Coming to terms with my brother’s death from overdose (more than a decade later)


by Patti Fish Stephens

March 2017

Over the past few months I have begun writing and speaking openly about my daughter’s struggle with alcohol and heroin addiction. The result has astounded me: more people than I can count have, in turn, shared with me stories of addiction–and loss–in their family or loved ones. This has given me great hope that through continued conversation and education we, as a society, can eventually remove the stigma of addiction and further the understanding and treatment of it as a disease. In the course of sharing about my journey through addiction with my daughter, I have mentioned my brother’s death several times, but never shared the difficult details of losing him until now. It is my great hope that  sharing my story will also further the conversation about grief, especially of overdose deaths, in our modern culture.

Saturday, December 31, 2005 was the last time I ever saw my older brother, Glenn. I was 36 and he was 43 years old. He looked, quite honestly, terrible. He’d had surgery on his arm just a few days before Christmas, and had a bad cold on top of it, so I had been checking up on him by phone. When he called to wish me a happy birthday on December 12, we’d had a jovial conversation which ended with us making a bet about how long our family Christmas dinner would last; the winner would get to pick a restaurant for lunch and the loser had to pay the bill. We had planned to work out the details the following week after we determined which one of us won the bet.

But when I saw him at our belated family Christmas luncheon that day, he looked like he had aged years since the last time I’d seen him, which had been a few months; normally I would’ve seen him at Thanksgiving, but that year he had been sick. So I probably hadn’t seen him in person since his annual Fourth of July party. In the months since then he had put on a significant amount of weight, his face looked drawn and ashen, and his hands were shaking so badly that I had to cut his steak for him. I was concerned about him and despite my insistent offers to drive him home so he wouldn’t have to drive his stick shift car with one arm in a sling, he brushed off my worry and refused my offers of help. He told me he had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on January 5th and I made him promise to call me afterwards with an update.

But later that evening I was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from him, even though we had just seen him and planned to talk again in a few days. He was very emotional and wanted to thank me and my husband for one of the Christmas gifts we had given him: a new belt sander. I was humbled by how much the sander meant to him. I will never forget how choked up he sounded when he asked me to thank my husband and said, “That was the nicest thing anyone has ever–that anyone has done for me in a really long time.” I asked him if he wanted to talk to Brian himself. He said no and asked me to pass along the thanks; then he went on to tell me how lucky we were to have found each other and how glad he was that he knew Brian was such a good husband to me, something along the lines of how it was comforting for him to know that Brian “took care of” me. This struck me as only slightly odd, because my brothers were very overprotective of me when we were growing up, and it took Glenn quite awhile to approve of Brian. But later I would remember this conversation and wonder if the comment about me being taken care of indicated something deeper.

He never called that week to schedule our lunch date. He never made it to his doctor’s appointment. And to my eternal shame and regret, I never called to check up on him when I didn’t hear from him; I was busy recovering from the holidays and preparing for my husband’s birthday, which is January 9th, and I had a passing thought that I should call Glenn on Monday if I hadn’t heard from him by then. I figured we could go out to lunch that week.

We never had that lunch date. On Sunday evening, January 8, 2006, after a relaxing dinner at Claddagh celebrating my husband’s birthday, I got the phone call that changed my life forever. My niece had found her dad, my brother, dead. He was at home in his bed. She called her siblings, who called my other brother, who then called my mother and me. The phone connection was at first bad, and the call dropped. Then my brother’s wife called back and when I answered, she asked to speak to my husband, which I thought was odd. I could tell from Brian’s face and voice that something was very wrong. When he got off the phone and said, “It’s Glenn” I heard a waver in his voice I had never heard before; he said, as gently as possible, “Patti, he’s dead.” I will never forget the feeling of my legs going numb; as I slid down onto my knees, I just repeated, “No, no, no, no, no” over and over until I couldn’t speak or breathe through my sobs.

I then called my dad and step-mom to inform them. We all had the same initial reaction:  disbelief. Glenn had epilepsy; I thought maybe it was a mistake, that he was unconscious from hitting his head during a seizure, and once they took him to the hospital he would be alright.  But it was evident to the few people who saw him that my brother head been dead for some time. This was always the hardest part for me to process and tell others, and the thing that still haunts me: he died alone, then laid there for days–possibly a full week–alone. He had put his beloved English bulldog, Sparky, in his crate in the basement before he went to bed for the last time. Sparky was barely alive when he was found, and never really recovered. He died a few months later, I heard.

Because of the condition of my brother’s body, we were unable to have an open casket at the wake and funeral. This made grasping the reality of his death harder for me. My bereavement counselor later explained to me that not being able to say goodbye or see the loved one’s dead body causes “complicated grief,” or what is technically labeled as Complicated Bereavement Disorder. This means, in the simplest terms, that it takes the grieving person much longer to accept the loved one’s death. That was certainly the case for me.

The thing that made grieving Glenn’s death even more complicated, however, was not knowing how or even when he died. The first thing people ask when they hear you’ve lost a loved one is how the person died. I don’t know why this is; I guess it is human nature. I have asked the same question myself. But with a complicated death like my brother’s where we had no cause of death, I didn’t know how to answer the most basic question people asked. It became excruciating to even speak about his death, yet I could think of nothing else. He had been sick with a bad respiratory infection on top of the arm surgery he’d had on December 23. He had also recently told me his doctor wanted to put him on medication for high blood pressure. Questions and conjectures circled round and round in my brain in the weeks and months after his death. Did he take too much cold medicine that caused his heart to beat erratically, resulting in a heart attack? Did he have an epileptic seizure that somehow injured him, leading to his death? Did someone break in and assault him? Did he take too many pain pills from his surgery?

Did he do it on purpose?

This was the question many of us asked ourselves and each other in the early months following Glenn’s death: was there any chance this was a suicide? After many years of replaying his last weeks and days over and over, I do not believe it was. Despite the fact that, in hindsight, I realize he was far more depressed than I knew or he let on, there were also many indications that he was not suicidal. Also, I don’t believe he would have left his dog defenseless and trapped that way.  But it was the autopsy report from the coroner that provided the final evidence I needed to know in my heart that his death was accidental.

It was in April, over three months after his death, before we got the report from Glenn’s autopsy, and the result was a shock: the cause of death was listed as overdose, but not from pain pills. Although he did have one dose of pain killers in his system, it was his blood alcohol content that was off the charts. It was measured in several blood draws from different areas of his body, and the highest reading was measured at .59. Yes, you read that correctly. The blood alcohol content normally associated with the legal definition of intoxication is .08 to .10, and the level considered to cause unconsciousness is around .30. Death can occur with a blood alcohol content of .37, and a level of .45 or over is considered fatal for anyone, no matter how much tolerance they have. Now that I had a cause of death, I had another shock to try to process. And now I still didn’t want to answer the question of how he died, due to the shame and stigma of that word: overdose.

I couldn’t stand the thought that someone would judge my brother’s character and entire life based on just one piece of information–really just one word–that described how he died: overdose.

Clearly, my brother had built up an astonishing tolerance to alcohol if he could consume far more than enough to kill him. Most people would pass out long before they could reach such astronomically high blood alcohol levels. I had to accept the fact that not only was my brother far more depressed than I realized, he also had a serious drinking problem that he hid fairly well for a long time. I also believed for a long time that I chose not to see it, even when it should have been glaringly obvious. For many years since his death, I have had a tremendous amount of guilt that I didn’t know how much he was struggling. I have berated myself for not reaching out to him more. I have wondered, in the past two years as I have learned about addiction and recovery alongside my daughter, why I–and others–didn’t see the signs of severe depression and alcoholism in him.

But strangely, it was going through my daughter’s struggles with addiction, rehabilitation, relapse, overdose, and recovery that has helped to finally give me some peace about my brother’s death. It has taught me how truly ignorant I was about addiction before my daughter’s disease took hold. Tending to my own recovery in Nar-Anon has helped me to forgive myself for not recognizing certain signs of his disease, and for not knowing what to do about the signs I did see; despite having grown up in a family with many alcoholics, I had never seen any kind of treatment or rehabilitation attempted by anyone I knew; the term alcoholic was never even used. So even when my brother got a DUI and pointedly asked me if I thought he was an alcoholic, it still didn’t occur to me to encourage him to get treatment.

Because what we grow up with, we normalize.

I grew up with depression and alcoholism. It simply never occurred to me that there was anything to be done about his drinking. It was just the way certain people were. Even if I had recognized the severity of my brother’s alcohol addiction, I had no model for seeking rehabilitation. Despite the ubiquitous Alcoholics Anonymous references all around me in society, it never occurred to me that AA could help my brother, or that he needed it. The only people I knew who had gone to “rehab” were a couple of kids at school, whispered about in the halls during their extended absences. The idea of treatment was nothing more than sensationalized gossip; the kids who needed it were both pitied and revered. I encouraged my brother to seek counseling and to call me when he needed to talk. I thought that he drank because he was depressed, and that he was depressed because he was lonely after his divorce; therefore if he got counseling, he would have someone to talk to, he would would not be depressed, and wouldn’t need to drink. Problem solved.

But learning about the disease of addiction through family days at my daughter’s inpatient and outpatient rehabs, along with educating myself through community programs, online resources, videos, books, and my fellow Nar-Anon members, I now understand that addiction is a stand-alone disease. Yes, it often co-exists alongside other mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety (this is called co-morbidity), but addiction is not caused by these illnesses. No amount of counseling or anti-depressants would have helped him without treatment for his alcoholism as well. Addiction is a brain disease with a genetic component which makes the brains of alcoholics and addicts react very differently to drugs and alcohol than the brains of people without the disease (see end of post for more info. on this).  But I, like so many others in our society, did not understand this simple truth while my brother was still alive.

Now, more than eleven years after his death, I can say without shame that my big brother, Glenn–who loved me, protected me, teased me, took care of me, listened to me, encouraged me, and sometimes drove me to high school on his motorcycle–died tragically from an alcohol overdose at just 43 years of age.

And despite the fact that it still hurts like hell to say he’s gone and I still miss him desperately, I am no longer afraid or ashamed to say how he died, because I now understand he was very, very sick. He had a deadly, debilitating disease that stole him away from all of us far too young. Are people ashamed to admit their loved ones died of cancer? Heart disease? Diabetes? No, of course not. Because we as a society understand that these are diseases which we can sometimes impact for better or worse with our own behavior, but we don’t blame someone when the disease kills them. We sympathize and empathize with their plight and their loved ones’ grief. And that’s exactly how we, as a society, need to learn to react when we hear someone died of an overdose. That person was someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s parent, someone’s cousin, someone’s friend. And all of those people love and grieve their loss just as they would any other. They don’t deserve to feel shame for their loved one’s deadly illness. They deserve compassion, especially because during the months and years leading up to their addict’s death, they likely have been through hell trying to save them.

Sadly, in the decade since my brother’s death, overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the United States, especially here in my home state of Ohio. If you or a loved one needs help, please reach out.

For an explanation of the difference between the brains of alcoholics/addicts and other people, I highly recommend the videos in the “Loved Ones Group” section under the  “Resources” tab of the Robby’s Voice website:

If this post was helpful to you, please feel free to share and please subscribe (click ‘follow’ button and enter email address) to my blog to receive an email each time I post (usually not more than once a week). Also check out my past posts about addiction and recovery on my blog.

Patti Fish Stephens


What the worst year of my life has taught me about gratitude

img_4787By Patti Fish Stephens

A few months ago I wrote a post about what my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love. At the time I wrote it I thought the worst of this year was over, and I hoped for nothing more fervently than to have an uneventful last few months to 2016 (this is the fondest wish of families of addicts: to live peaceful, even boring lives). It seems the universe had a few more lessons in store for me this year, because within days of posting that blog piece, tragedy struck near us and a series of events unfolded for my son, my daughter, and our friends that would change all of our lives.

The year started off with great hope: my daughter had accumulated four months of clean time and was moving home after living in a sober house for three months, my son was living with a girl he loved and working at a well-paying job he was good at. My husband and I even worked up the courage to plan a trip to Florida to visit my parents and extended family that live there. We rang in the new year with my Florida cousin and her husband, and my daughter found a sober club where she could celebrate. Life was looking up. 2016 was going to be our year.

Our trip to Florida went so well, in fact, that my husband and I decided to return to go someplace I had always wanted to go: Captiva. We had never made the time to venture over there when we were in the Tampa area, so we decided to plan a dedicated trip which would make up for the anniversary weekend we had to cut short a few months earlier when our daughter had relapsed in early September of 2015. The Captiva trip was scheduled for spring break in March of 2016.

A few weeks before we were scheduled to go to Captiva, our daughter celebrated six months of sobriety. We thought this was a good sign that her addiction was “cured” and that she had finally “gotten” how to do sobriety. As anyone who has read my post on unconditional love knows, our daughter relapsed and overdosed while we were on that trip in Captiva. She spent a week in the hospital, developed complications, spent a week in a mental health facility, then came home to outpatient treatment only to relapse again within a few weeks. She then went back to inpatient rehab, and has now been clean for almost eight months.

The emotional agony my husband and I went through while our daughter was in the hospital was overwhelming. It was during that time that we found our Nar-Anon Family Group. We had faithfully attended family education and therapy programs at our daughter’s rehab facility and attended Al-Anon meetings, but it was at our area Nar-Anon meeting that we finally found the support we needed. At our very first meeting, one of the long-time group members told me, after hearing our story, “We’re your family now.” I had no idea how true that statement would end up being as the year progressed. I was just so grateful my daughter was alive and we had found new friends who understood what our new normal was like as the parents of an addict.

As spring turned into summer, our daughter moved from the inpatient rehab facility to a very strict sober house. During this time we spent our weekends driving back and forth to visit her, and after three months at the sober house she moved back home with us. Cleveland had just celebrated the Cavs’ history-making championship win. The Indians were on a winning streak and the city dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, we had another championship win in our future. Just a few weeks before our daughter was to move back home, our son proposed to his girlfriend and we had another happy event to celebrate and be thankful for.

Summer turned into fall and we felt such gratitude that our daughter was alive, clean, and working a good program. Our son was happy and our family had a wedding to look forward to. It was a great time to be a Clevelander. I finally felt I had processed a lot of what had happened in the spring and was able to write about it in the post about unconditional love. My husband and I both got a wonderful response to that post of overwhelming support from friends, family and strangers. I was, once again, filled with gratitude that our daughter had survived her overdose, or I would have been writing a very different kind of blog post.

And then, in a matter of just a few weeks, our dear friends’ son overdosed and died, our son’s engagement was called off and he moved back home with us temporarily, and our daughter discovered she was pregnant. Our hearts broke for our friends who lost their son, and their loss was a reminder to all of us with addicts in our lives that there is no guarantee that our loved ones will stay clean even after extended periods of sobriety. Our son was broken-hearted. And our daughter was overwhelmed by the news of an unexpected pregnancy. There was nothing we could do but love all of these hurting people in our lives. Pretty much the only good thing to happen in October was that our rescue dog, Milton, turned (at least) 15; we celebrated having him in our lives for the last 14 years.

As Thanksgiving approached, my husband and I reflected on our gratitude that both of our children were, despite their present difficulties, alive and in our lives. For the month that our son stayed with us after his break-up, I was reminded how wonderful (and sometimes crowded) it was to have the whole family together, just the four of us, like when the kids were growing up. My son began to heal and it was reassuring to have him physically near to see that he was doing better during that time. We slowly began to absorb the news that our daughter was going to have a baby. Due to her history of addiction as well as the genetic clotting disorder that was found in follow-up testing after her overdose, her pregnancy is solidly in the high-risk category. Within 10 days of finding out she was pregnant, she had quit smoking altogether. She had been trying to quit ever since receiving the diagnosis of the clotting disorder, but it was a difficult battle. The pregnancy gave her the incentive she needed and we were grateful that she was finally able to quit.

So November turned into December, and my husband and I–as well as many of our Nar-Anon friends–commented that we would be so glad to see this awful year end. So much hardship had occurred for members of our group and our family, and we were all looking forward to a brighter 2017. And then last Saturday night, I got a call that my son had been in a car accident and that his car had flipped upside down. It was during a freezing rain storm that blanketed the area in ice. We had just been to lunch with him earlier that day, and I had texted with him hours before; during our texting conversation he had said, “I’m indestructible” as a lighthearted way to tell me he was okay after getting some bad news that afternoon. Apparently the universe agreed, because despite the fact that his car flipped over, the windshield shattered, both windows exploded and both doors were crushed, he crawled out over the glass and walked away from the wreck. His car was totaled, but no one else was hurt and no other cars were involved.

Once again, I had found myself unable to breathe after the phone call from my son’s friend, who had been following my son in his own car. Although he had told me my son was “okay,” I had to see him for myself. He was soaking wet, covered in sleet and blood, and still had glass chips stuck to his clothing, but I never wanted to let him go once we got him back to our house. He kept telling me, “I’m okay, Mom; I’m okay. Mom, I’m okay!” Amazingly, his only injuries appeared to be several long cuts on his left hand. He didn’t show any signs of concussion, and had no broken bones. The cuts didn’t even need stitches, much to our surprise; but we had all suffered a bad scare, and it has taken us days to come down off the accompanying adrenaline rush. We found out the next day that our daughter had also been in the ER early Sunday morning due to possible symptoms of a miscarriage. Thankfully, the baby’s heartbeat was strong and my daughter was sent home.

At our Nar-Anon meeting this week, I shared a bit about our weekend with our group, commenting how grateful I was that both of my children were alive and mostly well. I knew that had things gone just slightly differently in March and December, we could have lost both of our children in the same year. Not twenty-four hours after making this statement, I got the horrible news that another friend’s son had overdosed and died. My heart breaks for her and their whole family. This has served as yet another humble reminder of how fortunate I am to have both of my children not only alive, but in close physical proximity to me as well as in a healthy, loving relationship with me and their dad.

So many of my friends don’t have the luxury of even talking regularly to their addicted loved ones, let alone knowing they are sober or even physically safe. I can never allow myself to forget this and I can never cease to be grateful for the current day in which both of my children are alive. We all know there are no guarantees in life, and with the previous losses our family has suffered (my brother, my nephew), we have been reminded of this again and again. But living with heroin addiction brings this realization home in an even more urgent and terrifying way; life can end in an instant due to this cunning, baffling, and deadly disease of addiction.

We are losing people at an unprecedented rate to overdose; in 2015 alone, more than 52,000 Americans died of overdose, the most ever. That’s over 1000 Americans dying of overdose EACH WEEK of 2015. (For comparison, 37,000 people died in car crashes.) Heroin overdose deaths alone increased 23% to nearly 13,000, making death from heroin overdose now more common than death by gun homicide. And deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl (which nearly killed my daughter when it was spiked into her heroin) are up a whopping 73%. (Source: CDC death statistics report via CBS news.) What these statistics can’t show is the emotional toll these deaths are taking on our communities. It seems every week my daughter hears of the death of someone with whom she was in treatment, or lived in a sober house, or went to AA meetings. How do you quantify the effects of losing friend after friend from the same disease you have?

We talk about the “opioid epidemic” and we quote statistics, but when people are dying from overdose at such an unprecedented rate, how does it affect the psyche of those left behind? In my case, it creates an atmosphere of constant terror; I can no longer live in a bubble where I haven’t been affected by this epidemic. I nearly lost my daughter to overdose; my husband has attended funerals of former students who died from overdose; my daughter has attended countless funerals of former classmates and friends; and now our support group has lost several loved ones. All of this loss reminds me to be profoundly grateful for every day I have with my daughter, my son, my husband, my parents, my friends, and my extended family. This is a lesson I wish I could have learned some other way, but life didn’t give me that choice. This is my reality, as it is the reality of an unprecedented number of Americans. Please reach out to someone you know who has been affected by addiction and remind them that you are grateful for their life and sorry for their struggles. And hug your loved ones tightly this holiday season.








What my daughter’s addiction has taught me about unconditional love

screenshot_2016-09-07-19-49-28-2by Patti Fish Stephens

September 2016

I have not spoken (or written) publicly about this issue until now. My daughter and husband have both read this essay and given me permission to share it.

In March of 2015, my daughter realized she had a drinking problem and sought treatment. She was 21 years old, just two months shy of 22. I was devastated. While alcoholism runs in my family, I thought that my husband and I had adequately warned our two children against the dangers of drinking combined with their gene pool. The alcoholics in my family were almost exclusively male, so it somehow never occurred to me that my daughter could become one.

Once evaluated, our daughter was referred to outpatient treatment. Just before she was to complete the six-week program, she relapsed. We got a call from her outpatient program counselor recommending our daughter seek inpatient treatment at a nearby facility. We thought inpatient treatment would nip her problem in the bud. We were supportive. We didn’t yell. We didn’t scream. We cried. We assured her we loved her and would stand by her. And then we took her to the facility, dropped her off, and slept a full night for the first time in months.

When she called after the 72 hour waiting period, I thought I had never been so happy to hear her voice in all my life. I asked how her sessions were going and what the program and daily schedule was like. She said she was still in detox; she hadn’t started any of those things yet. I was baffled. Detox? She hadn’t been out of our sight since the relapse, and there was no alcohol in the house. Why did she need to detox? She said it was just protocol, not to worry. I put it out of my mind, grateful she was in rehab.

We were advised not to come to visitation or family day the first weekend after our addict’s arrival at the facility (to allow the patient to detox and acclimate). So it was nearly two weeks before we were able to see our daughter and hold her in our arms again. I had never been apart from her that long and it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment that we couldn’t see her when she most needed our support. She seemed edgy during that first visit, nervous. I chalked it up to the new environment, the rules, and the loss of her coping mechanism, alcohol.

So when she told us she had something to tell us, I had no idea what was coming. I was just so happy to see her, so relieved that she was getting the help she needed, that I was completely blindsided when she said she was in treatment not just for her addiction to alcohol, but for something else: heroin. I felt my world shift sideways; I thought I might pass out. In that moment, everything I thought I knew about my daughter, my identity as a parent, and our family changed. Nothing would ever be the same again.

In our family sessions, I heard the sentiment over and over (and I even expressed it myself that first time) that I just wanted my child to get better so our family and our lives could go back to the way they used to be. But here’s something I have learned on the roller coaster ride through hell that my family and I have been on for the last two years: things are never going to go back to the way they used to be for the family of any alcoholic or addict. This is something families must accept. Any other course of action is a recipe for heartache and could be harmful to the addict’s recovery as well as the web of family relationships. Out of recovery a stronger family can actually re-emerge if all members seek education about the disease of addiction as well as recovery for themselves.

Our daughter was in anguish as she told us how she had started using heroin while in IOP for alcohol abuse; dealers waited in the parking lots outside of AA meetings. She was full of shame, remorse, guilt, and fear that we would hate her. No matter what I felt that day or in the months after, I assured her then, as I do now, that I could never hate her. On the contrary, I felt only a mother’s love for her hurting child. I felt so broken-hearted for her that I wanted to help her in any way I could.

And we did continue to help her. Through two more rounds of in-patient treatment, an arrest for OVI (Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated), a weekend in jail during which we did NOT bail her out, subsequent court appearances, elaborate fabrications to cover up multiple relapses,  long weekends of driving the hour each way to grueling 8 hour family therapy sessions plus visiting days, paying for rent at a sober house, and conferences with drug & alcohol counselors, we supported her emotionally, financially, and physically. And through it all, we loved her. Through the lies, the unexplained dents in the car, the lost jobs, the sleepless nights when she didn’t come home, the thousands of dollars in attorney fees and medical bills, we never gave up on her.

Did we make mistakes in how we supported her? Of course. Sometimes we were too gullible. We missed key signs of relapse. We gave her too many chances, didn’t set hard enough boundaries early on. But we learned from our mistakes. When she got arrested for driving under the influence, we left her in jail and sold her car, as we had told her we would when we suspected she had driven impaired before. When there was no denying relapse, we made her choose: go to rehab or leave our home.

We educated ourselves at every opportunity. We learned the difference between supporting her recovery and supporting her addiction. We learned how to talk to friends, family, and coworkers about her addiction. We learned how to ask for support for her, and what kinds of support to request. And we learned how to educate and take care of ourselves while she was learning how to recover from her disease.

But all that we had learned, all that we had experienced, all that we thought we knew, was eclipsed on the morning of March 24, 2016 by the phone call from a neighbor that our unconscious daughter was being carried out of our home on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. With over 6 months clean and on Naltrexone, an opiate blocking medication, we had allowed her to stay at our home with a friend while we went to Florida for the anniversary trip we had canceled the previous fall when she was arrested for OVI. During that week she stopped taking her meds and relapsed, overdosing on just $5 to $10 worth of fentanyl- and cocaine-spiked heroin which killed 12 other people in our county that week.

Our universe had shattered in that one brief phone call, and the next 12 hours were the most agonizing of our lives. We had to change our flight to get home immediately; check out of our lodging; return our rented bikes and car; pack up our belongings and inform family of the situation. Never in our lives had we been more scared. Our son rushed to the hospital to be with her and texted us what information he could, but cell service was spotty on the plane and his messages weren’t all coming through. By the time we reached the hospital 12 hours later, our fear was accompanied by anger. I think we both thought she would be released before we ever got home. We hear all the time of overdoses where the patient is simply hydrated and released after regaining consciousness, but it quickly became evident that this was no ordinary overdose; our daughter had been admitted with a blood sugar of 37, had nearly died, and was not yet out of the woods.

When we reached her room in the Intensive Care Unit, she was heavily sedated. Her kidneys were not functioning properly. She couldn’t hear out of one ear at all, and barely out of the other. She could barely speak to us, and hardly registered our presence. Her condition was so much worse than we expected; our anger evaporated. It was clear she wasn’t coming home any time soon. It finally dawned on me that she might not come home at all, that she could actually die. In the moment I realized the gravity of her situation, life became a crystallized pinpoint of clarity: this was my beloved child, whom I loved beyond measure. I loved her despite the lies, the betrayal, the fear, the sorrow, the relapses, the deception. I loved my son as I watched him fear for his little sister and comfort her, staying by her side for hours. I loved them both as deep and as fathomless as I imagined the universe to be. And there was no room for anything else in my heart but this love.  Everything else faded into background noise.

As her recovery from the overdose progressed, however, other emotions forced their way to the surface. There was shock and anger at the family members who took the opportunity of her overdose to tell us—while she still lay in the hospital fighting for her life–just exactly how we were wrong in our handling of her addiction (despite the fact that those family members had never dealt with anything remotely like our situation). There was sorrow, disappointment, and confusion about why so many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins never showed up to visit her or support us during her six day stay in the hospital. We so appreciated those people who showed us unconditional support and made the trip to the hospital or sent flowers or care packages as soon as they heard she was hospitalized. A coworker of my husband’s sent enough food to feed us for nearly a week; other friends I had lost touch with came to the hospital or brought us food, despite the distance that had grown between us. I was so grateful for their return to my life, regardless of the circumstances.

On Easter Sunday, our son, his girlfriend, and my parents came to our home for a quick Easter dinner before we all headed to the hospital for a visit. As we were sitting down to eat, the neighbor who had seen our daughter being loaded into the ambulance came to our door. Never once did he ask how our daughter—his child’s babysitter for years—was doing; he wanted to know why there were so many police cruisers at our house when she was taken to the hospital. He could clearly see we had company and were trying to eat our holiday meal, but he insisted on continuing to ask for details about what had happened. Our worst nightmare was like a train wreck people couldn’t help gawking at and speculating about. We felt preyed upon in our weakest moment.

Throughout that week and the months that followed, my anger with those who should have supported us unconditionally throughout this trauma grew in direct proportion to my love for my daughter. I had told her, as she cried tears of shame in the hospital, that there was nothing, no matter how bad she thought it was, that she could ever do to make me love her less. In that moment, I finally understood unconditional love. It was loving her not only despite her mistakes or flaws, but because this kind, creative, funny, smart, talented, beautiful human being deserves it no matter what; because she is a child of the universe and the child of my womb; and because I know how it feels to not be loved when it is most crucially needed. In that moment, I knew I would never forsake her no matter how many relapses, no matter how many tries it takes her to get clean. And I knew that there is always the possibility that this disease could kill her anyway.

Five years ago this month, in September of 2011, my 22-year-old nephew committed suicide by jumping from a seventh story parking garage. He was hundreds of miles from home, and had reportedly been struggling in recent months with drug use and mental illness. Our family was in shock. It had only been five years earlier, in 2006, that my brother died alone in his home of acute alcohol poisoning; his blood alcohol content was measured at .59 in the autopsy report. It had taken me years to recover from the grief of my brother’s sudden death at the age of 43 and to come to terms with its causes. After my nephew’s suicide, I thought our family couldn’t bear any more loss. I gathered my grief-stricken son and daughter around me and said this: There is nothing, NOTHING, in this life that you can’t come back from—except death. There is NOTHING that you could do to ever make me stop loving you. If you need me, I will ALWAYS come for you. Always. Never forget that.

I never thought that this promise would be put to the test so dramatically, but I am grateful that through the journey of my daughter’s addiction–through treatment and relapse, overdose and recovery, and from those who have supported us and not supported us–I have learned the true character of unconditional love. The disease of addiction is known in the recovery community as being “cunning, baffling, and deadly.” My child is alive and clean for today, and for that I am deeply grateful. I know that every day with my daughter is a gift, and it is one that I will never take for granted.

I love you to the moon and back, Peanut. Forever. Unconditionally.