To All Who Have Lost Someone to Overdose

Tyler James Carr was my best friend. We met as freshmen at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. I was the last person to speak to him, other than the person who came to next to his lifeless body, on April 26th, 2007. His fiancée came to me that morning and we drove to their house, the one he hadn't come home to the night before. As we tried to get the place in order, every item was emotionally overwhelming. Tickets to an upcoming concert she bought him, a favorite book, the smell of a shirt. She collapsed onto the bed in tears. I lay with her, holding her shallow breaths and jerking pangs of grief. For a moment I felt her body relax, as if her body believed he was there with her again.

In Amarillo, TX, I met his father. He opened a 20-year-old bottle of scotch he had been saving for his son's wedding day. We smoked cigars and drank scotch, pouring a little bit out on the pavement for him. That was supposed to be their moment, and I tried to be the friend he had been to me. The next day I saw "T", and put my hand on his chest. It felt hollow. With my arm around his mother, we rocked as she sang him to sleep one last time. The procession of cars that day was unlike anything I had ever seen, but that's Texas. I'll never forget the color of his casket against the grass, exposed ground, and Amarillo sky as my friend returned to the earth. I said the final words, something about heaven.

What is so tragic, is that overdoses often kill people the first time they use a drug. Family and friends, entire communities, are left stunned, with a sense of terror that maybe they never really knew the person at all. "My baby would never do that," is so often the first thought. Questions naturally follow about what else people might not have known about the life of the deceased, or who was responsible, or what could have been done. But there just doesn't seem to be an answer that takes away any of the pain.

The other time overdoses most often strike is when people return to use after achieving a period of abstinence. It's awful. For a moment it looked like there was hope, the light had returned to their eyes, and they had a whole new life ahead of them. And then one phone call erases all of it.

A few months before Tyler died, my dad stopped taking my calls. He had heard that I had been using heroin and I denied it, refusing help. But when Tyler died, dad helped me get to Amarillo. He met me at the Albuquerque Airport on a stopover. I'll never forget our conversation that day. "You just need to get to the other side of this. I've seen the good you can be in the world, you just need to get to the other side of drug addiction." The other side, what I know today as recovery, is something I had no concept of at that time, and it would take more pain and tragedy before I could learn.

For years my dad has called me at the end of April to honor this past. During this year's call I looked out of my office window in Oregon at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to see a family of deer appear by the trees lining the campus. This year it felt different.

It wasn't that long ago that I sat across from a 20-year-old named Tyler, struggling to stay off heroin. My friend may be gone, but I'm constantly reminded of the opportunity to do something different remains right in front of me today. In this last year, I saw an update online that my friend's mother had become a counselor herself. On her birthday I was able to send her a letter that I had recently brought Tyler's story with me to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, sharing that his life continues to influence the world even today.

To all those who have lost a loved one to overdose,

They may be gone, but what never has to leave, is your memory of them for who they really were. The fact that they used drugs doesn't invalidate all that was good in them and their lives. It doesn't reflect negatively on you or any other person. It reflects on all of us together, and how much collective suffering still needs healing in the world. It reflects on our lack of available treatment, lifesaving medications, progressive policy, and visibility of people who have found long-term recovery from addiction.

If everyone who ever lost a loved one to overdose came together and joined us in encouraging expanded access to the opioid antidote Naloxone, and supporting “Good Samaritan” laws which encourage people without the antidote to call 911 for help when they witness an overdose without fear of being arrested themselves for drug possession or being under the influence, maybe all of this pain could mean something. Maybe one less human being would have to leave so tragically.

Before I can hit submit on this post, my phone rings. It's a distressed mother who has found needles amongst her son's things. It's my lips that move, but it's Tyler that speaks.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Buster Ross.