A Sister’s Grief and Charity

When my friend Alex was found dead, his sister Chelsea started an organization that turned the tragedy into something far more than a sad loss.

grave-recoveryIn 2008, I flew home from college for winter break. That very next evening my friend Alex, whom I had known since kindergarten, was found dead, cold and blue in his room. He was only 20.

We don’t often think of friendships in terms of finitude. In fact, we think in terms just the opposite. We cast-off into the horizon of time, where we envision ourselves living in the future, perhaps in a city somewhere, with memories and friends discussing the moments being lived out right now.

The world is absurd. And the fact is, life is indifferent to your plans and expectations. When we are faced with moments—often senseless tragedies—like the death of a dear friend who had too much heroin and benzodiazepine in his bloodstream, is when life calls upon us to respond to its indifference.

Maybe I responded with weakness. I kept living my life as if that dreary December day in Chicago’s cozy, affluent suburbs never happened. For a long time, I even tried my best to forget. But Alex had a sister, Chelsea. And since her brother’s death in 2008, she has responded to life with vigor. She started an organization that turned Alex’s tragedy into something far more than a sad loss. Chelsea was years older than Alex and I, so the two of us weren’t really acquainted until recent years. Below is an interview discussing Chelsea’s present-day life. We discuss her activism, overdose prevention, her thoughts on families and addiction, and how she found meaning in misfortune.

Tell me about Live4Lali, the organization you co-founded and are now executive director of?

We’re a labor of love, developed by my family and I after my brother Alex died from an opiod/benzodiazepine overdose in 2008. Almost six years ago, when we started this, we didn’t know what we wanted it to be, but we knew we wanted it to be awareness-focused. There was so much we didn’t know. To get off a plane and find out that your brother is dead from a disease you didn’t know he had, or had the ability to get, is traumatizing. Over time, Live4Lali became something more than having glorified picnics in Alex’s memory every summer. We felt as though it was more important to understand what is happening in the community, and when we say “community” we mean the Chicagoland community, but we also mean nationally, to understand the ins and outs of the systems that are working together.

I eventually became researcher/educator/preventionist/consoler/salesperson/explorer of this entire epidemic, which is, I guess, what we’re going to call it here in Chicago. All of that led to us building our school and community education programs for youth and parents, and hosting overdose prevention trainings. In addition to all of the advocacy stuff, we fight for people who are no longer here, or for those who don’t have the voice to do so because they have been ostracized and stigmatized.

Fair to say you have committed your life to this cause?

Yep. I quit my marketing job. This work is all I do now. But the marketing background has really helped me with this cause. It’s understanding human behavior and human nature, that is what we’re after here. A lot of people don’t see drugs or drug addiction fitting into their world, so it is part of my job to get the attention of people who are not impacted, or who don’t think it will ever be part of their lives.

You once wrote “Tragedy shatters people, but over time, it became motivating for me to fight against the ignorance our country has towards drug addiction.” So where does that motivation come from? The spark, I guess, that propelled you to commit your life to this work.

I can never see my brother again. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, in this life or any other life, and that is very, very painful. So, I feel like I got gipped, and i don’t want anybody, ever, to have to deal with that. If I can help just one family or one person to see that things can be very, very different with just basic education about drugs, about the brain, about mental illness, then I feel like my work for that day is complete. I have done my work.

But the main motivation always comes back to Alex. Oddly enough, I feel like Alex would find all of this, the work that I do, way too dramatic and scary. He was uncomfortable being serious, especially in front of a lot people. I can sometimes hear him, I think, asking, “Do you really need to say that? Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?” But, I am dramatic and I do say things that might be over the top. But it is not just about Alex anymore, even though for me it is always because of him. It is really for all of the people who have been left behind. It has really grown and gotten much bigger. I don’t think that Alex was any more special than you or the next person I talk to. But it’s really harrowing, to meet other people who have been through this, and know that their lives are as deeply shattered as yours.

Have a lot of people you team up with been impacted, either by having lost a loved one to accidental overdose or friends who have lost someone this way? What it is like being a resource for these people given the nature of it being so tragic?

Most of the people who reach out are directly impacted, or friends who find the cause particularly important and have somehow connected with it, simply because it is a human relevancy. I think that in a way people have found a haven in this work. They have somewhere they feel like they can contribute to the eventual end of this, to the enlightenment of our community and our culture and I think that gives them a sense of accomplishment, and most of all the feeling that their loved one did not die in vain. Not everybody who is impacted does this work, but grief works in very interesting ways and looks different for everyone.

Being part of a community, and more importantly, giving back to that community, are widespread principles within the recovery culture. It seems that no matter what ideology one subscribes to in terms of treating addiction or even maintaining a healthy life in general, community participation is essential. Can you speak to how community engagement, through your work in the organization, has changed the way you relate to yourself or  the world around you?

I think it humbles you. No matter what you’ve been through, community efforts, whether to support you, or in a support-group setting to actually make change, whatever that is, at the end of the day, you just realize that it is not just about you. With what we know about addiction and the family disease model, we recognize that it is a selfish disease. But that has nothing to do with one’s intention, it’s in the behaviors and messages of the person suffering. But when you are put in a situation where you have to realize that this person has been through something similar to what you have been through, they’re no different than you, they may be in recovery themselves, they’re trying, they’re here. I think it brings a united effect, we’re all in this together, might sound cheesy, but that is what it is. If we don’t start to unite more, we will not be able to attack this at the level it deserves.

I believe that the recovery environment itself is incredibly beneficial— of course, I also see some issues with it. There is a lot of discrimination within the recovery community, as far as like what route is better— medically-assisted treatment or abstinence only treatment? That is a huge one that I know we’re having issues with right now. But the fact that we can sit in a room and talk about those kinds of issues is great, and at the end of the day, as a community, we have determined that we are all suffering, maybe in a different way, and it doesn’t matter how you’re suffering from it, but that the person sitting across from you gets it, or is trying to get it.

In that debate, between medically-assisted vs. abstinence only recovery, which side are you on?

I am for whatever works for anyone individually, that side, if that’s a side. As I said, we cannot generalize this, just like we cannot generalize cancer, HIV/AIDS, or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms are there, but the results vary for each person.

For instance, what opioid maintenance or anti-craving medication works for Joe Shmoe down the street may not work for you. Just like how group therapy works better for some and one-on-one therapy better for others. It’s the same thing with anti-depressants, sometimes you have to try different brands to figure out what works with your chemistry. At the end of the day, drugs like those are out there to help you. I do understand the criticism and that the goal is not to be dependent on substances, but the world is imperfect, and it’s an imperfect disease, and it’s wrong for people to say that it is wrong to go that [medically-assisted] route. I guess, I’m in the middle.

The middle is a good place to be, I think. I know you take more of a harm reduction approach and do a lot of Naloxone trainings. When you train people actively using, what do you tell them?

If you are going to use, have naloxone and use with someone else so they can save you, because you can’t save yourself. Using alone is a recipe for disaster. Read more “the fix”…

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