The Phone Call That Changed My Life

Today is the three year “anniversary” date of the phone call that changed my life; one that so many people have had to experience and sadly, for many others, this call is yet to come. My brother, William, was found dead inside of his car that was parked outside of a church on a cold Sunday morning. He was just three weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.

I was surprisingly calm the day of the phone call. I suppose it was partly due to the confusion that was happening in my head while also trying to figure out the logistics to prepare for a six hour flight the next morning. What do you wear to your brother’s funeral? How am I going to deal with my parents when I get there? How am I supposed to remain sane and not cry while sitting next to strangers on a six hour flight with nothing but time to think? More importantly, what the hell happened to my brother?

The day after I arrived, I went to see the police officer who was called to the scene where William was found. That’s when I learned that my little brother was using heroin. I would later learn that he hadn’t used for a few weeks but that day, after working 8 hours of construction, he was paid cash for his time. He then used the cash to buy heroin and that night, was shooting it up- resulting in his death. That in itself was a lot to absorb, but I still had more questions. Why was he outside of a church? How long was he there before someone found him? When did my brother start using heroin and why didn’t anyone tell me? The list could go on.

For the funeral, we chose to have him dressed in his favorite outfit as opposed to a suit because it’s what he loved and that’s how we wanted to remember him. I dreaded that day- not just for the obvious reason but also, having to endure the several hours long viewing process. About 300 people came through the line that day, each one paying their respects to my parents, me, and then my brother. People I haven’t seen in over a decade came to show their support to me and my family, former teachers of my brother, colleagues of my parents, even a new friend and a probation counselor from the drug court program William attended; because that’s how small towns work.

I remember at least a handful of kids coming through the line who I suspected had been drinking and probably getting high in attempt to escape the emotions they would otherwise have to feel that day. I remember people I knew and some that I never met, coming up to me and saying “he’s in a better place,” and while I knew their intentions were coming from a good place, hearing that made my blood boil. Being on the receiving end of that statement and from where I stood, which was a few inches away from my brother lying in a coffin, dead sure as hell wasn’t a better place than alive. I remained composed for most of the viewing and service because in some way, I felt that I owed it to my brother to be “present” that day. At the end of the service, the funeral director asked everyone to leave so that the immediate family could pay their final respects. That’s when I lost it. I mean, really lost it. Bent over, hugging him and sobbing like I’ve never sobbed before kind of lost it; because it’s not easy giving that one last hug and saying that final goodbye to your little brother.

Exactly one week from the night he died, I decided to go to the spot where he was found. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for or what I thought I would find- I guess by being there, I thought maybe I could make sense of some things. I sat in the car for about an hour, watching people come and go from the church. I wondered if they had AA/NA meetings there and if he tried to go to a meeting that night. I got out of the car and I walked over to a man and asked him if they had meetings. He said they didn’t, but he asked me if I needed to go to one and offered to take me if I did. I explained that my brother was found in the same spot where I was parked one week ago. You see, no one heard from him after work that day and he didn’t return any calls, so we didn’t know if he died Saturday night or Sunday morning. The man that I was talking to said, “That was your brother? I saw him here last Saturday night. It was around 11:30-midnight.” He said that he was taking out the trash and because it was a cold night, he motioned to William to see if he was okay. He said my brother waved and nodded, so he went about his business. He then asked me if I wanted to talk to one of the [seven] ministers of the church. I said “sure” but I was hesitant; because while I respect other people’s beliefs, I’m not religious and I didn’t want to hear a lecture.

The minister was young, in his mid-thirties. He said that he wouldn’t usually be there at that time [about 10:30] on a Saturday night but his computer was down and he needed to finish his sermon for the next morning. To my surprise, I learned that the minister served several years in prison. He said that he never used drugs, but he was a dealer for dealers at the top of the chain. Today, he runs inner-city youth activities to help keep kids off the streets and as it turned out, he was the person who found my brother. He asked me if I wanted to know the details and I said yes, because I needed that closure. He said that my brother was slightly leaned toward the middle of the car like he had been sleeping so he knocked on the passenger side window to get his attention. When he didn’t respond to that, he went to the drivers side door. That’s when he noticed that William’s nose had been running because of the cold and that his runny nose had frozen. That’s when he knew that he was dead. To some, these details may seem insignificant but for me, having spoken to who was probably the last person to see/communicate with my brother and then, to speak to the person who found him- provided some closure.

My brother’s death was by far the worst thing I’ve had to endure, and at times, the pain was visceral. But with that, I learned that I had two options. My brother’s death could define me by becoming what happened to me, or it could determine who I’m meant to me. For the past year and a half, my entire career has taken a path that I never would’ve thought possible. I’ve always felt that I had a bigger purpose in life and it’s because of this experience, that I’ve had the privilege of learning what that purpose is. iWILLrecover has just begun and thus far, it’s been a process of education, awareness, building, growing, thinking outside of the box and figuring out how to create something that’s needed that will not only help save lives, but also change them. I’ve learned that education, proper treatment, and ongoing aftercare is necessary because recovery isn’t something that you do; it’s a lifestyle. I’ve learned that like my brother, many people will never have the privilege of getting their lives back and as a result, families will be forever changed. I’ve also learned that those same families who have had to endure the loss of a loved one due to addiction and/or who understand what it’s like to love someone who struggles with addiction; are our biggest advocates. When combining the families and people who are in recovery- you’ll find resilience and a camaraderie that’s unique, soulful, and inspiring.

Today, death by overdose [prescription opiates and heroin] is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, causing more deaths than car accidents. Children as young a 11, are using heroin. Since my brother’s death, I’ve learned firsthand that talking about drugs and addiction makes a lot of people uncomfortable; largely because of the stigma surrounding it. However, I believe that with awareness, comes responsibility. What came to your mind 5 years ago when you heard the word addict or “junkie,” no longer applies. Today, an addict is the kid next door. It’s your spouse, child, parent, sibling, relative, friend, student or colleague. If you reach out to the people that you know, you’ll quickly learn that addiction does not discriminate; every race, gender, and every socioeconomic status is impacted. I realize that not everyone will become proactive in doing something, but for those of you who want to do something- sharing articles like these helps raise awareness and the more that people are aware, the easier it becomes to educate and the faster we can reduce the stigma.

For anyone struggling with addiction and/or loved ones of someone struggling with addiction, please reach out to us either by email or by phone 1.888.567.6531 if you’re seeking help with finding treatment and/or are in need of narcan. Help is available to you…you just have to take the first step.

Originally published at on March 24, 2016.