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'My Heart Died': A Sister Writes About Losing Her Brother to a Drug Overdose

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  • 'My Heart Died': A Sister Writes About Losing Her Brother to a Drug Overdose

    No one starts with a needle in his or her arm.
    Hidden within addiction is mental instability. We know that addicts do not just become users on a whim; there is a trigger caused by mental illness.
    Something triggered Derik, my younger brother, into the dark path of addiction. We never truly understood his trigger, which made the cycle of addiction worse for my family and me. Addiction took hold of Derik when he was just a young teen, trying the “small stuff” and loving the way it made him feel. It wasn’t until his adult years, when he was prescribed an opiate for pain management, that he got his first taste of a true high. The painkiller, a gateway drug, opened the door for Derik to try heroin – and boy, did it have its grip on him after he was introduced to it, the monster that would take control of his mind, body and soul.
    As angry as I am, I now understand that Derik’s addiction was a mental illness, and he could not choose the sober path. His body and warped mind chose heroin over sobriety, chose heroin over his daughter, Scarlet, and over the rest of us whom he left behind, now mourning the loss of a soul too young to depart.

    Derik Lawley, left, and his sister, Tara. Derik was addicted to heroin and died of a fentanyl overdose in Kensington in May 2015.
    Derik suffered on a daily basis for two and a half years with his demon, heroin. He loved his family and his daughter, but did not love his life. Heroin helped Derik escape his reality; it put him into a daze that allowed him to forget. He truly tried with all his might to tell his body that the fixes were not worth it, but his body and mind outweighed his heart each time he took the needle. My brother did try to get help by entering rehabilitation facilities at least five times, yet nothing changed.
    Rehabilitation facilities are just the initial stage of treatment. These facilities start with detoxification and medically managed withdrawal. But that alone does not address the psychological, social and behavioral problems associated with addiction and therefore, does not typically produce lasting behavioral changes necessary for recovery.
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    My brother needed further behavioral treatment for full recovery; he thought of rehab as more of a vacation from his disease rather than treatment to help subdue the urges. These treatments include long- and short-term residential treatment, outpatient treatment programs, and individual and group counseling – all designed to help patients engage in the recovery process, modify their attitudes and behaviors related to drug abuse, and increase healthy life skills. There are programs that enhance the effectiveness of medications and help people stay in treatment longer, yet funding for them is limited, and insurance does not cover everything. So what hope was there for Derik?
    I had already prepared my heart for the inevitable phone call, so when it came, I was ready. The nightmare began with a simple text in the morning: My brother had not come home last night, and some gullible girl had taken him to Philly. Derik said, “I will be 20 minutes,” but he never came back. I reassured my mom that he would be back; he always resurfaced. But I had a feeling deep down that this time was different. I braced myself for reality. Heroin had its grip on him.

    Derik Lawley was 25 years old when he died of a heroin overdose. He battled heroin addiction for more than two years, his sister said.
    Derik lost his battle with addiction on May 7, 2015. On that night, my brother was deceptively given fentanyl rather than his drug of choice. He slipped into a deep sleep, his body forgetting to breathe. For an entire day, he was lost, unclaimed, and thrown away like trash to rot in the elements of a wooded alley in Kensington. His body was not found until late on May 8. My insides ache to think that his body wasted away in the scorching heat for an entire day in that alley, alone, waiting for someone to claim him as Derik M. Lawley, a brother, a son, and father.
    When the funeral home called and asked me to identify Derik’s body so that they could process him and make his body look like Derik again, I immediately said yes. Being who I am, I told myself that I could do it alone. I thought the image of his lifeless body should be the burden that only I carried.
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    I opened the door to the funeral home, remembering greeting the many visitors for my grandfather’s funeral two years prior in that very same spot. The funeral director asked, "Are you ready?” and I probably gave her a look of discontentment. Of course I am not ready. Up to this point, it was all a dream. It might not have been Derik. It could have been a mistake, and he could have been just walking the streets of Philly.
    I walked with her and turned the corner to what would be one of the most heart-wrenching sights I would ever see: Derik lying dead. My hands trembled, my mouth let out a small whimper, and I felt like I could faint. I whispered, “That's him and I'm sorry,” the words running together. I was warned not to touch him due to the extensive autopsy injuries and his body not being embalmed, but all I wanted to do was hug him and slap him at the same time.
    The next morning, my family made the decision of where Derik’s final resting place would be. Valley Forge Park is peaceful – trees, flowers, and the chirping of birds. A place safe from Derik’s demons, from himself, and from the judgment of others. Mom, Dad, and I picked the niche in the columbarium where he would be interred. It was almost like choosing a new house not only for Derik, but for my grandparents, my parents, and my husband and me. We chose for him to be in the middle so that he would not be alone. Our grandparents will join the niche next to him when God decides to take them into the light, and Mom and Dad will join him on the other side. A sandwich of love. I pondered to myself for a moment there; I thought I heard Derik’s laugh in the wind.
    The peace I felt as we picked Derik’s niche was gone the moment I saw him in his cremation box waiting for the flames. He was dressed in the clothes I picked out for him: a gray button-down shirt he wore often and black pants. I could see more of Derik since the sheet laid at his waist. To me, it was not his face. There were no dimples, no smile, but the sleeping eyes and hair were Derik’s. I watched Mom and Dad say their final goodbyes, kissing Derik’s forehead and whispering sweet nothings. They placed pictures of Scarlet and Derik’s Disney trip to bring to the afterlife for comfort as God and our departed family embraced him. After, it was my turn. Our parents left the room so I could talk to him behind closed doors.
    I walked up to Derik, nervous that he would not want me to say goodbye in this manner. But, dear brother, I had to. The image of him alone was causing an ache in my heart; nightmares replaced happy memories of him. I needed to see him safe, to make sure he was not alone as the flames engulfed him, to burn the images of his lifeless body in the wooded alley out of my mind. I placed a picture of the family happy at Christmas in those goofy poses I made everyone do, our pictures of all four siblings last Mother's Day, of Scarlet loving her daddy, and of Mom and Dad smiling. I whispered, ‘I am so sorry,’ over and over, feeling his hand on my shoulder. I stopped. I kissed Derik’s forehead and motioned to the director and henchman to put his lid back on. I pushed the box myself into the kiln, and the doors shut. I kissed my palm and spread my hand on the door and I said goodbye. He was free.
    My heart died the moment Derik took his last breath. His body lies in ashes as mine dies slowly from within. The darkness lingers and the nightmares loom into the light. The pain of losing Derik is unbearable, and I am living in the ninth circle of hell, my treachery being called an addict’s sister. Siblings love each other regardless of their paths; they guide each other when they have fallen and are each other’s shoulder to lean on. But I distanced myself from Derik’s addiction; it made him a wicked man. I should have been there for Derik, to wipe the sweat of addiction off his brow when the wickedness came upon him time and time again. Or in the least, I should have called, wrote, or sent Derik love in a care package. But I ignored him, gave him the cold shoulder, and did not see the real person within his eyes. I practiced tough love when I should have just shown him compassion. That is my burden, my guilt, my pain to bear all the days of my life.

    According to the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association report, there were at least 2,489 drug-related deaths in 2014 and 800 heroin-related overdoses in the state, with fentanyl poisoning also rising in numbers. My brother, Derik M. Lawley, is now part of the 2015 statistics, and the numbers are rising at an alarming rate.
    But Derik wasn’t a statistic. He wasn’t just a number on a spreadsheet. He was a son, a father and a brother. The stigma of the stereotype is that addicts are deviants and don’t engage in society – that they’re unemployed, dropouts, victims of poor upbringings, users in dark, dirty alleyways, robbers of the innocent – and are without love and kindness in their lives, confined to poorer areas of the big city, those without morals. This could not be further from the truth. Heroin and other opioid overdose are now a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and addiction affects all walks of life across Pennsylvania: rich, poor, middle class, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and siblings. My brother suffered from a mental illness, not a moral failing. Addiction is a crisis that has hit hard in our local Bucks County and Montgomery County communities.
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    Derik's death was preventable. If funding for a new initiative to combat heroin and opioid addiction was available, our communities would not be suffering like this. My 3-year-old niece would not be asking, “When is daddy coming back from heaven?” My parents would not be mourning the loss of a son. And my sister, brother, and I would not be suffering the loss of a sibling. Parents across Pennsylvania would not be mourning the loss of their children who are fighting battles with addiction. Parents would not be searching for missing children who are living on the streets, fighting their own demons because insurance companies would not pay for additional, much-needed rehab treatment. Parents would not be planning funerals for their children who departed this world too soon.
    Pennsylvania’s legislation needs to allocate funds to increase access to lifesaving therapies and give Pennsylvanians, like my brother, access to the treatment they need. Measures need to be in place to prevent these needless deaths. We need funding for new initiatives to combat the heroin and opioid addiction epidemic.
    Many legislators have called for aggressive, community-based, non-punitive measures to combat the scourge of heroin in their communities, however they fail to pass a budget that would add additional funding four human services and mental-health treatment – funding that could have prevented the death of my brother and so many others. Derik’s Jedi Project, an organization named for him, is calling for a Pennsylvania budget that would include funds used to provide mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, funds that could help with the growing number of addicts who previously failed to get treatment due to budget cuts. Funds that could prevent deaths.
    Until then, Derik's Jedi Project, created in honor of my brother, will continue to help the addicted living on the streets of Philadelphia who are waiting for someone to give them hope and compassion, by letting someone know they are alive, getting them the much-needed help, putting them in contact with those who can help. We travel weekly to Philadelphia and provide any and all people struggling with addiction we can find with a meal, water, hygiene supplies, a way to get help, and an ear to listen. Through social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we are giving families of addicts and recovering addicts a way to voice their concerns and seek help when it’s needed. We are asking Pennsylvania citizens to open their eyes to the War on Drugs and consider new revenue streams for funds to provide mental health and drug and alcohol treatment.
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    We can help prevent more deaths. We can show compassion and understanding of a disease that plagues thousands, and we can show the masses that the stigma attached to addiction is not true. I hope you consider empathizing with the countless number of people who are plagued with addiction, to look in their eyes and know that addiction is a disease, not a choice, and to lend a hand rather than push them further down the rabbit hole. It just might help save one life from being ended and another family from experiencing the despair mine has.

    This is my brother, Derik. My brother is no different than you or yours. He had a disease that he did not ask to own. Please remember he was a human being, his addictive self an alter ego he so desperately wanted to be without. Derik was a beautiful soul lost at the tender young age of 25. He had a love of movies, dimples that would melt any heart, and a love for his family that shined brightly in the smile he gave each and every one of us. The look he gave to his daughter as she said, “Daddy,” was one of pure love. Addiction and deceitfulness might have taken him from me, but forgotten he will never be. We know that he is dancing in the sky, and we will not let him die in vain. His story will be known, our story will be heard, and there will be a change in the hearts who those who will listen.
    Remember these words: “We are all addicted to something that takes away the pain.” I will not hide my brother’s struggle behind shame and disgrace. Hello, my name is Tara and you have met your match. I am the sister of an addict, and I will not rest until you have learned of the affliction.

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  • #2
    Tara, thank you so much for putting into words, so much of what i want to say about He lost his battle to that drug, that to me is literally the devil. He died July 23, 1998 & to me, in so many ways, it still feel like only yesterday, that we go the phone call that would literally turn my entire world, totally upside down. It would lead me in a direction that never in my life, would i have dreamed i'd be going. Instead of bringing our family together, it did the TOTAL opposite & as sad as it is to admit, after almost 19 yrs, we are finally all picking up the pieces of our own shattered lives & slowly but surely coming together for each other, like we should've been all along. As horrible as it sounds, my twin sister who had been sheltered so much, grown up in a very small country town, on a dairy, & seriously both freaked out, when we found out he had started smoking weed. We both warned him all the time....i told him.more times than to admit that he was going to"overdose, doing that weed".... 😮 my.gosh, if only weed had been the only.problem. well, after losing him, & never have touched a drug...rarely drank...i began hanging out ALOT with his "friends". I worked at a pharmacy, so to fit in...(i thought) & to keep from having to do the coke, Lsd, Heroin, & God only.knows what else, to fit in....i started taking lots of prescription pills...and i do mean. LOTS!! All kinds & so many, its scary when i think back & realize how easily i couldve died too...then, what would that have done to my family?? My.poor mother. I was taking HUGE amounts of hydrocodone, (any kind of opiate pain pills...the more the better!) Mixed with Xanax, diet pills (speed) Soma (muscle relaxers)..valium, anything i could get my hands on. I had worked at that pharmacy almost 10.yrs when he passed away, so i saw what our customers abused on a daily that's how i started trying things out. I did not care about anyone or anything..just knew i wanted to go to sleep one night & God not let me wake up. That went on for months, into years. I got so mad at God every morning when id wake up...sooo mad!! It was the only way i felt that i would ever be happy again...i wasnt thinking about how much id be hurtimg my family. My mom, twin sister, grandparents, friends....i pushed any & everyone away from me...i was so hateful...& i did that on purpose, to push people as far away from me as i could. I felt like by doing this, itd keep me from caring about anyone & EVER having to feel that kinda pain, ever again...i always THOUGHT i knew what a broken heart felt like, but honestly, i had NO idea at all, until that horrible day in july 1998. As you know, its a pain that can not even begin to be described....but one that you would crawl to the ends of the earth, to keep someone you love from ever having to feel (personally). I found myself getting close to & trying to save any heroin addict i could find. I had met a young girl, in the town my brother had gone to high school..i had heard stories about her brother... Les...that was him...he was definitely a heroin to the point, her mom & his 2 sisters thought nothing of him disappearing for weeks, then into months at a time. They'd tell me stories of having to call the "morgue" medical examiner's office, just to see if they had any "john does" who matched Les' description... then, he'd just miraculously reappear, as if he had never been gone, with no idea why everyone was so.upset. it was a vicious cycle that this family had endured 13 yrs by the time i came around. I could literally see the pain in his poor mom's eyes, as she'd tell me story after story of her "sweet Les"... i made it my mission that first night i went with Crystal (his youngest sister, who by the way was beyond fed up with all his shenanigans, & had since started practicing tough love & treating him (what i saw as) awful. I tried convincing her to give him a chance...please, please can not just turn your back on him...& talk to.him the way she did...i see now why she did that...& how can you blame a person for being fed up? She knew nothing at all, about the horrible disease of addiction. I had to remind myself, that i didnt either & i was very judgemental for a while, myself. But this was her brother, for God's sake..i.would have given anything to have mine back, and know what the problem had really been. Maybe i could have helped him & saved his life. Its crazy the things we try to convince ourselves, when we have no can not save a drug addict. Ive learned the hard way, by trying to save someone will not do anything, but drag you right down with them...and itll happen so in the blink.of an eye. I made it my life's mission that very night i talked to his mom & sisters...i was gonna be the one to save Les for them. Well, i met him...had that much outta the less than prob 48.hrs. i saw him & instantly knew who he was...i was gonna save this guy who knew nothing.else in this world, but sticking a needle in his arm...til eventually, there were no more veins & had to resort to all kinds of horrendous things, just to "find a good vein", gosh, if i just had a dollar for every time ive heard him & others who came along after, say that sick phrase. Les & i started dating...i still had this horrible pill problem...i could easily take 30-40 hydros (any.opiates) a would just depend on how many i had that day..& for a.long time, i.had access to as many as i wanted to.take..along with EVERY OTHER PILL i.was mixing together. One night, i had enough. I still.had 1000"s of pills readily accessible..but i was laying in my apt, in the bathroom floor, home all alone. Something inside me said "STOP!!! STOP THIS.SHIT, CHRISTI, OR YOU'RE GONNA END UP EITHER IN JAIL (PRISON).OR YOU'RE GONNA DIE!!.... it had to have been the jail & prison threat, bcuz i.had long since decided i.wanted to die. I didnt actually have a plan & didnt wanna kill myself...bcuz i had heard so many.times that if you kill yourself, Heaven is not where you go...& i sure didnt wanna go that way...i just wanted God to.see how much pain i was in & that i was literallly dead the hell.wouldnt he just let me not wake up?? WHY THE HELL NOT?!?! Well, that night i decided i.had to stop, no one was around..i.literally had to drag myself from the bathroom to the door when someone knocked on it at like 3:00am. It was Les!! He had just shown up.bcuz he said he felt like i needed him he drove me to Millwood...a treatment center, where i could at least get detoxed..they tried to tell us there was a wait & no beds...and that i really was too calm to be an emergency situation..there was a reason i was trying to remain as calm as u possibly sister had just been released from there the day before. She went in acting nuts & got treated as such. They took her shoelaces, put her on suicidenwatch, etc. I did not want any of that treatment at all. He told me to go sit down & had a very heated conversation with a few of the "big wigs" who were in charge of making these decisions about who was cinsidered emergency status... it was only a few min before he walked back over, sat down & said...they'll be calling us back.shortly & he was right. He had told them that if i walked out that door....he could assure them id be dead within 24 hrs. He had no idea how close to true he probably was. I found out when they called me back that these opiates i chose to take, instead of the heroin, coke, etc all his friends (my new buddies) were doing...these pills were the exact same thing my brother had died from...only a synrhetic form...meaning that all this time, i was telling myself, at least if something happens to me, they wont fimd heroin in my.system...gosh, that would kill my mom to lose 2 kids to that devil drug..well, see how much i knew? It was no different. And just bcuz they were legal (well with a script of your own) they could be obtained legally, unlike the REAL DRUGS they were all doing... i.was sick to learn this....i felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. Right then & there, i learned that my brother didnt "not tell me," bcuz he didnt trust me.....nope!! He thought he was just having a good time & it went too far. A person has no way of knowing this, unless they go thru the same thing, themselves. I got out of treatment after like 20 days. Les had the uhaul packed & we moved to houston with my cousin. We were getting away from anyone whod drag us down...and were doing so.good, or so.i thought, until one day while doing laundry, i found a syrimge in les pocket. I totally freaked out, loaded his sh** up & took him back to ft worth. It had only been a year & 1"2 since i lost my brother..& i felt like kt was a the face, to to me for trusting him...if i had only known turning my back on him would one day come back to haunt me...& haunt me it certainly did.. i went on & had my son with anither friend of my brother...i wanted to hold onto him that way, as sick as i know that sounds... so fastforward to july 2004, im divorced from my sons dad, les & i try to work.things out. He had gotten into some legal trouble & had to go to prison for a year....we are officially back together, talking about getting married. He gets out, & within 16 days, i.get the phone call i had dreaded for so long....the onei was trying like hell to keep his family from ever getting... he od'd july 12, 2004.... 3 weeks later, my best friend in the world, tiffany is gang raped by 5 guys (she knew).& shot up with 90.units ??? Of heroin in the neck..needless to say, she was on life support 6 days...brain dead..and didnt live 3 min after they pulled the plug. Its been all.these years & it still.has not gotten "easier" like people told would....nope...not one bit easier. Maybe the word is more "tolerable"....i think about all 3 of them every single day...i hate in no way can take anyone at anytime. Thats why no one should ever addict. No one just wakes up one day & says "hey, i have a great, i wanna start doing drugs, hurt everyone i love & who loves me....nope! It does not work that just doesn't.... & any addict in recovery can tell you that just bcuz the drugs may be gone..its a daily doesnt just "go away" & the person is all better, forever...recovery is a full time job & unless ones ready, you can not make them want to be ok...sure, an addict will tell you exactly what you want to hear...but only to get you off their a**... master manipulators...and can make you believe every word he/she is saying... but, my advice..bcuz unfortunately, ive been on both sides....dealing with my twin sister & some major issues now & it scares me to death...i keep hoping that she wakes up & WANTS to get better, bcuz i can not save her...i've even tried saving her..and that only got me doing exactly what it was she was doing that i had worked so hard to get away.from. so i.have to distance myself...not to judge her, but to protect myself..not from her, but from me. I can only pray she gets it....& im truly scared to death..i just dont see how i can go thru this all over again...i keep.praying that God will.see this & make her be am asking for any & all.prayers...thats all we can do for someone we want to save. Thank you so much for sharing your story about losing your sweet brother. I.pray you find peace and all the strength you need. 😇


    • #3

      Welcome to our heroin addiction and recovery discussion forum. I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. I'm also so sorry to hear of the addiction issues you experienced. It takes a lot of courage to come forward and be honest about what you went through. I'm really glad to hear that you are in long term recovery now. But now it sounds like you're saying that your sister is strugling with addiction. As you said, you've now been on both sides of it. As a recovering addict in long term recovery is, I know how difficult it is to fight against addiction personally. I also know a few people who struggle with addiction but they're not that close to me. I still worry about them and try to encourage them to get help. But it makes it a lot more difficult if it's an immediately family member or close friend.

      I encourage you to participate on any topic you can relate to and/or start your own topic. We are here to listen and offer any support and help that we can.

      Peace and Love,

      Publisher of Kill the Heroin Epidemic Nationwide™, Heroin News and the National Alliance of Addiction Treatment Centers.

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      I do my best to educate myself regarding addiction and recovery related issue, treatment options, etc. however, I am not a medical professional. All opinions are my own and any advice you take from me is at your own risk and discretion


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