfriend and doing well. I was engaged, living with my fiancé, and doing well. Our youngest sister was thriving at a Big 10 university, making all sorts of new friends in her sorority, and doing well academically as well. Rachel was living with my mom and step-dad, working at a chain restaurant, and had decided “traditional” school wasn’t for her, so she was going to start cosmetology school in the fall. I don’t know, but I can only imagine that her self-esteem, self-worth, and overall quality of life was shot to shit with everything that hit her between spring and throughout the summer of 2011. To be clear, I am not saying that makes it “okay” to do ANY drugs. I’m saying I can understand how those circumstances can lead someone to look for a way out, an escape, via something they wouldn’t normally ever consider.
When the story was published in the local paper about “a young woman’s death” and “suspected overdose”, the comments to the online story were people in the community who DIDN’T know her, saying things like “Another junkie off the street”. It was heart-breaking to my already broken heart, but more importantly, it wasn’t true. Rachel wasn’t a junkie. A junkie is defined as a drug addict, or a person with a compulsive habit or obsessive dependency on something. I suppose by that definition, she was, but that isn’t how I’ve ever seen her, and she definitely doesn’t fit any mental image I have of what a junkie looks like. After Rachel’s first use, she began working out at least once a day. She began baking every day. She worked as many shifts as she could get through. (With the physical pain from the endometriosis she couldn’t always work.) She did anything she could think of to distract herself from the mental craving. When I think of a junkie, I think of a homeless person under a bridge - dirty and unwashed. I think of the meth user missing half of their teeth, dwindled down to skin and bones. That was NEVER Rachel.
I traveled to Vancouver, BC a few years ago. A local told me about how the city is divided, essentially by one street. On one side of the street, nice houses and flourishing businesses. On the other side, rundown apartments and abandoned houses, boarded up buildings where businesses used to exist. I didn’t see this dividing street, but the local went on to tell me that the “bad” side of the street is where the drug addicts tend to linger. He said he’d seen drug addicts with needles still in their arms when walking by an alley one day. He also talked about how the City of Vancouver now has supervised injection sites. For those of you not familiar, supervised injection sites are medically supervised facilities designed to provide a hygenic and stress-free environment in which individuals are able to consume illicit recreational drugs intraveneously and reduce nuisance from public drug use. The legality of such facility is dependent upon location and political jurisdiction. (Got all of that from Wikipedia) The idea behind these facilities is that by providing a safe, sterile environment in which to shoot up, drug users are 1. off the streets, and 2. in a safe place where they are also given information on drugs and basic health care, 3. given treatment referrals, 4. have access to medical staff and sometimes counseling. The approach is to attempt to minimize or eliminate the drug use problem by removing it from the public and by offering safe, free assistance to those suffering from addiction.
Opinions on safe injection sites from person to person, and I understand the controversy, I understand the attitude of it being “stupid” to “make drug use easier”. That isn’t the attitude though; the approach is one of accepting the problem exists, understanding it is a mental AND physical addiction, and embracing that acceptance in order to offer a way out of the addiction.
It has taken me many years to be able to have a comfortable conversation about my sister’s death. It has taken me years to come to a place mentally and emotionally in which I am no longer ashamed of how she passed away. I’m now in a healthy mental and emotional state when it comes to her passing, in a state of what I call “good grief”. I can have constructive and respectful conversations about the drug problem in this country and in other places throughout the world. Next blog, we’ll explore how I got from wanting to throat punch anyone who called a drug user a “junkie”, to my current state of “good grief”, and more importantly, what “good grief” is to me. Until then, I hope you enjoy some pictures of Rachel, and please feel free to comment with your opinions on safe injection sites and the drug problems which plague our country and world. It needs to be a more open conversation if it’s ever going to get better. After all, the first step is admitting the problem, right?