SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've learned over the past few years of the opioid crisis that the face of addiction can be just about any face. An obituary that appeared in the Vermont Weekly Seven Days touched many readers this week. It included a photo of the smiling face of Madelyn Linsenmeir with her toddler son Ayden, who was grinning from his perch on her back. That photo showed a good day for Maddie, but she suffered from addiction since she was 16 years old and tried OxyContin at a high school party. That drug took hold of her life. She was in and out of rehab and lost custody of her son. Madelyn Linsenmeir died on October 7. She was 30 years of age. Her sister, Kate O'Neill, wrote that obituary and joins us now from Vermont Public Radio in Burlington. Thanks so much for being with us.
KATE O'NEILL: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: First, we're sorry.
O'NEILL: Thank you.
SIMON: What can you tell us about your sister?
O'NEILL: My sister was beautiful and bright. She loved to sing. She wanted to be an actress and star in Broadway musicals, and she really had the voice. And later on when she became addicted to drugs, it was this real seesaw where we would see and be with the Maddie we knew and loved, and then there was the Maddie who suffered from a disease and who went to really dark places. But when she was clean, she was just such a pleasure to be with, so spirited, great sense of humor. She loved her son so much.
SIMON: I don't expect a real answer to this, but what happened?
O'NEILL: We've had a long time to run it through our minds. You know, I think when she was a teenager, she was experimenting with drugs, as I think a lot of teenagers do, as I did. She tried an OxyContin, which is a highly addictive, opiate-based painkiller. I don't think she knew that when she took it. She really loved the way it made her feel, and she continued to take opiates in pill form. And within a couple years, she started using - injecting heroin. She tried so many times to get sober, and when she was clean, I think she was full of hope. We were always full of hope for Maddie. This past summer, just a month before she died, she was home, and we think mostly clean for 12 days and that was just an incredible high. We all were hopeful. She was going to go into a program and get some help and, you know, and then as often the case with addicts, it didn't work out and she sort of disappeared again.
SIMON: She tried more than one program, I gather, didn't she?
O'NEILL: Yeah, she tried many.
SIMON: What made you share all of this in your obituary?
O'NEILL: You know, it never really occurred to me not to share Maddie's addiction and that part of her life. It was so central to who she was as an adult. Her addiction didn't define her, but it did define the way she lived. And so to not include that would not have been an accurate honoring of who she was. And we also wanted to extend the hope that we had for Maddie to people who continue to suffer, who are addicted now. We carry the hope for them. And our hope also now lies with policymakers and politicians and the people who can make the change necessary so that these deaths stop happening. The president's daughter tweeted her obituary. So let's put our money where our tweets are, you know?
SIMON: What do you think or what do you hope would make a difference?
O'NEILL: There are solutions, you know, medication-assisted treatment, things like methadone or buprenorphine. There's evidence that they work, but they're very hard for addicts to get, right? Any doctor in this country can write a prescription for a highly addictive, opiate-based painkiller, but to prescribe some of the medications that help addicts recover, they need to go through an eight-hour training. They need to get a special waiver. There aren't very many of them, so it's hard for people suffering from addiction to get those medications that have been proven to help. And that's just one thing.
I also think that stigma and shame are a huge barrier to recovery for people, and that's part of the reason that we wrote about it. We didn't expect anyone beyond our community to read it, but we wrote about it because we think it needs to be talked about. Fifty thousand people died last year from opioid-related overdoses. I want people to know that Maddie is one face of that, but so many people with addiction don't resemble the photo that you talked about of Maddie with her son in a backpack on her back. Maddie didn't resemble that photo when she was in the throes of her youth. And so I just want us all to have empathy for people who are suffering from what is a disease.
SIMON: I understand there's going to be a service for Maddie on Sunday.
O'NEILL: There is, yeah.
SIMON: How will you and your family celebrate her life?
O'NEILL: Well, through song, of course. There'll be performances and we actually have a video of Maddie singing a Bonnie Raitt song. She's just sitting at the kitchen table, so we'll play - share that with people. And then, you know, one of the things that's been so wonderful about this obituary is that people have shared stories about Maddie that we didn't know. They've also shared stories about their own addiction and recovery and family members, and that's been a huge source of support and solidarity for our family right now. And I think we'll have more of that kind of sharing on Sunday.
SIMON: What Bonnie Raitt song, may I ask?
O'NEILL: "I Can't Make You Love Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
MADELYN LINSENMEIR: (Singing) Here in the dark, in these final hours, I will lay down my heart and I'll feel the power...
SIMON: Kate O'Neill, who wrote about her sister, Maddie Linsenmeir in the Vermont Weekly Seven Days, thank you so much for being with us.
O'NEILL: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
LINSENMEIR: (Singing) 'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don't. I'll close my eyes and then I won't see...
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