We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. I’m sure you’ve heard it on the news, debated addictions with your friends, or even donated to a non-profit organization. Then you forget about it. The interesting thing about humans is we tend to forget the bad things that don’t affect us. I mean, who has time to worry about the opioid epidemic when your boss is shoving deadlines down your throat, the car is making a weird noise, and bills are due? Add climate change, the floating island of plastic, the mass extinction of animals, human trafficking, and mass shootings, the opioid epidemic may rank low on your list of worries. However, opioids are crawling into every facet of our lives from work, school, to our family and friends. According to the CDC about 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose and since 1999 more than 700,000 have died from a drug overdose. In 2017, they found that 68% of drug overdose deaths involved an opioid. The trend in opioid related deaths has only been increasing. These are not just nameless people. These are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, or even a sorority sister.
“She was absolutely stunning,” says Rachel Burdette, “Beloved by everyone… She truly had a megawatt smile.”
Rachel Burdette is referring to her sorority sister who passed away eight years ago due to an heroin overdose. Heroin use wasn’t anything new to Rachel. “My hometown of Washington, PA was and has been decimated by opioids,” Rachel says, “I went to [a] rural high school and there’s not a lot to do out there but drinking, partying and stuff like that… I was about 15 or 16 and it was really common at that time for people to swipe opioid pills from their parents and bring them to the party to experiment with and all of that started to kind of spiral by the time I was 18 or 19.” By the time Rachel graduated she knew people in her high school that had overdosed on opioids.
“We’ve had family members that have gone to jail, because of their addiction issue whether it was opioids and pills or alcoholism. It was just something that I was always around,” Rachel says. When she went to college the parties didn’t stop. “It was a big time party school and I was in a sorority. That same kind of recreational use among my peers followed me there as well,” she says.
Her sophomore year was when she met her. “She was absolutely stunning. I loved her; she was such a wonderful person,” Rachel recalls, “She had her own personal demons that she was dealing with… She and I were very close and over the last year that I was in college she was starting to drift away a little bit. [She] was withdrawing, didn’t want to participate, wouldn’t show up to things.”
Rachel pauses for a second before saying, “They found her. She overdosed and she was found at home. And I had- I didn’t know at the time she was using heroin.”
“Looking back, because I didn’t have the education and the understanding that I have now I would say that a lot of the things that she did came off as more mental health to me,” Rachel says, “I though that she was depressed… like I said she had some personal stuff and some demons, but it just kind of seemed like she was struggling coping with that.” With the rise of opioid abuse in the recent years, education about heroin has become more widespread. However, during this time there were a lot of misconceptions about who used heroin and the warning signs. “For me it was always like oh my god! That must be a filthy dirty poor person. That was the misconception that I had when I was growing up and that all change just because of all the people I lost,” she says.
“When I lost her it was something that really shook me… being uneducated at the time and not really understanding addiction, I didn’t really know what to think or I didn’t understand what had led her to that. Her life seemingly was so wonderful from the outside,” she says, “That led me to do a lot of reading and changing my mind on how I felt about people who had addiction issues. And I’m not saying she was the complete catalyst for me getting into my chosen field, but she’s definitely part of it.”
Rachel is now a Community Engagement and Training Manger at Greenbriar Treatment Center which was named one of the top three treatment centers in Pittsburgh by Three Best Rated®. “It’s shocking when you lose somebody that’s your own age. It’s unbelievable,” Rachel says, “I don’t want people to go through that.”
If you or a loved one are dealing with a heroin addiction Rachel suggests calling an addiction clinic. “Every addiction center in this county worth it’s salt will help you if you call them and say hey I think I’m dealing with something and I don’t know where to start this conversation,” she says, “That’s what we’re here for… We’re trying to educate and reverse the stigma. People can and do get well.” If you decide to talk to a loved one about their opioid addiction Rachel advises doing it in a private setting. “Do it in a respectful, private way. At lot of times confronting them with 17 family members is going to have the exact same effect that Intervention the TV show does. People blow up and run away,” Rachel says, “You should come from a place of love and concern. You need to say things that are measurable such as I haven’t seen you. You missed this event and this event… things that are measurable. Things you can prove… Sometimes when you say things like that it can trigger something in them that makes them at least feel bad for enough time to maybe convince them or start the conversation about getting help.”
The opioid addiction has affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, directly or indirectly. It’s real and it’s here. Together we can fight this. This July 26th is the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (as declared in resolution 42/112 by the UN). Make a pledge to raise awareness about drug abuse and proven treatment options. Donate money to your local non-profit. Sit down and finally have that hard talk with your loved. Or call an addiction center and ask for help.
Rachel assures that there is hope. “It’s a very long, often hard fought road for them but there is hope,” she says, “I don’t want to lose anybody else. I don’t want somebody else to lose somebody, because they were afraid or didn’t want to ask a hard question.