“It felt so shameful to tell anyone that my sister had died of an overdose”

She says things like “mommy’s an angel” but I don’t think she really understands.
She says things like “mommy’s an angel” but I don’t think she really understands.
Image: Giulia Bertelli/Unsplash
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This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Lisa, mid-20s

My mom called me at 7:30 that morning. I was still in bed and dragging my feet after a long night. She asked me what I was doing and I didn’t tell her the truth because I didn’t want to feel guilty about not having started my day yet. And then she told me. It was very point blank, really. There wasn’t very much emotion in her voice. And I kept telling her: “shut up, just shut up.”

The last year of my sister’s life was very painful. She’d always had trouble with addiction—mostly alcohol—but then she started dating this guy who got her into heroin. He was the one who called 911. The police called my mother. And I called my other sister. That’s how everyone came to know that she’d died, except my niece—her daughter—who was only three at the time. She says things like “mommy’s an angel” but I don’t think she really understands. I think she’s still waiting for her mommy to come back.

My sister was really funny and she had a loud, bubbly personality. She seemed to always be in a good mood, too, so we never really grasped the full extent of her pain. Part of me feels guilty for not seeing this coming. I remember that she texted all of us when she got her 30-day sobriety coin; she was so proud. I didn’t even text her back.

After Nora died, I started forming some bad habits of my own. I went on drinking binges every night for months. It got really bad around the anniversary of her death. I’d just call people—it didn’t even matter whom—and hide my alcoholism under the pretext that I was young and having a good time. My relationships, my work, and my health started suffering.

My boyfriend and his parents were very supportive during this time. He comes from an upper middle class family of overachievers. If they’ve dealt with addiction, they certainly don’t speak about it openly. It felt so shameful to tell anyone that my sister had died of a heroin overdose. The way she died felt indecent, illicit—dark—so unlike the person she’d been. It was even more shameful when her death made me confront my own unhealthy habits.

Nora’s death hit our other sister really hard. She is so aggressive and angry, and I get such anxiety when she texts or calls me because I never know what she’s going to say—I feel like she’s bound to lash out at me. And when I don’t respond, I can hear her thinking: “Nora would have answered…” So I don’t really have anyone I can talk to about what happened. It’s as if we’re all trying our hardest to euphemize the circumstances of Nora’s death.

The day she died, we went to her apartment. I started panicking when I was there because I couldn’t remember anything about her. I couldn’t remember what she looked like, or any of my childhood memories of her. While rummaging through her things, I found the journal she’d kept while she was in rehab. I read about all of the medication she was on and what she was feeling. I read how much self-hate she felt, and how down she was about her life. It was shocking; it was as if I hadn’t known her at all. I felt so disconnected.

But there’s one thing that always brings her rushing back to me, and it’s the way that she smelled. I took her perfume from her apartment the day that she died, and whenever I’m missing her, I take off the cap and breathe her in. I don’t want to spray it because I’m afraid that once it’s gone, I’ll forget her.

I can feel her around me sometimes. I was making sandwiches at the beach this past summer and I couldn’t stop smelling her—it was like this bubble of her was surrounding me everywhere I went. It’s comforting, but so far from enough.