Today and Monday mark the beginning of a monthly series probing the financial and emotional costs of overdose deaths. The articles will look at the toll paid by those who have lost loved ones to addiction, as well as those who help treat or respond to it. We welcome reader feedback as we continue to probe this difficult subject.
Tommy Darrell was known as “the poster child for recovery.”
It seemed as though the 40-year-old Scottdale man had reached his prime. Several years after retiring as a minor league baseball player, he was engaged and planning for his future. After a stint with cocaine abuse that later led to crack cocaine, he was clean for 2 1/2 years, spending much of his free time working with recovering addicts through Eagle Ranch Ministries and Pennsville Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant.
He spent his last day with family at a birthday party for the youngest member of his family, then attended a funeral for a person who died of an overdose. His fiancee, Ashley Stokes, said goodnight to him at about 8:30 that night, and his mother sent him an unanswered text about an hour later.
Sarah “Sally” Darrell said she typically received a text from her son early in the morning before he went to work saying “Have a blessed day. I love you.”
Instead, she woke up to a hysterical call from Stokes. She broke into his apartment across the hall and found him lying dead with one needle mark in his arm and an empty syringe nearby.
“It’s a terrible thought, thinking about someone you care about laying there dying,” Sarah said.
She said that his death on Feb. 13 was shocking after he had stayed clean for more than two years. Before he became clean, he overdosed twice. Both times, Sarah brought her son back. The Connellsville mom said she finds peace in the fact that he will not have to suffer through another painful recovery.
“I told him I didn’t have another recovery left in me, and I don’t think he did either,” she said.
She hopes that addicts in recovery will not look at his death as a bad omen indicating poor odds at recovery, or think that they can never beat addiction if Tommy lost the battle. Instead, she wants his death to serve as a reminder of an addiction proverb: to always be on guard for the unguarded moment.
“He had to just be looking for a few moments of emotional peace,” she said.
Sarah said her son started using cocaine recreationally in 2001, but used more frequently following his retirement from professional baseball. He went into active addiction in 2004. He was charged criminally, but his record was expunged after he went to the Genesis House Ministry in Uniontown for six months. After he was clean for about one year, he was sent to jail again on a previous charge. He was clean for years, verified my monthly drug tests.
“If I would have thought that for one minute I had anything to worry about, I would have sat on him. I wouldn’t have let him out of my sight,” she said.
Sarah knew her son was a good person, but she did not realize how many people he helped until he died. She chuckled describing one woman who recently told her about a snow-scraper he loaned her 10 years before.
“I don’t think I even realized how many people he helped, in any way imaginable,” she said.
People in active addiction or in recovery often account for many of those attending funerals following a fatal overdose, said Eric Dolfi, owner of Thomas M. Dolfi Funeral Home in Uniontown. But another group often shows up to those funerals — gawkers. Sometimes, they speak directly to the family. Other times, they stop in and leave.
“You’ll see them come in the front door, say, ‘Yep, he’s dead,’ and then go out the back door,” he said.
The funeral home arranged funerals for six people who died of overdoses this year up to mid-April. Overdose deaths accounted for 13 of 70 funerals last year.
Families often hold viewings and funerals as quickly as possible, before word spreads about why their loved one died. He said the grieving process for families who lost a member to overdose is a uniquely “emotional ride.”
“It’s almost like they’re beaten down. There’s, ‘This can’t be me. This can’t be us. It can’t be,” he said.
That denial often dissolves into acceptance at the burial.
For the deceased’s addiction-recovery family, attending the funeral is a devastating reminder of the end result of addiction. Often, the person who died attended meetings or other recovery sessions with those who attended their funeral.
“They’re as emotional as the people who have known them for years because they’re in the struggle together, and it’s very humbling to see them come in to pay their respects,” he said.
Any time a young person dies, Dolfi said people assume the cause was an overdose. But stereotypes of the young addict do not always match reality. Dolfi once arranged a funeral for an 86-year-old who died from an overdose. Regardless of age, Dolfi said the emotional toll of an overdose has a wide reach.
“If you’re an addict, or you’re addicted to something, the aftermath of what you leave is very sizeable. You still have loved ones who still love you. No matter how hard they are on you, they still want to help you. It’s just a lot of times, they don’t want to listen,” he said.
If love was enough
Cindy Butler of Connellsville said her son, Jeremy, was one who would not listen. He died in November 2010 of an overdose of alcohol and Opana, a painkiller.
“At one point in time, I thought I had a magic wand, and the wand was filled with love,” she said with a sardonic edge in her voice.
“We’re moms. We think we can fix everything,” said Cindy’s sister, Kim Connors, whose son is in recovery in Florida.
Kim works with addicts and supports parents of addicted children through a national organization called Addict’s Mom. She said 144 people die every day from overdose. The sisters reflected on the many loved ones they have lost to fatal overdoses.
Cindy often looks at a picture of her son and his friend posing like Hercules, appearing to emanate godlike strength and immortality.
“And now, they’re both dead,” she said.
For a month after her son’s death, she was emotionally numb, waiting to learn why he died.
“For 30 days I was in limbo, but then I had to come to terms with it,” she said. “I had to accept that he was gone and never coming back, but I had to accept what killed him, too. His death was basically at his own hands.”
That knowledge later helped her come to terms with his death and no longer blame herself.
“Every family has skeletons in the closet,” she said. “I carry no shame about my son being an addict.”
After mourning her son for seven years, she said it is possible to move on. Many days she is struck unexpectedly by “a lightning bolt of pain,” but she has learned that she can absorb that pain and move forward.
“Bring it on, because you’ve got to feel it,” she said.
A second son, Jason, will be clean for three years in August. His addiction cost him his left arm and a large portion of his left side, eaten away by abscesses caused by heroin needles.
She said Jason’s recovery continues to take an emotional toll. But she has closure in Jeremy’s death.
“He’s never going to pick up another drug. He’s never going to deal with the struggles of addiction. In addiction recovery, you never really get to close that book, whereas with my son that passed away, that book is closed,” she said.
Obstacles in the epidemic
Recovering addicts are the most likely to fatally overdose, said Brian Reese, treatment supervisor at the Fayette County Drug and Alcohol Commission.
When a drug addict goes to the commission for help, staff members evaluate and assess them, then recommend next steps. But if the next step is inpatient treatment, they expect to hit road blocks with both insurance companies and rehabilitative centers.
“The problem is that there are so many people trying to access treatment that there are not enough beds,” he said.
While a client is waiting for admission into inpatient treatment, staff members check in with the client daily and attempt to speed up the insurance and admission process.
The commission’s doctor, Dr. Robert Woolhandler, said there is more public resistance to entering recovery than there is to entering addiction. Limited space at rehabilitative centers, costs, insurance and stigmas put up roadblocks to entering recovery. Addiction might begin with a legal prescription from a doctor. But after those barriers are passed, there is a 100 percent chance of recovery.
“It’s the only deadly disease that’s fully treatable,” he said.
Treatment specialist Elaine Stano said addicts have moments of clarity when they realize they need help. At that time, it is crucial they have quick access to treatment. Calling the prevalence of opiate addiction an “epidemic” is hypocritical, she said, when rallying cries are met with no action. She compared the drug epidemic to the typhoid epidemic, saying people were able to get the care they needed immediately.
“They didn’t say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have a bed for two weeks, so good luck out there,” she said.
Reese said it is incredibly painful when a current or former client relapses and dies. Three of 11 recorded overdose deaths in Fayette County this year were involved with the commission at one time. Over the years, he said he has lost 16 clients to overdose.
“It’s devastating, because you start thinking in your mind what you could have done,” he said.
Years ago, he said he lost two clients to overdoses in one weekend. After the first client died, he said he was meeting with the second client and pleading with him to stay clean. The man refused medication-assisted treatment, and died later that day.
Reese described addiction as an ideal relationship with a movie star who becomes a monster. At first, everything is wonderful. But over time, that relationship turns abusive, or even deadly.
“That’s the essence of addiction. It promises so much in the beginning,” he said.
As Sarah heals from the sudden loss of her son, she takes comfort in the thought that he is in heaven and no longer struggles with addiction. She said she finds peace in little things: rainbows, red birds and wind chimes.
“When I’m at my worst moment, something will happen,” she said, describing a moment when a rainbow materialized over her house after a storm, a bird singing on a line above her porch and a Christian song describing freedom from slavery.
A gift of wind chimes reminds her of Tommy’s love for music. She has always loved wind chimes, but these ones are special, standing about three-feet high and producing deep tones. She has become attuned to the first reverberations of the chimes before the melody begins.
“I feel like that is him saying he loves me, and I feel like he’s near,” she said. “You look for those moments.”
While she continues to mourn her son, she said she is learning to take one day at a time in the healing process.
She looked across her yard from her wind chime haven, speaking of plans to turn the serene landscape into a sanctuary. Tommy used to help her with the gardening, but she will find a way herself, she said. A breeze whisked through the porch, catching many chimes in chorus as the heat of the day began to cool into night. She lightly touched the wind chimes.
“One more day,” she said.