“Tell them my story.”
My 20-year-old daughter Casey said these words to me not long before she died of an accidental heroin overdose on January 15, 2017.
She said that if something were ever to happen to her, she’d want me to write an honest obituary about her struggles with addiction. I trembled at the thought of this. “I would want to help someone else. To make them feel less alone,” she explained. “Even if it’s just one person.”
About a week later, in our home — in the same room where we had tea parties and bedtime stories, slumber parties and mother-daughter nights with Snapchats and long talks — she overdosed.
Now, seven months later, as I walk through that room everyday, memories of a little girl dancing with her younger brother and snuggling with her dog are overshadowed by images of CPR and tears.
Casey overdosed sitting next to her packed suitcase. She was supposed to leave for rehab the next day. She wanted to try again, to make a better life, to live. She had hope. I had hope.
Six days later it was over. She died in the hospital. The same hospital where I work as a radiology technician.
It was time for me to keep my promise, to fulfill Casey’s last wish, and write her obituary with the transparency that we had discussed.
So I did.
Casey’s obituary went viral. Strangers lined up at the funeral home to pay their respects. Messages of love and support and gratitude poured in. Casey’s story was featured in major newspapers, blogs, magazines, news stories and websites across the world. There have now been thousands of comments and messages sent to me through social media in response to Casey’s obituary.
People struggling with addiction, families struggling with a loved one’s addiction and many others said they were touched, inspired and comforted by Casey’s story. They talked of the connection they felt to us and thanked Casey for being a voice for those with addiction. And they thanked me for being a voice for the thousands of families affected.
I was already humbled and touched by the outpouring of support from around the world, and then I received a call from Washington, D.C.
“Casey’s story has reached the White House, and we are listening,” said the person from the Executive Office of National Drug Control Policy.” Wow. Hearing this was overwhelming and an honor.
But the true honor was in the words of the messages I received. From families who have someone struggling or have already lost a child, from people struggling who have lost friends, from teachers who brought Casey’s obituary to class, from counselors who kept it in their office, from doctors who have shared it with colleagues when discussing the epidemic, and from recovery groups who have it hanging in their meeting places.
Most important were the messages from those in recovery who said, “I have it in my pocket and it keeps me going another day when I feel like giving up.” And those actively struggling with addiction who said, after reading Casey’s story, “I’m going to seek treatment.”
These are the messages that brought me to tears. I answered every one of them. These were the messages that let me know that what started as a promise between a mother and daughter, turned into a legacy.
We couldn’t have ever imagined her obituary would go viral, reaching people across the world. Casey talked about helping just one person but it turned out she helped so many. I hope she knows her wish came true.
How did we get here?
I struggled for years with Casey: the sleepless nights, rehab centers, relapses, the fear of that phone call. Like most mothers whose child struggles with addiction, I had already imagined my daughter’s funeral. I hit a point where, as much as I hated it, I realized I couldn’t save my daughter. I could only love her, encourage her, be there for her and pray she would find the strength to save herself. I had to do the hardest thing for a parent to do: step back a little, accept that I was helpless and that I couldn’t control the madness and pain she was going through, and accept the painful reality while fearing every minute that it could end in the worst way. Unfortunately, it did.
Before she passed, I lay awake every night wondering, Am I doing too much? Am I not doing enough? Give tough love or just love today?
Now, I lie awake at night questioning the choices I made. Same questions but, tragically, in the past-tense. Did I do too much? Did I not do enough? If love alone could have saved her, she never would have died.
Casey was maybe guilty of some bad choices. But who among us is innocent of this? Once the disease stepped in, her choices weren’t all hers anymore. Addiction made choices for her. She tried, she struggled and a higher power finally said enough is enough and took her away from it all, but sadly away from us at the same time.
Our favorite saying was, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have a hard time accepting that now. What reason could there be for her to die so young and so tragically? Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s true when they say, “Some people have to die so that others can live.” Another hard quote to accept, but maybe that gives meaning to my heartache. Maybe that’s why her story traveled so far and touched so many — so that others can live.
My daughter died, but my journey with her and this demon is still here, just in a different form now.
Now I live with the memories, good and bad, the regrets and what-ifs, all the future milestones that she dreamed of that will never happen, all the things she has missed already, all the days that she was supposed to have.
Her future was supposed to happen. She was supposed to argue with me over future wedding plans, she was supposed to bring her babies to visit and call me and say things like, “Mom, the baby is crying. What should I do?” She was supposed to have more laughs with friends and memories with her brother and family. She was supposed to debate with people on Facebook and tag me all day long on deep quotes and funny memes. She was supposed to have more mother-daughter days, singing with me in the car. I could go on and on with all the things, big and small, that Casey was supposed to do. She was supposed to grow old, supposed to live longer than 20 years, 8 months and 60 seconds. She was supposed to bury me.
So where do I go from here? I have to believe that maybe this is what she was actually supposed to do. This is what I am supposed to do. This is the reason — to speak out about Casey’s struggles and death. To tell her story. Maybe putting it all out there and possibly saving another is the legacy of her life that needs to be fulfilled.
Losing Casey was devastating and life-changing and a piece of me died with her, but I can’t and won’t live in shame. I was proud of my daughter, no matter what. Relapses and mistakes didn’t change that, because she always picked herself up and tried again. I was so proud of her bravery and her openness about her disease.
I will honor her strength, even in death. I will continue to tell Casey’s story, spread her message to families and others struggling with addiction, that they are not alone. I will do my best to bring awareness and break the stigma. If just one person read her obituary or her story and was touched by it or connected to it, then Casey and others will not have died in vain.
All those who have read it or reached out to me are now part of Casey’s story. Her story and the stories of others lost don’t have to end with their death. They can still reach those who are still here and maybe make someone else’s journey a little easier — and possibly help them reach the happy ending that they crave so badly.
Every family and every person with addiction has their own journey, and while there are differences, they’re all a result of the same merciless disease. When you love a person in the grips of addiction, we have to make choices, hard choices, on how we deal with our individual situations. Others will do it differently, but we’re all in this together.
Reach out. Get help. Speak up.
Whether you have someone you love who is struggling or someone you have already lost, you’re not alone. You have others around you who have walked the same path. Reach out to them. Get help. If somehow you haven’t been touched by addiction yet, you will be. Get educated; knowledge can be a strong asset. It’s time to give this epidemic the attention it needs, or else it will continue to devastate and destroy our families and communities. Race, wealth, religion — none of it matters because addiction doesn’t discriminate. If it’s not already in your home, then it’s likely at your back door.
Casey was smart, fun, and full of life with an amazing sense of humor. She always put others before herself and had a strong home and family, and yet, it took her as quickly as any other. She wasn’t just a number when she died — she was a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and a person who was loved. This is the way I am handling my grief of losing my daughter, my baby girl.
So I’ll speak when asked, help whenever I can, and try to be strong as I play out my role in this club that nobody ever wants to join. It hasn’t gotten easier with time, for time does not heal all wounds, but I’ll get out of bed everyday, even when I don’t want to, and I will live. Sometimes it’s not about one day at a time, it’s about one hour, one minute, one breath at a time. I may not win, but I’ll never stop trying, just like Casey and many others never did, either.