The following is a true story about love, and loss, and how the emotional rollercoaster of addiction affects so many. We are deeply humbled by the opportunity to share such a personal story from one of The Prompt community’s most prolific and beloved writers, Sarah Razner.
My sister, Jenna, loved fall. She eagerly awaited the changing of the leaves and the roll out of fashions in maroon, burnt orange, and mustard tones. She craved the scent of Bath & Body Works’ “Sweater Weather” candles, and the taste of apple cider and pumpkin muffins from the local orchard. As a teacher, she loved to carve jack-o’-lanterns with her class; as a barista, to serve drinks with all the trappings of fall; and as a mom to her many fur babies, dress them in special flannel scarves for the season.
My mom, sister (Katie), and I joined Jenna each year in enjoying the scents and the beauty of a Midwestern autumn. But my bonding with Jenna had bounds. Just as she had her recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds easily accessible, she had a list of horror flicks to watch and scary spots to explore. As she walked into haunted houses, ready to laugh in the face of whatever menacing “creatures” lurked within, I kept as much distance between me and the beasts as I could, knowing I’d be far more likely to cry or want to throw up than giggle. It was a trait in her that I both admired and didn’t understand. I couldn’t and still can’t fathom why people would willingly scare themselves when there was enough to be scared of already.
She found thrill in the jumpscare, and throughout her life had learned to lean into fear. As a teacher, each class and each year came with new challenges, as with learning, no growth happened purely in comfort or without effort or a bit of anxiety. Multiple times, she had to reconfigure what she imagined her life would be: in career or relationships or her day-to-day. Although it was difficult to meet such changes at all, let alone with a smile or without sadness, Jenna met them and made whatever space she found herself in more beautiful, and she made friends with whomever inhabited those spaces with her. She had dealt with things much scarier than what Halloween could conjure up.
In early August of this year, as businesses began to stock their shelves with candy corn and mellowcreme pumpkins, Jenna suggested we go to Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America. She was a fan of the Halloween-themed festival, and wanted to ride the plunging rollercoasters, even those that ran backwards on rickety wooden tracks for the event. Since amped-up rollercoasters ranked pretty high on my list of least appealing things ever, I almost immediately turned it down.
Maybe one year, I thought, like I had so many times over the past 12 months, a year that had felt like a turning point in our relationship, in our family. Maybe one year we’d all be able to take a long vacation together. Maybe one year we could heal and all the pain and the trouble and the panic of the past could be behind us. Maybe one year I’d stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Less than a week later, the shoe dropped with a startling bang, and life answered my maybes with a distinct, harsh, unforgettable, unyielding no.
It’s a devastating war, one that has taken more than 2 million lives in the past decade when accounting for those who died due to excessive drug and alcohol use. Despite its prevalence, it’s a disease that we still lack understanding and empathy for in comparison to other ailments, relying mainly on stereotypes and convenient untruths to form our perceptions. Although we’ve made progress in raising awareness in recent years, as a whole, we are still struggling to meet the disease with kindness and acceptance and care. As our siblings, friends, parents, spouses, neighbors, and coworkers hide in shadows and silence to escape judgment, we are doing them a disservice and creating an environment in which it seems easier and less scary to remain in active addiction than to face the stigma of the outside world.
In the early years, I believe she hid the true depth of her addiction from us as much as she did from herself.
In Wisconsin—a state known for its love of alcohol and proclivity for binge drinking—alcohol is a staple at get-togethers and homes. As is common for people in their twenties, Jenna and her friends enjoyed hanging out with drinks in hand. While within our household, drinking was limited, it was the norm at many larger family events.
At the time, we didn’t see her drinking as problematic, simply because we didn’t see the full scope of her use. We weren’t aware that the social activity had poured into her solitude as she began to self-medicate for worsening anxiety. I cannot tell you exactly when that switch flipped and the disease, half-nature, half-nurture, took hold, but I can tell you that in hindsight, the trajectory makes sense.
Although it is not known which comes first, the substance abuse or the mental illness, the two are comorbid, meaning they go hand-in-hand and often affect one another. I have seen this in my own life, as the vast majority of people I know who suffer from substance abuse disorder suffer from some kind of mental illness as well, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
She was 27, and I was 18, when we first discovered empty bottles of alcohol in her home. I’ll admit, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should’ve at the time. Although I had family members who had fought the disease, and some who had lost their fight, I hadn’t seen it firsthand and didn’t understand that what I was looking at wasn’t something that should be laughed off with a casual remark, like, “looks like someone’s had a little too much to drink.”
The laughter was short-lived. The bottles became easier to find, appearing in greater quantities. Quickly what started as a weekend activity ate its way into the work week with binges starting on Thursdays, some of which lasted into Monday. We discovered she had tells for if she was drinking—a slip of a word, a glassy stare—and could quickly determine if she had been drinking or not. The smell of alcohol became a commonly recognized scent, and whenever I got a whiff of anything smelling vaguely like it, I automatically tensed and felt nauseous.
My family and I came to dread the end of the week as the pattern laid itself out: drinking, fighting, crying, praying, begging, drinking, fighting, crying, praying, begging, again and again and again.
What Jenna had hid for so long became more and more evident to those close to her. Her relationships began to deteriorate, friends falling away as they couldn’t handle it, family falling apart as we wanted to help, but in the moments we couldn’t, wished we could escape. We couldn’t do that either, not while one of us remained in hell.
I can viscerally remember the yelling over the fate of the bottle—to not or not to dump—and fearing for Jenna’s fate when she chose the latter over food, sense, and what felt like us. Every weekend, we stood in the doorway of her room, watching her sleep, listening to her breaths to make sure they were present. My mom later told me that as she held vigil at the foot of Jenna’s bed, she would plan Jenna’s funeral, just to be prepared.
Drained of energy and at our wits end, we cried with each other and on our own, wondering how this had happened, pleading with Jenna and with God for her to get better.
Fear took up a permanent residence in our bodies, and I wished it could be just a brief tenant in Jenna’s, as if that could change what was happening. We begged her to see the threat that was right in front of her, to understand that every drink she took was another step towards death, but she dismissed it. To calm the nerves within her, she kicked into hyperdrive to convince us the only way for her to survive was to drink, relaying us the message her brain had told her. To describe it as frustrating would be putting it mildly, and I am sure Jenna felt the same way.
Just the opposite. It disposes of all reason, rerouting the brain’s pathways to focus on the need for pleasure and reward. All requirements for survival—food, water, basic safety—do not matter and are discarded for the wants of the rewired synapses. If they are not placated, the body winds itself into an anxious frenzy. As much as an addiction is a disease of no logic, it is also one rife with fear. I wanted her to feel fear—the kind that tells you to STOP, the kind of fear that drives self-preservation—but I realized I should’ve been praying for her peace instead.
We kept all this to ourselves, not sharing with anyone beyond our immediate circle that while they saw the polished, professional Jenna, behind closed doors, we were wondering when our world would irrevocably change and she would be no longer with us.
We kept mum, too, for her and maybe for ourselves. We were aware of the stigma, one that identified addiction not as a disease but a personal and familial failing. In the years that followed, we saw this stigma in action. The majority of people understood, having lived it themselves, or having loved ones that had; but there were others, some who we knew well, who changed after we confided in them, their preconceptions tinged their perceptions. For some, it was as if Jenna’s drinking held a mirror to their own and they didn’t like what they saw. No matter which, the result was the same: distance.
It took nearly another to convince her to get help and, with the assistance of our local mental health center, to check into a 90-day rehabilitation center. When we said our goodbyes to her, she cried, afraid of what this new life would be like, scared that people would find out what she had been struggling with, but knowing she had to try for it all the same. I did not cry. “This is a good thing, a happy thing,” I remember telling her. “Why would I be sad?”
If I had known then what I knew now, I would’ve told her how brave she was for doing it, and for all worry that needing help showed weakness or deficiency, she was incredibly strong.
She rebuilt her life, taking on a new teaching job and later a managerial position within education. She received help to manage her mental health and keep the anxiety at bay as much as she could. She reestablished friendships and said goodbye to others. She laid the foundation of new relationships, particularly with those she met at 12-step meetings, who inspired her their stories of one, seven, 20 years of sobriety, and lives full of hope, promise, and happiness. We saw Jenna aglow again as she pursued her passions in the classroom, with animals, as an aunt, and as a caretaker for our grandma. She did what she could to help others who were walking the same path, supporting those who were in recovery and struggling, and, in what was a proud and beautiful moment, sharing her story in front of her sober community to help inspire and raise awareness.
It felt like after a hypoxic existence, oxygen had been pumped back into the room. We breathed deep, all while knowing one day we could return to the shallow. We all wanted to believe we wouldn’t.
As is the case with diseases, relapses in addiction are not uncommon. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60 percent of people in treatment for substance abuse disorders relapse. After the death of our grandpa, Jenna’s struggles amplified, and searching for relief and consolation, the disease called her back to alcohol, a temporary salve that only increased the gaping of the wound.
The addiction took hold in full force, reaching new lows. She fell into bad relationships that decimated her and all she had rebuilt. She pulled away from her sober community, even as they reached out. She lied to turn a tale in her favor, until we couldn’t decipher the fact from the fiction. She listened to those who offered her false promises, and shut down those who tried to discourage her from doing so. It felt like a slap in the face, a betrayal. At times, it felt like she dropped out of our orbit completely, only reappearing when her world was in flames.
She became almost like a stranger, or at least a stranger in comparison to the Jenna she had been. Physically, she was still on this earth, but we entered a stage of grief nonetheless, both for the person she once was and in anticipation of when she was gone, body and soul. I’d be lying if I said that bitterness and anger and resentment towards her didn’t grow in the gap between what we used to be and what we had become. I didn’t want this to life for me, for us, for her, and even though I knew she really didn’t either, it didn’t relieve the sting.
Within our family, we all kind of became like strangers to each other, turning into different versions of ourselves, none that any of us liked. In that way, we weren’t that different from Jenna. I wore a mask to everyone in the outside world, presenting myself as someone who wasn’t struggling although I was. I trafficked in half-truths and omissions to people I loved to try to keep the peace. I buried my emotions in my coping mechanisms like writing, and stories, and exercise to try to survive. Driven by emotion and self-preservation, I said and did things I regretted. I struggled to ask for help. I detached and distanced myself, speaking at times in harsh, rigid tones that led Jenna to dub me “Sergeant Sarah.”
Although I did not see Jenna every day like when we lived at home together, the instances I saw her when she was using I count among the worst moments of her substance abuse. Every night during her binges, my dad stopped at her apartment to check on her and see if she was ready to get help. Sometimes my family and I went with him, especially if it had been a bad day, as we did not want him to have to find his daughter dead on his own.
On one of these occasions, we brought her food in the hopes that we could get her to eat something so her diet wasn’t strictly liquid. She could sit up, but only with her arms propped on her knees. Her speech was stunted and stuttered, veering into gibberish. Her face was blotched in red, her eyes dark, her lips tinted from the alcohol, the smell of it lingering in the air. She couldn’t move easily, having barely any strength to lift a sandwich or drink to her mouth, but if she was to survive, she needed to eat, so I fed her. I brought her straw to her lips so she could sip, offered her fries and her sandwich piece by piece. Her bites were slow, hesitant, and exhausted. They were the motions of someone who was sick, someone deteriorating from a long illness, because that was exactly what was happening.
While some people believe someone choosing to pick up a drink or a drug in addiction disqualifies addiction from being a disease, that disregards two things: the changes to the brain that drive that choice, and that choosing is not the same as wanting.
Despite the changes within her, she was still my sister, still someone I loved dearly, still someone with whom I shared thousands of memories, many of which, though hard to see then, were good.
It had been 10 years since we first realized what was going on, but it may as well have been 100 lifetimes. She was now 37, and I was now 28, and I felt like we were both simultaneously too young and too old to be going through this.
We sought to help her as much as we could, running dry what felt like all of our resources. While Jenna had great support within her sober community, other systems in society are not as helpful, understanding, or forgiving when it comes to assisting someone in active addiction. They and their loved ones are often met with repeated brick walls when seeking help.
When Jenna asked us to take her in for treatment, most of the time we did, only pumping the breaks if she had been in and out of the ER multiple instances in one week. Doctors and nurses offered her the best care they could, generally treating her with compassion and sometimes to a reality check. My family and I, along with Jenna’s friends—particularly those from recovery—kept her company, trying to keep her anxiousness at bay as she sobered up, my dad and brother-in-law playing her favorite tunes off their phones to calm her. But the long process of being admitted to the mental health floor had never been Jenna’s friend, and more often than not, after waiting for three, four, five hours to be cleared, her anxiety and withdrawals peaked and she powered out of the doors determinedly, unable to be stopped.
After a particularly long day that ended with no progress, I told her she was dead to me. Although I know it came from a place of frustration and that feeling was valid, given the chance to do it over again, I would take those words back every time.
Once after Jenna fell unresponsive, my mom called an ambulance, and paramedics took Jenna to the local hospital. Within an hour they released her and called us to say we needed to pick her up because it wasn’t safe for her to leave on her own. We also couldn’t bring her back, since she had been there too many times that week. It didn’t matter that she was mentally and physically unfit to leave—a fact that they admitted to—or that with each drink she took she was killing herself; they could not assist anymore. When my mom told me what had happened, I broke down in my office, bereft, believing that this time would be the end, and not ready for it to be.
We reached out to our county to see if we could file a third-party petition and testify that Jenna was not in her right mind and a danger to herself, so they could mandate that she entered treatment. I don’t recall the reasoning behind their “no” to us, but do I remember them making a distinction between mental health and addiction. If she was struggling with her mental illness and posed a risk, we could move forward with the petition, but since it was an addiction, they could not compel her to enter treatment, as if addiction and mental illness were two disparate things. As if she wasn’t killing herself.
At the end of our ropes and fearing for Jenna’s safety and our own, multiple times we felt compelled to call 911, hoping they could help us get her medical treatment or at least somewhere safe. The officers largely wanted to assist and did what they could, but as the black and white of the law doesn’t offer much space for the grayness of addiction, too many occasions ended with legal ramifications for Jenna. Some were necessary, acting like terrible stopgap measures to save her. Others, most, felt like a punishment inflicted on someone who was already suffering enough.
When I called Jenna’s counselor for direction, bemoaning the lack of resources for families to get their loved ones help, she said something I will never forget: “It’s not a crime to drink yourself to death in Wisconsin.” She spoke the words not with coldness or anger or impatience, as we had heard many times before, but with empathy and truth. I appreciated her recognizing our situation and confronting us with reality. I hated the reality of it all the same, and to this day feels absolutely wrong. I understand that it’s not a crime, but if we know someone is a danger to themselves, should we not be able to help? Should we not do more than turn away and hope for the best? The optimist in me still thinks so.
There, we could learn more about addiction and speak with others going through the same situation. One thing we learned about was enabling addiction, or doing things that allow a person’s addiction to continue by keeping them from hitting rock bottom. I realized then and I realize now that some of these attempts to help her may have constituted enabling, and we will never know if making a different choice would mean that she would still be here. I do know that while you may know you’re enabling someone, stopping yourself from doing so is incredibly difficult.
Because when someone is killing themselves in front of you, you try to do all you can to save them. However, you also learn that wanting sobriety for someone cannot will it into being. You can give them everything you think they need to stop, but until they realize they need to and that they can, it doesn’t matter. They have to push for it all on their own.
That same counselor I had spoken to, along with others from her organization, worked with Jenna to establish a plan for her treatment, and in turn, her life. She returned to 12-steps meetings and became more deeply involved with the sober community—her community. She focused on bettering her mental health and trying to break her patterns with relationships.
She found two new jobs, one with a friend from her 12-step program, who brought her on to help him with his business, and another as a barista at one of her favorite places, Starbucks. She quickly showed them the asset she was with her work ethic, readiness to learn, and positive attitude. In return, she had a job she loved going to, with people who saw the best in her and believed in her potential.
As Jenna became more involved in our lives than she had been in years, the sister and daughter we had known reappeared. She adored our niece and nephews and made the time to be with them, taking them to the park, letting them play with her many pets, or bringing out her caboodle of makeup and hair care products to do my niece’s hair in the way only she could.
Jenna made an effort with me, my sister, and my parents, too. My desk is marked by this effort, found in the little gifts she would get us on shopping trips. She loved to make us drinks at Starbucks for us to try, although since I did not share her high caffeine tolerance and iron stomach, I couldn’t handle most of them. Events that, for years, had only two sisters had three again.
It was better than it had been in a while, but that’s not to say tension didn’t remain. We still didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything. We butt heads, and we worried about things and people that Jenna believed were non-issues. Our choices mutually drove each other crazy.
As Jenna tried to build inroads with us, I resisted. I feared the prospect of letting her close again all for the other shoe to drop like it had so many times before. I am ashamed to say that it wasn’t purely out of protection, though. I kept her at a distance to send her a message that just because she was sober and wanted to move forward didn’t mean that I did, or, more accurately, that I could. I was stuck in the trauma of it—the terror, the anguish. I couldn’t forget.
As much as we railed against losing Jenna while she was using, we also prepared for it too. After years of having her as at most a half-presence in our lives, we had learned to some extent what it was like to live without her. Now that we had her back, it was like I didn’t know what to do with all the emotions crammed within me—the joy of having her sober, the anger at all that had happened in the past few years, and the anxiety of going back to a place I never wanted to return.
I imagine it was the same for her as we came back in her life, too—joy for each moment she didn’t use, anger at us for the things we had done to try to make her stop, the anxiety of a sober life not being enough to sustain her, or being too much to handle. I think if we talked about it, we would’ve found common ground, roots in similar feelings. After all, in very different ways, we had both poured 10 years of ourselves into this battle; but as much as I wanted to heal, most of the time I couldn’t see past the pain.
I do not doubt, or understand, how incredibly difficult it had to be for her to choose sobriety every moment, when every day a voice in her head was telling her not to, when she told us so often she felt like was starting back at square one and she had lost everything she had worked so hard for. We reminded her she didn’t, because just days, weeks, months before, she wasn’t sober, and now she was.
The longer she was sober, the more she began to envision a future she could build beyond that starting block. In the summer before she died, Jenna talked of moving up in Starbucks management, going back to school, and becoming a sober helper and AODA, who could walk alongside those in addiction and help guide them through as others had done for her.
In relationships, when she felt devalued or disrespected, I saw her stand in her worth and admit that she did not deserve some behaviors, that she deserved better. She made peace with friends she had lost. When it came time to face the repercussions of some of her actions while in active addiction, she did so with an accountability and grace I had never seen before in her, as well as more composure and bravery than I think I could’ve.
When our family spoke on her behalf, through tears, we shared this growth we had seen. Although I wish it didn’t have to happen, I will look back on that moment with gratitude, as it gave us a chance for us to tell her and for her to hear that through all the strife and conflict and self-imposed distance, we loved her, we saw her—all she had lost and all she had reclaimed— and we were beyond proud of her.
This summer, for the first time in a long time, my worry began to ease. It felt like maybe her battle wasn’t just in a ceasefire, but maybe the battle lines were receding. Maybe it was over. What I neglected to remember in my hopeful, blissful naivete is that just because I didn’t witness a fight didn’t mean it wasn’t happening.
Our family was on vacation, and we had some of the best days we had with each other in years. The weather was beautiful, and our inner storms were calm, with little bickering or anxiety. We just enjoyed each other’s company, and Jenna was all smiles as we strolled through the zoo, and she rode on roller coasters and water slides with our niece and nephew.
It was a blessing, and I thought it felt too good, but I didn’t want to jinx it by saying it out loud.
On the ride home from the Wisconsin Dells, I shared with Jenna a quote that had resonated with me from the book I was reading, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab. At the point of the story, an evil god tells the main character about the difference between him and the gods in whom others seek comfort and aid. Unlike them, the evil god says, he “will always answer.” Jenna responded that it also described addiction, and how the drugs and the alcohol will always be there to answer, but never solve the problem.
If that was a signal to me of where her mind was, and that the addiction was baiting her, I missed it. We all did.
Less than a week after that conversation, my parents and I found her in her bed, unconscious. At first we believed she was sleeping, and the noises she was making were snores. We later learned that they were gasps from a lack of oxygen called a “death rattle,” a sign of a drug overdose. Although we were aware that after breaking her ankle a couple years ago, a friend of hers, addicted as well, had given her narcotics and she had used them, it wasn’t on our radar that she considered using them when alcohol had always been her drug of choice.
That August night, as we stood in the emergency room, I thought about the many times we had been there and we thought we would lose her. Those would’ve made more sense, as they were usually preceded by days of use and signs we couldn’t ignore. But this night bore none of those markers.
Over and over, we asked why, and we continue to. As much as I want to find out what had happened that day that suddenly led her to use, I also know that in my understanding of addiction, although flawed and incomplete, I can find an answer that will bring me some peace: Sometimes there is no reason, sometimes there is no logic, sometimes the screams within you are so loud you can’t ignore them. We had seen it before, only then Jenna was here afterwards to help us try to understand.
This time she couldn’t. There was too much damage.
Jenna would not come back and make this make sense.
No matter why she used, she would’ve never wanted this outcome, and I wished we could’ve stopped her, that we would’ve known what was happening and been able to help her. I wanted better for her, for my parents, for my sister and brother-in-law, for our niece and nephews, for us all. I wanted a different ending, and the fact that Jenna didn’t get one felt like I had failed her, although I know that’s not true. Just as she had tried her best, we had tried ours too.
It’s hard to find something to be grateful for in your worst moment, but if there was one blessing, it was that in Jenna’s last moments we got to be with her. Addiction can be a lonely disease and the deaths caused by it can often be lonely, too, as we so often feared for Jenna. But she was not alone. She left surrounded by love.
She was 38, I was 29, and we were both too young for this.
When writing Jenna’s obituary, there was very little debate over how we would term her death. For us, to omit the disease would be to gloss over what she had endured and to relegate her life as part of the sober community as less important when it meant so much to her and to us. If we hid it, it felt like we were ashamed of it—and by extension ashamed of her—and we were not ashamed. It was our hope that by being truthful we could both honor Jenna and help others who were suffering to know they were not alone.
Since then, people have come to us with stories of their own Jennas—their siblings, their children, their spouses, their friends–who suffered from addiction and who had succumbed to it, as well as those who were still fighting it. In the weeks after she died, we became very attentive to the news and obituaries, clocking each time a death from drugs or addiction appeared. Every week, there has been at least one.
In 2021, 106,699 people died from drug-involved overdoses in the United States, an uptick of nearly 15,000 from 2020 and 54,000 in 2015, and more than 80,000 in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control. From 2015 to 2019, an average of 140,557 lost their lives to excessive alcohol use. It led to the deaths of one in five people ages 20 to 49, and one in four in ages 20 to 34, per a Centers for Disease Control Study published in JAMA Network Open. The pandemic only caused these numbers to rise, with the number of deaths with excessive drinking as the primary cause rising 30 percent—a 23 percent jump over the typical 7 percent or less increase seen in the two decades before.
It can be easy to let our eyes glaze over such data, and to not let the full human impact of that hit. Numbers are cold. They don’t have personalities, or dreams, or loved ones waiting at home for them. They don’t sing their hearts out to Billy Joel, or to sip coffee in their backyards on crisp mornings, or have children who see them as their hero. They are simply another tally tick, another statistic, and as long as it’s a statistic and not as our neighbor, it’s easier not to care, and to fall into the trap that if it doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t matter.
Like the epidemics of gun violence and Covid, it will one day affect you if it hasn’t already. The rarity in our country is not knowing someone who suffers from addiction, but not not knowing someone who does. How widespread is addiction? According to Brain Wise and the Centers for Disease Control, more than 20 million Americans age 12 and older suffer from substance abuse disorder. When including tobacco and alcohol addiction, that number shoots to 153 million. In the past year alone, 53 million have either misused prescription drugs or used illegal drugs—that’s almost 16 percent of the population of the U.S. Based on these statistics, it is very unlikely that we all don’t know multiple people who suffer from addiction or at least know someone who does. The thing is, you may just not know you do.
Although we are taking strides in bringing more awareness to addiction as a disease, stigma persists. Too often we see politicians and pundits decry the number of deaths from fentanyl and then proceed to use someone’s addiction to ridicule them or blemish their reputation. If we want to make progress in battling addiction, we must treat it and mental illness as a whole as we do other illnesses like cancer where there is no judgment or fear of repercussions.
So often, Jenna resisted asking for help out of fear of sharing her struggle, but help is what saves us and we need to create environments where people feel safe enough to step out of the shadows and ask for it. If we don’t, it is only going to cost more lives, lives with so much potential, lives that have changed and could change the world.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, three out of four people recover from substance abuse. Seventy-five percent. That is extraordinary. In my time with Jenna, I had the privilege of meeting many people who had decades of sobriety to their name, and who served as a reminder for those coming to recovery anew that a rich life with joy and happiness is possible. They show that addiction is not a death sentence, and that hopefully, if we can address it head on and meet it with empathy, we can raise that success rate, and reduce the number of lives lost.
I will not pretend that this will be easy, but I believe if we work at it, both individually and as a society, it is possible. We can push for better resources, more funding for recovery programs, and further inclusivity. We can make change all on our own by offering support and a space of non-judgment to those in our lives who are suffering with mental illness, as well as to their loved ones. We attach so much meaning to words, and if we make an effort to counteract the connotations of words like addiction and alcoholism and addict, it can change perception.
This could be as simple as no longer saying, “Diana has a problem” when describing addiction, and instead saying, “Diana has a disease.” It’s one word, and yet it creates a shift in perspective, removing the shame and the stigma. A problem implies there is something wrong, that a person needs to be fixed. A disease implies sickness, a need for treatment, and hope for healing—and there is so much hope to be found.
It’s always in hindsight that connections are the most obvious. We don’t see all the strings and how they intertwine as they’re laid one by one, but only once we can look back at them in their entirety.
Since Jenna’s death, I have been hit with reminder after reminder of the ways—both minute and gigantic—she has shaped my life. Despite my initial resistance to coffee, I now spend more money at Starbucks than I should, instigated by her job there. Every time I pass a dead animal on the side of the road, I make the sign of the cross as she always had. Her repeated invitations are the only reason I ever stepped foot in a gym, and her waxing kit and tweezers are why my eyebrows are not a disaster.
I don’t drink. I’m careful in relationships. I understand the importance of caring for my mental health, practicing self-love, and choosing someone who loves and respects me. I appreciate classic TV, oldies tunes, and anything with Ryan Gosling. I try to act with compassion, and tread the earth with more gentle steps, having learned that we never know what someone is really going through. I deeply appreciate family and what it means to be a sister.
As I struggled to stay afloat in the first years Jenna was sick, I picked up my computer and poured my thoughts into fiction, fashioning a life preserver out of words and imagination. It led me to write short stories and novels, and for a period of time, work as a reporter. No matter the medium, Jenna was there, bleeding into everything from a news report on staying sober in Wisconsin, to short stories helmed in familial bonds, and the first novel I wrote when I was 20, ironically about a girl mourning the death of her sister.
I couldn’t help but see the poeticism in it. I had found my words with Jenna, and with her loss, it was only fitting they went, too, and that when they returned, they were for her.
With Jenna’s passing, we were privileged to learn the ways that she had shaped other’s lives, too, guiding them with a gentle hand. Former students shared how as their teacher, she made them feel seen and special like few others had. One mother gave my mother a picture of her daughter with Jenna and told her how Jenna was her daughter’s favorite teacher. Coworkers past and present told us how much they loved working with her and the light she brought—the kindness, the caring.
Her friends from her sober community, many of whom I had never gotten to meet before, told us stories that will forever remain with me. Like the ones who said she had inspired them to stay sober, and helped them through the darkest moments of their lives. And the man who said that in the days before she died, he and Jenna had been working together to reunite a woman with her dog. And another who told us that for months, unbeknownst to us, she had met with him every week at the library to teach him how to read.
Addiction takes a lot from people—their sobriety, of course, but also their mental stability, their logic, their survival instincts, their support systems, and for too many, their lives. For those who love them, it rips away the person they knew and can make the memories of the good times with them foggy and hard to reach.
I had lost sight of much of the good over the past few years, but as people filed through, offering their condolences and memories for Jenna, I felt like she was right in the room with us, all the parts of her shining through, some of which I had forgotten, some of which I was just meeting for the first time. Yes, Jenna was complex, a mix of black and white like we all are, and within those intricacies of humanity was so much good, so much love, so much heart.
At the end of the wake, after the funeral home had cleared out until it was just immediate family, my sister, Katie, and I approached Jenna and knelt at her side. Laying my hand on hers, I told her what I had too often held back: I was proud of her.
In her 38 years, though they were too short, Jenna had fought hard, she loved hard, and she had done well. She had left a mark.
The leaves have begun to change in my hometown, a sign that time continues to pass. For the first time in my life, Jenna and I will not share a fall together. There will be no trips for caramel apples with her, or jack-o’-lantern carving. We will not dress up or go trick-or-treating with our nieces and nephews. She will not scare me with scary movie clips, and I will not hear her ask us to go with her to FrightFest ever again. This magical season she so loved will now and forever conjure up memories and missing, and that hurts like nothing ever has. And yet, my mind can’t wrap around the reality of it. But this is our truth.
Recently, scrolling through Instagram, I came across a quote that read, “The autumn is for those who find beauty in the ending,” and I immediately thought of Jenna.
Of course, she saw the beauty in the season, in life, too. After enduring many endings and beginnings, Jenna was able to find even the smallest sliver of good in each phase of life. I am far from understanding her ending—why it had to be this way and why it had to be now—and I don’t think it’s possible to see beauty in her end. But my sister Jenna is more than her end, and amid the grief and the sorrow, I am unable to deny that Jenna has left a vivid swath of beauty in the lives she touched in her wake.
As I watch the leaves tumble from the trees, I am reminded of one more lesson fall offers us, one Jenna tried so hard to learn and that will help us endure as we navigate life without her: Even after the leaves fall and all seems cold, dark, and desolate, there is always hope for spring. From what we think is dead, new life will sprout, and we can always begin again.