Police chief on viral obituary: Vermont addict’s death ‘was nothing special at all’

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CBC News / YouTube

In the wake of the opiate-addict obituary read ‘round the world, Burlington, Vermont Police Chief Brandon del Pozo took to his Facebook page with a rant that should stop everyone in their sentimental, share-button-clicking tracks. The lengthy post, since republished as an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press, points out everything that’s wrong with the viral tribute—or more accurately, the public response to it.

Published Sunday, the obituary for Madelyn Linsenmeir, if you’ve not yet read it, is a well-crafted homage to a 30-year-old woman lost to a 14-year opioid addiction that started when she tried OxyContin at a high school party. Rather than dodge around Linsenmeir’s cause of death or portray her as an angel, the emotional eulogy paints the mother of one as a person with problems who, despite her talents and opportunities, her privileges and passions, still died of a disease we never talk about: addiction.

Our beloved Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir died on Sunday, October 7. While her death was unexpected, Madelyn suffered from drug addiction, and for years we feared her addiction would claim her life. We are grateful that when she died she was safe and she was with her family.

[…]

Madelyn was a born performer, and had a singing voice so beautiful it would stop people on the street. Whether she was on stage in a musical or around the kitchen table with her family, when she shared her voice, she shared her light.

[…]

She loved to ski and snowboard, and she swam on the YMCA swim team, winning medals at the New England regionals.

When she was 16 she moved with her parents from Vermont to Florida to attend a performing arts high school. Soon after, she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life.

To anyone whose family has been impacted by opiate addiction—and not just the more polite painkiller abuse that’s decimated the American middle and upper classes, but the sort of needle nightmares that have been destroying lives and families in the poorer sectors for over half a century—it can be jarring to read such an open discussion of the disease that’s long been dismissed as a bad choice that selfish junkies make.

“This is what the opioid epidemic looks like,” Linsenmeir’s sister writes on Facebook. But is it?

It’s essential to remember that, long before Oxycontin made this a suburban issue, poorer communities and communities of color lost multiple generations to addiction, a disease that was long derided as a decision and the target of a failed war on drugs that placed millions in prison instead of treatment. With that history in mind, it’s hard not to view the obituary and discussion around it as examples of a classist, race-based double standard.

The Linsenmeir obituary, for all its candor, glosses over the dirtiest parts of addiction, as well as the brutal heartbreak and havoc that those moments wrought on her family, while noting the sad hope that somehow always remained.

During the past two years especially, her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness, 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.

[…]

[W]e believed as we always did that she would overcome her disease and make the life for herself we knew she deserved. We believed this until the moment she took her last breath. 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.

You can read the whole obituary here, but Chief del Pozo’s rant, written on Tuesday, deserves more attention. For while Linsenmeir’s obituary humanizes and attempts to de-stigmatize addiction, which is well and good (and much-needed), del Pozo actually attempts to mobilize action to tackle the realities.

First, del Pozo points out the hypocrisy in the way we mourn white addicts from the ‘burbs while deriding people of color facing the same struggles.

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?

Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.

[…]

[I]f Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.

Why not?

We all know the answer, don’t we? Chief del Pozo goes on, explaining just how common deaths like Linsenmeir’s are, even if the obituaries aren’t all as well-written.

Make no mistake, no matter who you are or what you look like: Maddie’s bell tolls for someone close to you, and maybe someone you love. Ask the cops and they will tell you: Maddie’s death was nothing special at all. It happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.

Only then does del Pozo take the gloves off and start talking about the realities facing both addicts and those tasked to help them. These realities, of course, aren’t tackled by a viral tribute to one dead single mom from the suburbs—but they should be.

This is what I’m tired of: Arguing with sheriffs about their deputies carrying Naloxone at national conferences. Arguing with corrections officials at home about getting all inmates who need it on medication-assisted treatment early on in their sentence and keeping them on it even after they leave. Getting mocked by reactionaries because I won’t arrest desperate people for using non-prescribed addiction treatment meds.

[…]

The science is clear. We have medicines and protocols that work to effectively reduce the risks of death by overdose or other addiction-related causes. If you’re ignoring or denying them, then I’ll wonder if your tears for Maddie are crocodile tears.

[…]

They are based on science, and medicine, and they *will work* to lower the number of fatal overdoses and addiction-related deaths. And they’re not especially police-like, which wasn’t an accident because the police aren’t going to stop the dying themselves.

Chief del Pozo goes on to outline the procedures used in Burlington, and points out which current protocols have been deemed ineffective. The majority of his recommendations target the outdated ideals of abstinence-only treatment. He then continues in his honest indictment of the nation’s well-intentioned concern for this mother of one who succumbed to addiction, and closes with a firm call to action.

Maddie’s gone. She can’t feel your sorrow. But others are next. Some aren’t beautiful. Others look nothing like you.

[…]

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.

The chief’s op-ed is startling and scathing in its honesty, but it’s unlikely to garner a fraction of the attention that the well-crafted obituary did. After all, it requires action on our part, and requires change, in a way that clicking “Share” and choosing the perfect sad face emoji (😓😭😩☹️😥) do not.

If you’re struggling with addiction and are ready to get help, find resources here, or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

If you love someone struggling with addiction, know that you’re not alone. 

Finally, as the election looms, remember to support progressive candidates that are willing to go after the companies that profit from addiction, while also recognizing that addicts need our care and our help, not our derision. After all, they need that compassion NOW, not once they’re dead.

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