Obituaries don’t often go viral, but a year ago, Madelyn Linsenmier’s did because it highlighted a very real problem in this country—drug addiction. Millions of people around the world read Kate O’Neill’s tribute to her sister, attention she never expected.
“We honestly just shared the obituary I think the way that people do when a loved one dies. We posted it in a local newspaper, Seven Days, and we posted it on Facebook so our friends would know our sister died,” O’Neill told me on HLN’s On the Story. “We did make a decision as a family that we would be honest about her addiction. We also wanted to call attention to the stigma around it.”
Now, a year later, the obituary is inspiring others to do the same. Seven Days Vermont, commemorated the anniversary of Linsenmier’s death with All Our Hearts, a site where families can share their stories of love, grief, and hope from the opioid crisis. It’s an attempt to change the way people look at the epidemic and show it can happen to anyone.
“Part of this project is just showing that human face of this crisis and showing that it looks like people that you know,” says Cathy Resmer, who publishes the small independent newspaper. “Know that the real cost is not just the people who have died; it is the people who are still alive, who lost those folks, and who are carrying this around every day.”
The stories shared are deeply personal and heartbreaking. Look at Alexa Cioffi whose father writes was outgoing, gregarious, and fun. She got hooked on painkillers after being prescribed them following a car accident.
“I grew up in the 1970s and I am no angel, by any means, but I don’t know what it’s like to be addicted to something that is so powerful that it’s all you can think about,” he writes. “Until any of us fully understand that, or have been with someone they love who is suffering like that, you don’t realize. Yes, it is an elective choice on their part, but it’s all-consuming, overwhelming. Alexa didn’t want to be addicted. She couldn’t find a way to get there.”
O’Neill also described a devastating fall from grace for her sister, who was a young singer. It happened when their family moved from Vermont to Florida so she can attend a high school of performing arts. She was a smart and talented young girl until she tried oxycontin at a party and her addiction began. Linsenmier later had a son, which inspired her to get clean, but a relapse led to her losing custody—and the loss was “unbearable.”
An epidemic plaguing our country
Every day, 130 Americans die on average from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And the hardest hit is the Midwest. This is where I grew up. Worthington, Ohio was the sweet suburbia anyone would be lucky to call home in their teen years. In 2017, Ohio had the second highest rate of opioid overdoses in the U.S. and it’s shocking to think my midwestern small town is struggling with something that we never knew existed 20 years ago.
Here’s the simple truth: Nearly 20 million people in the U.S. struggle with substance abuse ages 12 and older.
High profile drug overdose like professional baseball player Tyler Skaggs also reveal the sad reality that a drug problem isn’t something you can typically see. The popular Los Angeles pitcher was found dead in his hotel room on July 1, 2019 at the age of 27. A lethal combo of booze and pills killed him. No one knew because there is no scar or tattoo to let people know someone is struggling.
In fact, it can often seem the opposite. Families may look picture perfect yet fall victim to this epidemic. Rebecca Savage is one of them. She also went viral when she shared the story of her two sons, Nick and Jack, who died from a oxycodone overdose. She admits she was diligent about conversations surrounding drinking but not pills because it just wasn’t on her radar as something that could be deadly.
Savage found them dead in their beds on the same day after they took one pill at a high school party. She now travels the country to educate teens that pills prey on anyone. If people start sharing their stories before it’s too late, it might be lives going viral instead of obituaries.
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O’Neill is hoping for that. “Know that hundreds of thousands of families who have lost someone to this disease are praying and rooting for you,” she writes in her sister’s obituary. “Know that we believe with all our hearts that you can and will make it. It is never too late.”
Lynn Smith is the host of HLN's On The Story, which airs 12-2pm ET.