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‘My daughter was really smart’

A mother describes a child’s descent into substance use and ultimate death from an overdose

Carol’s daughter was 47 when she died of an overdose in a Burlington motel last January. Her daughter had fought substance abuse disorder and other mental health problems for much of her life, beginning in adolescence.

Carol is a pseudonym, and the names in this account have been omitted or withheld to protect the privacy of her grandchildren. Like so many stories about the tragic and untimely deaths of people who came to depend on opiates, it did not start where it ended.

“My daughter was really smart,” said Carol. “She got a college degree, and she was able to do a lot of things. She just kept up with current events, and she had a tremendous sense of humor. She was really an interesting, nice person.”

“Her life just didn’t unfurl evenly,” she said. “There was a part of her that I think identified with the low life, as smart and capable as she was, and she gravitated to them. And that started when she was in her mid-teens.”

Carol’s daughter began using various drugs when she was young. The mental health issues emerged later. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa.”

She said that her daughter was in her 20s or 30s when her daughter started coping with a significant psychiatric disorder. She was treated with psychiatric medications — with some success — but was not stable.

“She would bounce back and forth to functioning and not functioning,” Carol said, “and she has three children, the oldest of whom is 26.”

Carol took in her oldest grandson to live with her for a number of years when her daughter could not take care of him or during one of the periods when she was incarcerated. The two younger children are now 10 and 11.

Asked about the services her daughter had received and whether anything could have been different, Carol said that she didn’t know, but that it seemed unlikely.

“She was really a con artist, and she was very good; and she knew all about drugs, and she could figure out what drugs she wanted to take,” Carol said. “And she would manipulate.”

“She just lied so easily that you couldn’t tell if she was lying or not,” she continued. “I honestly don’t know. She was in rehab so many times, and she just had an attitude that she didn’t need that stuff.”

“Her whole problem was that she thought she was smarter than everybody and in most cases, she was,” Carol said.

Carol said that she had not used any support groups during the years that her daughter struggled, but that she was planning to attend a group, Compassionate Friends, where people who have lost children can gather and support one another.

“The children lived with her very, very briefly here in Brattleboro before she went haywire and was arrested again,” Carol said.

Eventually, her daughter began living in Burlington, and the children went into foster care.

“I knew that she wasn’t going to live to be into her old age,” Carol said. “I just knew that, because not only her mental health was deteriorating, but her physical health was. And it wasn’t surprising to me.”

‘I knew that was it’

Carol said that her daughter’s attitude toward treatment and recovery changed when at Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation program in Brattleboro, last winter, where she became free from drugs. Carol attributes the success to the regular drug testing in that program.

“She said, ‘I know I can’t use again because I will die,’” Carol said.

But while there, her daughter “became threatening to other people in the house, and they had to remove her, which they did in the night,” Carol said.

The police, she said, “just took her right up to Burlington and put her in a motel room.”

“And she had no services, no connection to anybody. And I knew that was it.”

“It took three weeks I think before she died, but her mental health had deteriorated to the point that even if she had had all the help in the world, I think she was just so damaged by the years of not living well,” Carol said.

“It was not surprising to me to know,” she said.

“And then, of course, you go through all these other things like, ‘You know, I should have done this, or I could have done that,’” she added. “You always wonder if maybe you could have done things a little differently.”

A life erased

After her daughter overdosed and died, “I had to go up to Burlington to get her stuff,” said Carol.

“I think she had cleaned everything out,” Carol said. In her journal, all the pages were ripped out. It was as if she left no trail. Everything was clean.”

“It still was sad because I think — and you probably hear this from other people — that you just always have hope that they’re going to straighten up. And so when there’s a death involved, then the hope is gone.”


“Yeah,” said Carol, “that’s kind of what was my biggest feeling.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #630 (Wednesday, September 15, 2021). This story appeared on page C5.

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Amid disruption from Covid, the opioid epidemic still rages on: Deaths by overdose have exceeded the casualties of COVID-19. With the problems and solutions of opioid use even more complicated by the pandemic, a new police chief in Brattleboro, and heightened awareness to shift focus to substance use as a medical condition, can we find a balance between public health and law enforcement? • Read story

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• About this section: Read credits

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