Nicholas Hilgartner

Nicholas Hilgartner

inquisitive, creative, intelligent, gentle, kind

This is a tribute I posted on social media for my son, on what would be his 27th birthday. It was intended to not only show who he was, but to inform my contacts what he went through, and the crisis we as a society are facing:

Today is Nick’s birthday. It’s been exactly 4 months since he died. The pain is still as fresh as ever. I suspect it will be that way for some time, but now also just a hammering buzz in the background of daily life.

Here is the reality: Nick died of a heroin overdose. Nick had fought and struggled for years. It was a fight that we all were fighting. Prior to his death, he had been clean (more on that). All he wanted was his life back. He was smart – he researched his disease. He was acutely aware that many considered what he was facing was a moral weakness, a character flaw, a lack of faith – the list goes on.
Close to 80,000 people died last year in the US from opioids (per the CDC).


This nightmare began for him as a young 18-year old, suffering from intense social anxiety, awkward, alone, depressed – as so many teenagers are. He was prescribed medication – some sort of anti-anxiety med. The parents of 18-year olds do not have the right to know what meds are being prescribed. He was considered an adult.

After wisdom teeth surgery, he was prescribed with almost 6 weeks of Oxycontin, a drug developed for the excruciating pain cancer patients experience. For wisdom teeth!

His brain was re-wired. Hooked. Where to go from there? Well, the cartels are shrewd. Black market Oxy is expensive. They were able to provide a much cheaper (and deadlier) alternative. Their marketing was well organized. In Alaska, dealers followed the model of the many little coffee shacks there: A frequent user card. Buy 10 get one free. And then there are also no shortage of ‘dark-web’ sites which offer a full array of alternatives; ‘experimental research chemicals’, fentanyl, on and on. Quickly shipped to customers around the country in tiny Ziploc bags, wrapped in dryer-sheets, stuffed into shoes, or other goods. Discrete - easy to ship undetected. I know far more about this than I ever imagined. I never imagined this!

We did not realize immediately the extent of his problem but once we did, we scrambled into action, as so many parents do, to find solutions. Medical treatment, rehab, counseling, relapse, again and again. We learned that our system of rehabilitation and assistance is a (expensive) revolving door of frustration and despair – still met with a very strong social stigma and an overall lack of real resolve to solve this crisis. It is a crisis! There were many long days and nights of anguish. Every mood, every action, every word was met with scrutiny.

80,000 people a year in the U.S! I can’t even imagine what it is globally. It is sad to think that our son is just another tragic number amongst a mind-numbing statistic. He was a living, breathing, young man with fears, hopes, and dreams. Intensely creative and intelligent. Sensitive and kind.
Nick’s mom, his brother, and I learned quickly the stigma involved. From all directions: Family, friends, medical, legal, government, etc. People, being ‘addicted,’ or having one in the family, is still seen as a failure, a weakness, a bad choice, something to discuss in hushed tones, and then immediately brushed aside. It’s almost too much for those who haven’t dealt with it to understand. And why should they understand? What can you say? It isn’t normal, and it isn’t right.

It is difficult to discuss the fact that your loved one is literally fighting for their life in a hellish cycle of despair, failure, hope, with attempts at rebuilding and fragile optimism, while trying to maintain some sense of dignity. And for the family: the anguish, the helplessness, the frustration, the hopelessness while despondently watching this soul crushing self- destruction.

It takes a dramatic toll on everyone around: The fractured relationships. The destroyed trust. The cleaning up. The nights of absolute fear and desperation. It drives wedges. It becomes the sole focus, like a fixation. It is a devastatingly destructive force.

We listened to the experts, followed advice, set a pattern “they will only recover when they hit rock-bottom”. I guess in some cases it works. What is rock bottom? How do you stand back and watch someone you brought into this world, someone you are pre-wired to protect with your life, spiral and suffer? It’s debilitating. I don’t know the statistics as to how successful our current mode of treatment works for young people who become dependent while their brains are still developing. I don’t believe it is very successful.

We have been told to not blame ourselves for the ‘bad-choices’ he had made resulting in his death. I suppose, at some point, he had a choice. However, this was not his choice! I know for a fact that this cycle of addiction was not a choice. His brain was re-wired in ways that we don’t fully understand. Nick did not want this. He was desperate to change his life. He did not want this!

I last saw him a few weeks prior. He was sad, he was frustrated, and he was ashamed. But he wanted more. He was hopeful. I saw the Nick that we love. His humanity. We spent time talking about hopes, dreams, and realistic expectations. He was anxious to return to school. He was fascinated with neuroscience. He knew his brain would require time to heal, but he would become excited when speaking about what we currently know about neural pathways and how we still know so little about our own brains. He was curious to understand how the still developing brain of a young person would be altered, and how ultimately it could be repaired. He wanted to be involved in research. He wanted to help.

He had hope.

While together, he spoke with his mom on the phone. She told him how she loved him. He knew he was loved, and he knew she and I would do everything we could for him but that his life was his own. Before I returned to the East Coast I hugged him, told him I loved him, I was proud of him. We had plans to bring him back for Thanksgiving – to surprise his mom. And he would stay here. Start over. Go to school.


Despite all he had been through, he maintained his humanity, a fierce sense of humor but with great empathy and compassion for those around him. He always asked how others were, what more can we do to help others. He just wanted people to be happy. He didn’t want people to hurt. He would spend hours creating epic drawings. He always had a smile on his face. He cared for his appearance. His apartment was quirky and clean. Despite all he was going through, he respected himself and those around him.

His death was preventable. Nick had not used for several years. He, at one point, had been prescribed a combination of drugs for mood, anxiety, seizures, etc., which almost turned him into a zombie. We had gained control over that and he was only on a couple of necessary medications. Previously, he had developed a heart condition and was prone to seizures – quickly stopping those medications was not an option. He had been working. He enjoyed his job and worked hard. We felt secure in the fact that he had insurance and was stabilized – he was supporting himself.
That didn’t last. He was laid off and lost his insurance. He could no longer afford the monthly payments for the ACA.

This happened very quickly. I found out while I was there and got involved trying to get his insurance back. However, what I didn’t know was that he was on a ‘self-prescribed’ wind-down of the meds that he was required to take. He weaned himself off in a matter of weeks since he couldn’t afford the prescriptions. A medical detox of that nature usually takes several months. His brain couldn’t handle it. Obviously, the demons that he had been keeping at bay for so long came back with such force that he had no control over it. Physiologically, most overdoses after a long period of being clean are caused as the user reverts to whatever level of drug they were at when they stopped. The body no longer has the tolerance. The sudden ingestion of such a high dose is lethal. I believe that is what happened to Nick.

These are just some of the facts. None of what I can write really describes who Nick was and what he struggled with.

His mom paints a better picture:

”Nick had been staying at the mission, but one day in the middle of July he called me to tell me that his bike tire was blown out by a goathead (a large, hard thorn) and he was trying to get a baby bird that had fallen out of a tree onto the sidewalk, to the sanctuary. He asked if I could pick him up and take the bird for help. I located him and he held that bird like it was the most precious thing. I noticed that Nick was sweating and hot and dehydrated and my heart broke because I didn't have any water for him. I held back tears for my son because he was so focused on that tiny little creature instead of his own needs. I am so very proud of my son that he had a beautiful heart. His heart was so full of the needs of others, that it was hard for him to navigate in this cruel world.

When Nick's Dad and I showed up in Idaho to bring his ashes home, the neighbors came down to tell us what a wonderful young man he was... I heard that although Nick had very little, he always shared what he had with others and was so kind, caring and respectful. One young lady had been going through her own kind of hell with addiction and Nick took her in, gave her his clothes to wear and fed her and took care of her for days while she detoxed. She told us that he was the consummate gentleman who made her feel so safe and cared for. She said that he was not the kind of guy who would ever "cat-call" or speak disparagingly about women, but just the opposite. I could go on and on about the wonderful qualities of my beautiful son. I want everyone to know that he was so incredibly intelligent. He aspired to be a neuroscientist. He knew so much about medicine and was constantly researching addictions and alternative methodologies. His library was extensive. He was a walking encyclopedia, like his dad and his grandpa. I thank the Lord for the time, although very little, that I had with him. When he was born and we would take him out, people would stop us and tell us what a beautiful baby he was. His big brown eyes shining, taking it all in. Such a gift to us. Nick had a quick wit and was constantly making us laugh with his dry sardonic humor. I loved watching him and Ben laugh and tell jokes and play video games together. I have never been happier than I was being a mom to my beautiful sons.

I get up every day and am reminded that my beautiful boy is not on this planet anymore. I have to steel myself and connect with God who reminds me that my son (and my mom) show up when 2 lovely cardinals do a drive-by past my head, just when I need the reminder that God is good and he has my son in the palm of His hands and I will see him again soon.

I know what a struggle it was for him because I read his journal. He wanted so very dearly to face off the demons and conquer the addiction. If I could have given my life so that he could have a few years of peace and happiness, free of this scourge of addiction, I would have done so willingly. I am mad that God did not allow me to trade places with my son. I, like his dad and brother, want so much for everyone to know what a wonderful spirit he was. He was not the addiction. We all have afflictions. If someone had cancer, we would rally behind them. Sadly, when it comes to addiction, many feel as if the individual just has to "muster" and everything will be alright. It is not so. Addiction is a disease, like cancer. My only peace is that Nick is in the arms of our Lord and I will hopefully see him soon. Count your blessings if you have not been touched by this dark black hole. I pray that God will take this unimaginable pain and guide me to help others. I did not want to outlive my children. Please pray for Ben, Nick's brother. The devastation is impossible to detail. I pray that my friends and family who read this, will grab hold of their kids and pray a blessing over them and then lift my family up, so that we can continue, through the grief that greets us every day when we open our eyes to the day. This has changed us on a cellular level, but my prayer is that God will let my light shine through to help the next mom or dad, sister or brother, who is facing off the darkness of this terrible affliction. If you read this through to the end, thank you and please say a prayer for Nicholas."

Now there will always be this massive hole. A week before his death he posted a song “The Ballad of Me and My Brain”. I finally just listened to it. I wish I had sooner. He was telling us something.

Nick was larger than life. We miss him. We are still trying to process this. It has only been 4 months. How do we move on? There is no choice there. But how can we continue to honor Nick? How do the families of 80,000 people a year cope? Or how are the families of the nearly 12 million opioid users in American today cope? Nick was fortunate in the sense that his mother, father, and brother loved him fiercely. From what I have seen as I’ve become acutely aware of this crisis over the years, this is the exception not the rule – it’s too sad and a terrible indictment. Where do we go from here? It is still so raw. However, one thing we taught Nick and his brother – we don’t fight lying down. And – we fight. I am not sure how yet, but we will.

As I’m finishing this I am listening to his favorite song: “So Far (It’s Alright)” by ‘The 1975’. It’s upbeat but tells a grim story. The optimistic melody is deceptive. He loved discussing the lyrics and the multiple layers of meaning. Nick knew this story too well.

Happy Birthday to you Nick. We love you. We miss you. More than we can describe. We will see you again somewhere.

Overdoses have increased 42% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us save lives.

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Overdoses have increased 42% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us save lives.

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