A Little Adrift… On Death, Addiction, and Our Humanity

Last updated on May 12, 2019

The loud rustling of leaves suffused the air around me as the strong winds danced with the branches on the dense oak trees nearby. The breeze on my face cooled the hot tears running down my cheeks, but did nothing to stop the flow as I sat on the side of a small mountain in Bergamo, Italy.

I had no reason to wipe my tears as I stared at the city far below, my solitude was complete and the tears were far from finished. I stared and stared into the open space in front of me, aware but not processing the sweeping views of the Italian countryside. The avalanche flowing from my eyes was nothing new, but the emotional force behind the tears was stronger than previous days.

This was the first time I cried alone.

For more than a week my family, friends, and fellow students surrounded my every waking moment until I had simply walked out of my language class hours earlier, craving absolute silence.

Five days previously, I said my final goodbyes to my big brother.

A mere three days after his funeral, and only at the fierce prodding of all those people in my life who I love and respect, I boarded an airplane bound for northern Italy to resume my summer study abroad program. The thought of continuing seemed ludicrous to me. Absurd. How could I pick up where I had left off? The Italian gibberish surrounding me was incomprehensible as my mind cocooned itself from others to protect me from the physical solitude I lacked.

The sympathetic and empty pats on my arm.

Askew glances from those unwilling to look me in my eyes and witness my grief.

So, I ditched class early and took the funicolare as far up the mountainside as it would take me. Bergamo is a city divided into two parts: the lower city, Città Bassa, and the upper city, Città Alta. What few realize is that the funiculare crawls even farther up the mountain, past the upper city and into San Vigilio, a quieter settlement with ruins and rocks and open space.

I ventured far enough up the mountain to see the entire countryside below me before I found a thick rock wall wide enough to hold my body. I hunched onto the wall, squeezing my knees to my chest and holding myself together as I tried to come to terms with my brother’s death.

Someone had asked me, “well, you knew it was coming right?”

No. Knowing it was the likely outcome of my brother’s opioid addiction never prepared me for the reality. I was blindsided by the fact that someone could actually die. Be gone. He was gone. No, there is no way to prepare. I had hugged my brother goodbye three days before I boarded my plane to Italy. I would never do that again.

No. I didn’t know it was coming.

I watched the matchbox cars drive the streets far below. The cacophonous rustling of the trees drowned out my racing thoughts.

I just wanted to stop thinking. I wanted my brother back. I wanted the pain to go away.

I hurled my thoughts into the circling wind in front of me. As curse words exploded into the air I realized it was me shouting those angry words. I flung the angry and unjust pieces of my broken soul into the wind. I sat on that mountainside and time stopped around me. If I sat there for long enough, if I released the pain and begged whatever higher powers exist for understanding, if I did that, then maybe understanding would come.

Hours passed. Maybe just minutes.

And as my fury subsided, grief settled over me again. I rested my chin on my knees and hugged my legs into my chest. I forced my thoughts and feelings back inside my head and heart. I wrapped my grief around me like a blanket, a protection from the platitudes coming my way the moment I returned to town.

Then the first gong of a church bell rang out over the city from Città Alta.

The breeze carried the crisp sound to my ears as I cocked my head askew, listening to the tingling ring fade away. Another bell clanged from the lower city, the sound drifting farther and lighter. It settled its music over my little piece of solitude. More echoes traveled up the mountain as churches all over the city began their evening aural ballet for one woman sitting, alone, on a nearby mountain.

And for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt connected to a pulse of shared humanity. Those bells, rung by the hands of humans miles away from my rock ledge, opened up a fissure of healing. Just a small, niggling piece of hope at that moment, but a connection nonetheless. A connection to to myself, to my brother, and to humanity. To this very day, each time I find myself standing at a spectacular vista somewhere in the world I take a moment to remember my brother, to feel gratitude for my life, and to send out positivity and love to every person on Earth.

One of my older brothers died in July 2005. He was just 27 years old—too young to lose his life. He battled serious addiction and died of a drug overdose.

This post was sparked by hearing conversations about addiction that range from vitriolic hatred to dispassionate misunderstanding.

The opioid crisis has taken a huge toll on American families. My story is one of many; unremarkable in many ways because it is, unfortunately, a too common occurrence across the country. My brother died early in the epidemic, before any national understanding about the tough situation facing us. Shortly after my brother died, my sister-in-law and cousin died of an opioid overdose, too. I’m from Florida, a state that was ground-zero for the crisis that would sweep the nation. But the knowledge about the opioid crisis—about what it looked like, about how to recognize and immediately treat overdose victims—would only come years later. By the time I understood what took my brother’s life, long after the shock wore off, that’s when I realized what was facing the entire United States. In 2005, my brother’s death was shocking. Then when my sister-in-law followed suit four years later, it was equally as shocking. Opioid abuse was not making headlines. One day my brother was just a phone call away; then he was not.

My brother died of a drug overdose. Some may think that exempts him from compassion, but he was my brother. No fault or flaw or addiction changes that single fact. I rarely write about my brother publicly, but the lack of meaningful conversation about addiction is serious. We point fingers and talk about a person’s choices and yet don’t ask why addiction exists, we don’t ask about the role drug companies play in prescribing dangerous and addictive prescription drugs. More than anything though, we too often don’t see another’s pain as an opportunity to investigate what we are doing to as a society to help addicts. Why aren’t more of us fighting the misinformation and the society that has allowed an epidemic to rise to these dangerous levels?

Even beyond the death of the person—a tragedy—addiction splinters families. It rips apart the fabric holding loved ones together and for those looking on, it seems impossible to stop the spiral. It’s an out of control race to the bottom. And it’s hurting our country, our communities, and our families.

Losing a loved one hurts deeply. Hearing that loved one’s life summarily dismissed also hurts deeply. Let’s be better about talking about this crisis. Let’s do better about stopping the crisis and those profiting off of poor families. The very moment we stop feeling compassion and respect for each person on this planet, we lose a piece of our shared humanity. We can do better than we are right now. We must.

31 thoughts on “A Little Adrift… On Death, Addiction, and Our Humanity”

  1. Thank you for this. I feel alone and unable to find a support group in my area for this kind of thing. I’ve been struggling with my younger brothers death just 5 months ago and with his birthday just a few days away, I feel it even more.
    Your post helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. Thank you

    • It can feel so isolating Shawna, and I am so sorry to hear that you’ve had a tough time finding the support you need. Your local hospice organization may offer free counseling services for those going through something similar. You are not alone Shawna—sending love your way.

  2. Anna,

    I am currently coping with the loss of my brother from an opioid addiction as well. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Thank you very much for this piece.  It sums up my thoughts and feelings regarding loss and addiction exactly.  I lost my brother 2 years ago of a drug overdose; he was 30.  I’ve actually taken to telling people “he died in his sleep,” rather than to see the smug look they get when told it was drugs.  He was my best friend, and I miss him everyday.  I hope that one day, people can look at those who are addicts, and instead of seeing the problem, see the person.

  4. Thanks for writing this, Shannon. I’m so sorry for your loss. It must have been really frustrating to read all those reports about Amy Winehouse’s death, many of which are written with no experience of drug addiction. I’m in London at the moment and the press has absolutely gone nuts with the amount of coverage, some of which is just ridiculous. Thankfully there are also people, like you, who are highlighting how awful and soulless some of the perspectives are.

    I was chatting with a psychologist friend a few weeks ago about why people are often so openly judgemental of fat people and why it has become more and more socially acceptable to publicly comment on and ridicule them. She was talking about how society has come to view lack-of-control as one of the key failings of a human being. Like you said, people who eat/drink/take drugs too much are bringing any consequences upon themselves – it’s their fault because they won’t summon the willpower to limit themselves. It’s a really sad phenomenon that addictions aren’t seen as a mental disorder in the same way that something like schizophrenia is, an affliction that someone suffers from rather than a fault of character. My friend was saying that part of the reason for this is that people are aware that they too could be completely hedonistic in their lifestyle and put an immense amount of energy into avoiding excess and ensuing consequences; addiction is perceived as a personal responsibility instead of a societal problem. I think many of the reactions to Winehouse’s death (and deaths from addictions in general) come from that ‘personal problem’ place; it’s the same place that houses the idea that addicts will just “pull themselves together” when they hit “rock bottom”. I think community compassion and intervention need to be available and offered immediately and continually, because sometimes “rock bottom” is death, as your brother so sadly experienced.

    Anyway, apologies for rambling…guess I feel quite strongly about the subject. I think it’s lovely that you’ve integrated the memory of your brother into your life by thinking of him when you see the world’s beautiful vistas; it’s such a positive method of dealing with his loss. It’s sad that more people can’t channel that positivity and goodwill toward their fellow human beings. Thanks again for putting it out there.

  5. So beautiful, Shannon. I have to say, I was shocked that the one person I reached out to about Amy (I said something along the lines of it being so sad to die so young), and he was like, no, it’s not sad. It was more biting than that; I don’t remember and deleted. I actually felt sucker-punched that people could feel that way about human life. I’m so sorry for your loss and thank you for writing this.

  6. Beautiful post Shannon and really relevant and true words. Thank you for being brave enough to write it and allow us to think in a different way. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  7. Shannon, this post is so beautiful. I am sorry for your loss. I didn’t know that you lost your brother. He was so young and I know that it must have been (and still is difficult) for you. Your message rings true, everyone deserves compassion and humanity and I know that this article will hopefully change many people’s perception. I applaud your bravery in writing this, it must have been an emotional post to write, but thank you for sharing it with us all. Dave and I are thinking of you and looking forward to seeing you again soon.

  8. Wow, I wasn’t emotionally prepared for this post.  I too have a brother that has battled with drugs his whole life.  He is such a toxic person that I had to let him go from my life and in a way it was a death.  I miss him so much.  I’m so unbelievably sorry for you loss — there are no words.  If you EVER need to talk, know that I’m just en email away!

    • Andi, isn’t it something, to let go of someone who is alive . . . I’ve done it myself, am doing it now . . . I applaud your decision, and pray for your Peace

  9. I think you’re really brave to share this, Shannon. My uncle died of a drug overdose and addiction runs in my family on both sides, and it’s something that’s present in my mind a lot when I read about people like Amy Winehouse or your brother. 

  10. Niether was I.  Emotionally prepared for this.  The layers that compose our emotional skeletons are so complex, more than outsiders realize.  I wrestled with the same reactions on mental illness.  I’d be on a city bus and see an older woman step on who was clearly existing in her own head, homeless and wandering, meanwhile teenage boys would snicker and make “crazy” jokes. What those kids didn’t know is I saw my mother in her.  If it wasn’t for us (her kids) she likely would have been that same woman, boarding a bus and being judged and marginalized.  With nowhere to retreat.  

    Any illness that is difficult to grasp, whether addiction or mental illness has continually dug up polarizing, intense emotions… Some people just don’t know how to handle it until you’ve been in that position.  

    I applaud you for always honouring your brother’s memory and turning his life into something valuable and beautiful, even if nobody else did. 

  11. You have touched on so many of my feelings in the past few days. After Amy Winehouse’s death, I noticed a lot of people judging others for their grief or for not prioritizing the Norway shooting over an addict’s passing. In my mind, grief is grief and loss is loss and we need to extend compassion to the person who died and those who love him/her and have lived, regardless of the circumstances of one’s death. Thank you for this soulful, beautiful view into a very complex issue — and for the incredibly salient reminders on humanity.

  12. Your story was so genuine and so moving. I keep trying to think of something to say that will make things better, but I don’t think those words exist. I know what it’s like to watch someone you love die.

    Regarding Amy Winehouse, you make an excellent point in that people on the Internet are not showing enough compassion. She’s dead. How much more “punishment” for being a druggie does she need? People do need to look beyond the drugs, which, as you point out, are probably just a symptom of a bigger problem.

    But if I’m being completely candid, I have to admit I feel angry at Amy Winehouse for being dead. It’s NOT because I think she deserved to die; it’s because I think she deserved to live. I guess my anger is a misplaced way of dealing with grief — which is a little odd for me since I’m usually not affected by celebrities — but there it is. So maybe some of those random people who leave mean comments on the Internet are like that, simply angry to have lost someone they still really want to be alive.

  13. I offer our condolences. I have yet to experience a close family loss, but it’s still devastating for us to think of such a thing happening.  Thank you for making the difficult choice of sharing such a personal emotional experience.  You have a message that is close to your heart and it’s important that you share it, as you have. 

  14. No one deserves to be judged by anyone else in this world – life as an addict is difficult enough. I lost someone very close to me, a family member, as an indirect (barely) result of addiction and it would break my heart to hear someone else’s condemnation or flippant comments about that person’s life choices. I think it’s very easy for people to make anonymous comments online or to be cold or distant and callous with regards to someone they’ve never met. It’s cowardly. I’ve also been disgusted by some of the things I’ve heard people say about Winehouse this week. Unacceptable. May you find peace and comfort dealing with your own loss – your post is haunting and beautiful.  ~Andrea.

  15. I’m shocked and disgusted at how the media is treating Amy Winehouse’s death–like you said, as if she “brought it on herself.” Just this morning on the radio, someone said that the lesson to be learned from this was that you have to really have to want to be loved, that you have love yourself enough to change. Addiction is a disease, one that deserves to be treated with the same compassion as the way we treat cancer patients or people with mental illness. Thank you for sharing such a personal story that I’m sure must have been difficult to open up to the world–beautifully written. 

  16. I’m so sorry for your loss, Shannon. I can’t imagine losing my brother at such a young age. It’s troubling to me, too, that more and more, people posting on the Internet are becoming dehumanized. There’s no sensitivity filter, no empathy for other human beings. It’s bad enough when people use the anonymity of the Internet to make insulting comments about the way someone looks. But the response to Winehouse’s death has been really vicious. Her family is going to see all of those comments and it’s going to compound their pain. That’s not okay. My greatest fear is that these same people who are so desensitized to the suffering of others online are going to carry that over into their “real” lives and if that happens, the human race is completely doomed. Thank you so much for sharing this very personal story.

  17. I don’t know you, but I wish I could hug you tight. My heart aches for you, your loss, the pain you must feel at the judgmental condemnation of others who don’t understand. I’m so glad you were able to take time alone to feel whatever you needed to feel when you needed it most. I hope your heart continues to heal and grow stronger.

  18. Beautifully written Shannon. I am truly sorry for your loss. Shared humanity is sort of the whole purpose of being here, isn’t it?

  19. Yes, Shannon . . . Beautifully and bravely done.  I’ve added (as the brother of a manic depressive/bi-polar/borderline-schizofrenic/drug-user-abuser) my own thoughts to many Winehouse chats since her death.  These “27-er’s” shared many things, and almost – to my mind – least of all, drug addiction.  They shared being consummate creators/artist’s, and the very high incidence of mental illness in the artistic/creative community cannot be forgotten.  As a recovering alcoholic myself, I remember the first steps I took down a steep flight of stairs in San Francisco, to my first AA meeting, in tears, thinking (about alcohol) – “This is just a symptom . . . the tip of something larger . . . ”  I pray for you, for your parents, any siblings, for your brother – Peace.  

  20. Beautiful and sad. Thank you for sharing this with us, Shannon. And I’m so very sorry.

    And I’ve felt angry this week, regarding the reaction to Amy Winehouse’s death. I’ve felt disgusted at the comparisons with what’s happened in Norway, where I’ve been told “they were innocents – she *chose* her end”. And I’ve felt repulsed at what’s too often being said, the utterly heartless “she was a junkee – so what?”.

    None of us should feel comfortable at writing another human being off like that.

  21. This is a really moving post.  I cannot imagine dealing with that type of loss.  Thank you for sharing.

  22. A beautiful tribute, Shannon. It’s true, too often we don’t offer sympathy to those who battle addiction. We don’t allow ourselves to understand how difficult walking in the shoes of an addict must be. It’s easier to assign blame than to give mercy when it comes to something we don’t understand. I doubt there is a single addict out there that would ‘choose’ to have their burden. We should consider ourselves blessed when we look at our own health and not let the gratitude for that blind us from the struggles of others.


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