What If—When the Opioid Crisis Hits Home

What If—When the Opioid Crisis Hits Home - student project

When I was five years old, my little sister—Taylor—almost drowned in the pool we had out back behind the house. She was playing with a plastic tea set by the water’s edge when she slipped in without anyone realizing. My uncle finally saw her floating there like one of those cherubs in a Michelangelo painting and dove in after her, clothes and all. He fished her out, her small body blue and limp in his arms. My mom called the ambulance while my uncle performed CPR. “My baby,” she screamed into the receiver, over and over, hysteria igniting through her voice in harsh gasps. “My baby!”

A family friend took me and my brother to the front of the house where she said that it was okay. Everything was going to be alright, she said through sobs, tears falling down her face, her mascara bleeding. The sound of sirens—first distant—became louder and louder until those haunting lights colored my childhood home in flashes of blue and red. I covered my ears to drown out the piercing scream of the sirens, but it didn’t help. I watched as my parents got into the back of the ambulance with Taylor, her small body so out of place on a stretcher meant to carry grown ups. The ambulance sped off to the hospital with most of my family inside, leaving me and my brother in the front yard wondering if we still had a little sister or not.

No one’s sure how long she was actually in the pool. The doctors said that my uncle had found her just in the nick of time. As a child, I wasn’t sure what the unit of measurement used to distinguish between a dead sister and an alive sister was, but—at the time—I thought I had someone named Nick to thank for keeping her alive.

In that scenario, there are so many ifs. What if Taylor was never gifted the toy tea set? What if there had been a gate around the pool like my parents had thought of installing when we first moved there? What if my uncle hadn’t been at the party? What if he hadn’t found her—as the doctors said—in the nick of time?

Now, fifteen years later, I find myself in the Memorial Oaks Funeral Home chapel, Taylor’s body lying in a casket before me. She is only twenty. Or was.

Her skin is painted with thick mortician’s makeup, her hair in beautiful ringlets cascading down her shoulders and her eyes shut tight, those blue eyes never to open again. For the viewing, we picked an iron maiden t-shirt and some blue jeans. It’s what she would have wanted. If you look closely, you can see the needle marks like braille upon her skin beneath all the makeup coloring the inside of her left arm.

I take a minute to assess the ifs. What if Taylor hadn’t hung out with those bad friends in high school? What if she hadn’t started drinking so young? What if she hadn’t started experimenting with drugs—first weed and then harder stuff like cocaine then meth then heroin? And then what if she hadn’t met the boyfriend she would go on to have a baby with at the age of nineteen? What if that guy had never been a heroin addict? What if Taylor had received psychiatric help for her depression and never felt so bad that she felt the need to put a needle to her arm and pull the trigger?

Yeah. What if?

I’m of the belief that we all have a dark side—something inside of us that haunts our hearts and minds that is ugly and twisted. It’s the side of us that lies, cheats, hurts, and destroys. No one is exempt from the cold, hard truth of this shadow inside of our souls. It’s just that some people’s demons are a lot stronger than others’.

Taylor’s demons were her own. She fought tooth and nail with her it for the majority of her short twenty years on earth, and hers happened to be addiction. Her drug of choice: heroin. Her drug abuse was something that my family kept quiet. That’s just the way people born and raised in small Texas towns deal with things like that. We keep it hush-hush, ashamed of what the youth leader of Champion Fellowship next door or that one friend you went to high school with might think or say. I, myself, am no exception. I played my own part in hiding the ugly truth of what my sister was struggling with, only further deepening the stigma that surrounds drug addiction and those who are held captive by its awful power.

If there’s anything that can attest to the damning power of opioids, it’s that it turned someone as enigmatic and promising as my sister upside down as it’s done to countless others, undiscriminating in its taste for human life. When you’re dealing with addiction, there’s always something knocking at your door—temptation, disappointment, depression, misery, shame. It’s a whole parade of monstrous characters, unrelenting and intent on dragging you down into the darkest depths of yourself, peering through the window all the while to see if you’re home and taking advantage of that all-consuming hunger for the next fix gnawing at your stomach. The final knock on the door was when the police came to our front door.

“Are you the mother of Taylor Allie?” the officer asked my mother. She immediately crumbled to her knees, knowing all too well what the man was going to tell her before he could even get the words “drug overdose” out past the defense of his lips.

What if?

What if we decided not to tread lightly on this subject that’s been kept in the shadows for far too long? What if we gave up the pretenses of pride and perfection to do something really important for once in our Instagram-worthy lives? Heroin is known by many names. Diamorphine. Tar. Smack. Dope. Shakespeare wrote, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Conversely, heroin by any other name would be just as sick and lethal no matter what name it’s given.

Here is the truth: heroin is an opioid that was first marketed as a non-addictive alternative to the highly addictive drug known as morphine. But they were wrong. Heroin is now most commonly used as a recreational drug for its intense euphoric effects. The intense feeling of elation that heroin gives you leaves you always wanting more whether it’s your first time or, like my sister on August 7th, 2018, your very last. Becoming addicted to heroin and other opioids is so easy. Too easy for its immense consequences.

Upon the passing of our uncle and my mother’s late brother—John David—who also suffered so cruelly from the ravages of addiction, Taylor got a tattoo on her left arm with words from one of the letters he wrote to his mother when he was so deeply lost inside the woes of addiction. The words read, “I wish I was around to stand outside the madness and just watch and smile.”

My only comfort in all this is that Taylor is now outside all the madness, at peace at last and away from all the darkness and the sickness. The hurting and the pain. Now, she’s watching all the madness from the outside with that smile that could light up even the darkest of rooms.

Addiction may have an awful prowess, but we can be stronger still. We can actively choose to make a difference instead of judging those who are being put through the awful wringer known as addiction. Help them. Love them. Support them. Hold them tight to you, because you never know when addiction will rear its head and steal that person away from you on a cruel, late summer evening. And make no mistake; in its action of taking away that special someone, it will also rip from your very chest an irreplaceable piece of your heart as it kicks the air from your lungs and leaves you gasping on the floor for a life that is dead and gone to this world forever more.

I love you, Taylor. You will always be my bright-sunshine, blue-eyed girl with an old soul and the untamable heart of a white Mustang driving down the backroads of Brenham, TX, and wherever else your tempestuous spirit brought you with the windows rolled all the way down and the music blaring. And even though peace has found you at last, I will always and forever wish you were here and wonder.

What if we could save just one life by changing the conversation and not falling back into contrived habits of shaming those afflicted by the disease known as addiction?

What if we decided to make a difference?

What if?

Austin Allie
Writer & Creator