January 9, 2019

'One face' of an epidemic: The viral obituary of Maddie Linsenmeir, who overdosed on opioids

Daily Briefing

    Maddie Linsenmeir died last fall at age 30 of an opioid overdose, and her obituary went viral as an example of the growing opioid epidemic.

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    Maddie's story

    According to her obituary, Linsenmeir first tried OxyContin at a high school party when she was 16, starting "a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life."

    The obituary continued, "To some, Maddie was just a junkie—when they saw her addiction they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay."

    Linsenmeir had a son in 2014, which led her to try "harder and more relentlessly to stay sober than we have ever seen anyone try at anything," the obituary stated. However, Linsenmeir relapsed and ultimately lost custody of her son, a loss the obituary said was "unbearable" for her.

    "During the past two years especially, her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness," the obituary said, adding, "and this darkness compounded on itself, as each unspeakable thing that happened to her and each horrible thing she did in the name of her disease exponentially increased her pain and shame."

    The family had hoped "that she would overcome her disease and make the life for herself we knew she deserved. … But her addiction stalked her and stole her once again. 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," the obituary said.

    According to the obituary, Linsenmeir's family wanted to share her story so others dealing with substance use disorders know "every breath is a fresh start," and to encourage individuals "reading [the obituary] with judgment" to "educate [themselves] about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness."

    'One face' of the epidemic

    Kate O'Neill, Linsenmeir's sister who wrote the obituary, said she never expected the obituary would go viral, but said she believes her sister's story is relatable, which is why it's touched 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 said.

    O'Neill felt she couldn't write an obituary for her sister without mentioning her opioid misuse. "That part of her life, it was so central to who she was as an adult," O'Neill said. She added, "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."

    O'Neill said her sister is just "one face" of the opioid epidemic. "So many people with addiction don't resemble the photo [of Maddie]," she said, noting, "Maddie didn't resemble that photo when she was in the throes of her use."

    A police chief's 'problem' with the story

    Brandon del Pozo—a police chief in Burlington, Vermont, where Linsenmeir was from—agreed with O'Neill, saying the obituary was "poignant and true." However, he added that he had "a problem" with obituary.

    "My problem with it is that it's a much better obituary than the rest of us deserve," he wrote on Facebook. Del Pozo wrote, "Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?"

    He added, "Maddie's gone. She can't feel your sorrow. But others are next. Some aren't beautiful. Others look nothing like you. Some are like Maddie's twin, and have little children too. They are all human beings, and they need our help. Go. Get to work. We still need to earn the feelings her obituary inspired in us. We should have felt them years ago."

    O'Neill agreed with del Pozo, and said, "Our hope also now lies with policymakers and politicians and the people who can make the change necessary so that these deaths stop happening. Let's put our money where our tweets are" (Bever, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 10/17; Bowman, NPR, 10/20; Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir obituary, accessed 10/21).

    Access our new resources on the opioid epidemic

    The opioid epidemic is a complex, multi-dimensional public health problem. Use this list of helpful resources on how hospitals and health systems can play a role to treat opioid addiction and prevent further increase in opioid abuse.

    Access our Opioid Resources Here

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