Viral Opioid Obituary — And Police Chief's Response — Show Journey Of Addiction, Resilience

Oct 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: This hour discusses topics of drug addiction that some listeners may find disturbing or offensive.

If you or anyone you know is living with addiction and depression, there are resources available for help. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website or call the helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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With David Folkenflik

A sister’s obituary for a young Vermont mother’s opioid addiction went viral. So did the response from the Burlington, Vermont, police chief. Also, we hear from Beth Macy, author of “Dopesick.”

Guests

Kate O’Neill, her sister, Madelyn Linsenmeir died Oct. 7.

Brandon del Pozo, police chief (@OneNorthAvenue) of Burlington, Vermont. (@BrandondelPozo)

Beth Macy, author and journalist. Author of “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America.” (@papergirlmacy)

Interview Highlights

On the open and direct discussion of Maddie’s addiction in her obituary

Kate O’Neill: “Honestly, it didn’t even occur to me not to talk about that. It was part of what defined her adult life. It didn’t define her, but it a lot of how she lived her life. In the times that she was in sobriety, she was struggling to stay there. And when she wasn’t in sobriety, she was living in a lot of darkness. So I wanted her obituary to reflect both the love and light that she brought into the world, and also the darkness that she and so many people experience as a result of this disease.”

On the kind of person Maddie was

KO: “She was earnest and had a beautiful singing voice. She was a pleasure to be around and had a great sense of humor. She loved her family so much, and we loved her in return. To see the descent that she experienced as a result of her addiction has been so, so painful. Right up until the end she fought it and brought all of those beautiful qualities into our lives, as well as a lot of fear and despair, which, again hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing.”

On what Maddie and those experiencing addiction need

KO: “I think people need an understanding of what a prescription opiate-based painkiller does and can do. She took a pill at a party having no idea. And then when she became addicted, access to services — we live in Vermont and it was a two-hour drive across the state to get to rehab. I remember one time driving her — it’s actually closer to three hours — and when we got there the bed that she had been promised wasn’t available and we were told it was going to be a week before it was. Medication-assisted treatment, I think is key, so access to buprenorphine and methadone. Maddie had to stand in line for methadone every day which makes it incredibly difficult for people to lead lives, have jobs. And then services when people leave treatment, so that they are re-acclimated and supported as they try to stay sober.”

On del Pozo’s reaction to what Kate had written

Brandon del Pozo: “When Mayor Miro Weinberger appointed me chief of police in September of 2015, the first thing he said at the podium that day was, ‘I’d like my chief of police to help this city turn the tide on the opioid crisis.’ That was a mandate that I took seriously, it involved a lot of learning, a lot of research. I was not a public health professional — I’m still not, chief of police is my role. But when I saw that obituary, I started following it more closely, it’s path through the world, because we were going to talk about Maddie at our opioid policy meetings. The breaking point for me was when it got picked up by People magazine, because People does not stay in business by dealing with difficult topics, and this is one of the most difficult ones in America. And when it did, I said, ‘This is what it took?’ There are a quarter of a million obituaries that could have been written before this, all for human beings that took this path in life and left pain and loss behind. And People magazine wrote this obituary. That was where I got my rancor up a little.

“I wrote it — I was trying to fall asleep — and I wrote it as a Facebook post in bed at about 11:30 at night. I hit send with a little bit of — not trepidation, I thought it would just go to a few thousand Facebook friends. But it went much further.”

From The Reading List

Seven Days: “Obituary: Madelyn Linsenmeir, 1988-2018” — “It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay. In a system that seems to have hardened itself against addicts and is failing them every day, she befriended and delighted cops, social workers, public defenders and doctors, who advocated for and believed in her ’til the end. She was adored as a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and mother, and being loved by Madelyn was a constantly astonishing gift.

“Maddie loved her family and the world. But more than anyone else, she loved her son, Ayden, who was born in 2014. She transformed her life to mother him. Every afternoon in all kinds of weather, she would put him in a backpack and take him for a walk. She sang rather than spoke to him, filling his life with song. Like his mom, Ayden loves to swim; together they would spend hours in the lake or pool. And she so loved to snuggle him up, surrounding him with her love.

“After having Ayden, Maddie tried harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything. But she relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son, a loss that was unbearable.”

Burlington Free Press: “Burlington police chief reacts to Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir obituary: ‘I have a problem’” — “I have a problem with this obituary.

“Born here in Burlington, Madelyn was the 30-year old mother of a toddler. She was beloved by her family. She became addicted to opiods when she was 16 after she tried Oxy at a party. When her addiction finally killed her last week, after she battled it for nearly half her life, a family member with a talent for expression wrote her the honest and moving obituary she truly deserved. It went viral. It’s being read across the country. It’s in People, the Globe, HuffPost, and the Daily News. My problem with it is that it’s a much better obituary than the rest of us deserve.

“Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?”


Excerpt from “Dopesick” by Beth Macy

Excerpted from the book DOPESICK by Beth Macy. Copyright © 2018 by Beth Macy. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.


Earlier in the week, President Trump signed new opioid legislation into law. But the discussion in Washington often obscures the human toll. In recent days, a woman who died from opioid addiction was honored in a heartfelt obituary by her grieving sister that went viral. And it inspired a police chief’s public plea for policies to treat addicts as people who are struggling — not criminals. They both join us along with Beth Macy, author of the book “Dopesick.”

This hour, On Point: a human look at the opioid crisis and the pursuit of hope.

— David Folkenflik

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.