The call that changed my life came, like so many do, in the darkest hours of the early morning. Mine was at 3 a.m., in my dorm room, during the spring semester of my freshman year of college. “Your mom died,” my dad said, panic in his voice. “Get on a plane home, and I’ll meet you at the airport.”
I had just talked to my mom hours earlier. What had happened?
Eventually I realized that had they told me their painful truth, I could have helped them battle their addiction, and that I needed to share my story in hopes that it could save others.
I did as I was told and boarded a plane, numb and confused. But my dad wasn’t waiting for me at the airport when I landed. Instead it was my Uncle Mike, waiting with the kind of news that leaves you gasping for air.
“Your dad is gone, too,” he said solemnly.
I found out later that my parents had been harboring a dark secret that ultimately killed them, a secret that I’ve taken on the burden of owning now that they’re gone: They were addicted to opioids.
“Overdose” is a dirty word. For years, I lied about how my parents passed away. The falsehoods were made easier by the concealing they had done themselves about their condition. Eventually I realized that had they told me their painful truth, I could have helped them battle their addiction, and that I needed to share my story in hopes that it could save others.
Moreover, telling the truth about my experience might spare those who have lost loved ones to addiction the extra, unnecessary, pain of shame. We need to expose the shame in order to help treat addiction; we need to reclaim our feelings of pride in order to move forward.
The first time my dad overdosed from fentanyl was on Thanksgiving during my freshman year in college. But I didn’t know it, because I was told he simply had a bad reaction to medication he was taking and it put him in the hospital, close to respiratory failure. I assumed that because all the medicine was prescribed to him, it was true: His drugs mixed, and it was just an unfortunate side effect.
My parents had never wanted to let my brother and me into their world of addiction. Not even their closest friends knew the dark secret they were keeping. They were shielding us and everyone around them from something they felt was too shameful to disclose.
They were assisted in this deception, and their desire to be deceptive in the first place, by the inaccurate and stereotyped depictions of addiction in our society. Growing up, I had never precisely understood what addiction was. Stories of addicts were usually about dysfunctional people who had dropped out of school, were abandoned, lived on the streets — things that my parents weren’t. My mom and dad were both employed; they were both supportive parents. They were fun, loving, smart. I grew up in a happy home.
My parents didn’t go to dark alleys at night to find drugs like heroin, which is what I pictured an addict doing. Sure, my father could drink a little too much on the weekend, but he was a functioning part of society; an addict, I presumed, was not.
It was only after they both died that I found out they had both suffered fatal overdoses of fentanyl. I discovered that was the official cause of death three months later when the autopsy reports came back, though I didn’t accept it for many years because I was in denial. My mom had been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease that required multiple operations over the course of three years, while my father had severe back pain that resulted in a surgical implantation of a spinal cord stimulator. It turned out that as their tolerance to the pain medication increased, their ability to function without it decreased, ultimately leading them into a downward spiral.
Learning all this came as a shock because the severity of their problems was never apparent. I knew they were in pain but didn’t know that the medications they were prescribed could be deadly. And while I could barely acknowledge the truth to myself, I couldn’t begin to admit it to others. I would tell people my mom died of respiratory failure and my dad’s heart failed. While technically true, it was still my attempt to sugarcoat the truth to protect myself from the shame that their cause of death triggered.
For years, I worried about not getting selected for things I had worked hard for, like media jobs and gymnastics awards, if people knew about my parents and assumed that I wasn’t capable because of my background. Or that I was at risk of falling into the same addictive pattern. I can even recall thinking shortly after my parents died: “Nobody’s going to want to marry me. I don’t have parents because of these circumstances. I will be judged because of this.” I carried that shame until I finally realized I wouldn’t let the pain I harbored define me, just like it didn’t define my parents.
Slowly, the story I told others became closer to the truth — though I was still quick to point out that they were addicted to prescription pills provided to them by a doctor, which somehow mitigated it. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t their choice. They battled chronic pain. I needed to justify their deaths as a result of their circumstances, not wrong decision-making.
It was only when I started working as a reporter for ESPN more than a decade after their deaths that I started to truly undo these shackles of shame. I had finally made it: I had the career I had chased; I was living the life I had imagined. But I realized the lies about my parents made me feel like a fraud. My job was to find the truth in athletes’ stories and report on how their personal lives shaped who they were on the field. And yet, I couldn’t tell the truth about my own story.
Once I started the painful process of opening up, I discovered that there are silver linings in the trauma I experienced from my parents’ addiction. It has shaped me into who I am; it has given me a different lens. My parents’ death ignited a power and a gratitude toward life that some people don’t have. I’ve been given an opportunity to have an impact on other people’s lives — and that is where I’ve found purpose.
COVID-19 has brought new urgency to solving the opioid crisis. People are more isolated than ever, causing substance use and relapse to increase. Data shows that even before the coronavirus struck, 128 people were dying each day from opioid overdoses. The irony is that since the pandemic hit, we have more access to technology and communication tools, yet people remain afraid to speak up.
It was only when I started working as a reporter for ESPN more than a decade after their deaths that I started to truly undo these shackles of shame.
I believe people want to have conversations, but they are scared of how they’re going to be judged. We have to join forces and march in this together: Addiction affects all walks of life, and all of us are worthy, whatever our paths are. It’s time to reverse the feelings of shame that society teaches us. It’s OK to speak openly about addiction, and sharing one’s story only helps reduce the stigma that shouldn’t exist but does.
If even one person hears my story and it empowers them to share their own, I’ll know I have made an impact. I take myself back to where my parents were: alone, afraid, isolated, trapped, feeling unworthy. I can’t bring my parents back. But I can make sure that I don’t see myself that way and that I help others overcome those feelings of shame, as well — to believe they, too, are worthy, no matter how badly their lives have been affected by their addictions or the addictions of loved ones.