Every day, the opioid epidemic claims an estimated 115 lives. But rarely, does any one casualty gain the type of attention that the obituary for a young mother, published on the website of The Burlington Free Press, received earlier this week.
In the obituary, Kate O'Neill writes about how her sister Madelyn Linsenmeir's 12-year-long battle with addiction led to her death. Beneath a photo of the smiling 30-year-old, her toddler son hoisted on her back, O'Neill portrayed Linsenmeir as well-rounded, a gifted singer and a warm presence.
"Though we would have paid any ransom to have her back, any price in the world, this disease would not let her go until she was gone," O'Neill writes about her sister.
O'Neill never expected the obit to gain the traction it did. Major media outlets, from The Washington Post to People magazine, described Linsenmeir's obit as "heartbreaking" and "poignant." On Twitter, Ivanka Trump pronounced Linsenmeir's story as "raw" and "devastating."
Amid an opioid crisis that has indiscriminately gripped nearly every corner of the country, what made her story resonate so much?
O'Neill thinks the pervasiveness of opioid addiction explains why her sister's obit moved so many people. "It's their story, or the story of their neighbor, or the story of their daughter, or the story of their coworker's daughter," she tells NPR's Scott Simon.
Tragically, O'Neill says, the stigma of addiction all too often sets significant barriers to saving lives, even though nearly a third of Americans know someone who is or has been addicted to opioids, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
O'Neill felt she couldn't pay tribute to her sister without highlighting the realities of an addiction that began at age 16 when Linsenmeir first tried the prescription painkiller OxyContin at a high school party.
"That part of her life, it was so central to who she was as an adult," she says. "Her addiction didn't define her, but it did define the way she lived. To not include that would not have been an accurate honoring of who she was."
"I want people to know that Maddie is one face of that," she says. "So many people with addiction don't resemble the photo [of Maddie]," she says. "Maddie didn't resemble that photo when she was in the throes of her use."
Brandon del Pozo, a police chief in Linsenmeir's hometown of Burlington, agrees with that point. But he laments that the thousands of lives lost to addiction each year are unable to hold the nation's attention in quite the same way as Linsenmeir's story was able to do. More than a week after death, her story managed to have lasting power amid today's tumultuous news cycle.
In a Facebook post, del Pozo wrote:
Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren't as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.
The obit was "poignant and true," del Pozo tells NPR, "But it's not new." He felt compelled to respond to the accelerating national traction when People — a publication with a massive and diverse readership — published Linsenmeir's story. "We should've been having this conversation years ago," he says.
As he argued on Facebook, "[I]f Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn't matter if the guy's obituary writer had won the [Man] Booker Prize, there wouldn't be a weepy article in People about it."
He points out that the latest wave of the opioid epidemic has cut across all races and classes in the past decade.
"People say they care, but best policy responses have fallen on deaf ears," he says.
When del Pozo stepped in as police chief in 2015, he was tapped by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to help lead the city's public health efforts.
This year, the police chief says, Burlington Police partnered with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Police Executive Research Forum to establish best practices that city leaders can adopt to reduce opioid-related deaths.
Among the best practices the city has implemented is to ease access to buprenorphine — an anti-addiction medication that many doctors are still unable to prescribe.
"If you ask public health researchers what we should do [to combat opioid abuse] we're doing them," del Pozo says.
Kate O'Neill's thoughts about how to combat opioid deaths align with those of Burlington city leaders. "Our hope also now lies with policymakers and politicians and the people who can make the change necessary so that these deaths stop happening," she says. "Let's put our money where our tweets are."
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... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.