On November 30, my sister Eleanor would have been 52 years old.
I wonder what she would have been like at 52. I’ve been rather cranky ever since turning 40, but I think Eleanor would have found ways to accept aging, and even celebrate it. She would have danced through the day, which is more or less how I think of her going through life. When she was young, El lit up a room like Tinkerbell. Gorgeous and effervescent and charismatic. At least she was, until the dancing stopped.
She came to substance misuse relatively late in life, and her initial drug of choice seemed so ridiculous it was inconceivable to me that she wouldn’t stop. In her mid-30s, El got a cold and a cough and developed a taste for the drug Dextromethorphan – the “DM” in over the counter cough suppressants. Before long, she was drinking bottles of cough syrup a day. She gained more than 50 pounds. She began to lose her hair. And it spiraled down from there.
Two pricey in-patient rehab stints did nothing but produce conflicting diagnoses of her mental state. Each time, she was forcibly detoxed, only to return to using soon after being released. Our family tried carrots and sticks, acceptance and avoidance. We suffered through years of agonizing decisions over whether she had to be clean at holidays and other family gatherings and found ourselves basically miserable whether she was with us or not. We begged her to get well. She railed at us for not accepting her addiction as part of who she was. Through it all, we developed a pretty good understanding of the disease of substance use. But not of her.
Eleanor took her life on July 29, 2013. The autopsy found she died from acute intoxication of the combined effects of Dextromethorphan and fluoxetine – the drug commonly known as Prozac. The sheriff’s deputies found a note next to her body. “I don’t want to live. Not like this. I’m an addict.” I was the first person in my family to get that call about my baby sister. And I’ve never quite been the same since.
I miss her all the time. And I wonder. How did cough syrup dig its hooks into her brain so deeply and irrevocably? What if we had better evidence-based medicines for those who suffer the disease of addiction, rather than just talk therapy (which is only moderately effective on its own) or 12 step dogma (which is even less so)? What if she’d been treated, as we do patients who suffer from diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease? Would that have given her a chance? Would she have responded? Could the outcome have been different, not just for El, but for the more than 70,000 people who lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2017 alone?
And I wish I could have known her at 52.
Edie Magnus is a former broadcast journalist and currently serves as Executive Director of Media and Innovation for Mercy College. She is a member of Shatterproof's Board of Advisors.