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People remember the moment they heard Elvis died, or John Lennon, or Whitney Houston. They remember the shock that comes with learning that a person you had held in such high regard, and who had brought so much joy through sharing their talents, was no longer able to share, to create, to live.

For me, that person was Cory Monteith, known to many as Finn Hudson on Glee.

It was July 14, 2013. At 19, I typically enjoyed the ability to sleep in that came with summer, especially when sleep had become more scarce. But that morning, my mom came into my room and woke me with a start. Despite the clock reading just after 6:30 A.M., I remember it was bright out, sunlight filtering through my blinds in rectangular shadows across my comforter and my mom’s sad eyes as she told me the news.

The night before, Cory Monteith had been found dead in his hotel room in Vancouver. Preliminary reports said they believed it was from an accidental overdose, a mix of drugs and alcohol. Sadly, those reports turned out to be right.

I didn’t believe my mom right away. Maybe it was because I was tired and unable to process, or maybe I just didn’t understand.

While he didn’t have the same widespread cultural impact as celebrities, Cory Monteith and Glee had left an indelible mark on me.

During my teenage years, as I, like most if not all people, felt like a misfit—lonely, weird, and with no place to fit in—Glee, with its music, camp, and message of acceptance, helped me to feel less out of place. For an hour each week, it was an escape not necessarily into a better world, but one that made me feel better about the one I lived in. And Cory as Finn, the quarterback turned lead singer, was a large part of that. In moments when my spirits needed a lift, all I had to do was turn on one of his songs, be it a solo, duet, or amazing, highly choreographed group number, and I got a boost.

But suddenly, he was gone. And I could simply not make sense of it. Yes, he had talked about his struggles with addiction in the past, but he was in recovery. He was supposed to be okay, not die, and definitely not like this, at 31 in a hotel room all alone.

Yet, I knew how easily it could happen. I knew multiple people who had died from the disease, some in my own family tree, and just that morning, we were coming off a rough night with a close family member, who, we had learned over the course of the previous year, was an addict. It was a realization I never dreamed I would have to come to in my life, and to some extent, the fact that I had may have been the reason I took Cory’s death as hard as I did. Because, again, to some extent, I could understand what his family had gone through: the worry, the frustration, the downright fear. It didn’t feel like it was hitting too close to home.

Cory’s death had struck my home right at its foundation.

As I cried into my pillow, heartbroken, my mom dealt another blow: no one could get a hold of our family member. The night before, after fighting over the drink, they had checked into a hotel and had communicated with no one since.

It is here that my panic surged into the sadness. While Cory Monteith was not someone I knew, I was now feeling heightened emotions over someone I had known and loved all my life. Nonetheless, their fates could be the same.

We called and called their cell phone, listening to the trill of the ringer on repeat in the hope we’d get a live voice rather than the recorded one. It didn’t break through.

With the news reiterating where Cory Monteith had been found, we quickly set out for our family member’s hotel. I felt nauseous, my body tense like it was preparing to protect itself from whatever was about to come.

Speaking with the front desk worker, we asked for our family member’s hotel room number, so we could go up and try to find them ourselves. Out of privacy concerns, she couldn’t give us the number, but said that she would try to call the room. One, twice, no answer. With every second, it felt as though my stomach had added another fold to whatever convoluted shape it was taking.

Again, we asked, this time more desperate, to be let upstairs to find them, but the employee said “no,” and the manager told us she would go up and check. I no longer believed they did it solely for privacy. The workers didn’t want us to be the ones to find the person we loved dead.

We were nervous wrecks at that desk, our eyes either trained on the elevator door or on our hands, folded in prayer that this hotel room would not be like Cory’s and so many others before him. I made deals with God, saying that if my family member lived, I would never ask for anything again, a deal that I have since gone back on many times, some for my family member, when we found ourselves in similar situations again, and more often for myself.

Between April 2020 and April 2021,100,306 people in the United States died from drug overdoses, and more than 52,000 from alcohol-induced deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 150,000 people who had families and friends begging for a different outcome than the one they received, maybe in hotels just like we were.

Looking back in our lives, we can pinpoint moments that changed us.

Waiting in that lobby, the reality of addiction hit me in a way that it never had before—recovery and getting better was not a given. Death was always waiting in the wings, ready to aid addiction in its final theft. It was the loss of whatever innocence remained, or at the very least, of, ignorance. It was the day my music died.

After what felt like eons, the elevator door dinged open and the manager stepped out. My heart felt like it had caught in my chest, veins and arteries tying themselves around my ribcage. We needed a yes for life, and braced ourselves for the no.

I don’t remember how she told us that we were one of the lucky ones. Maybe it was a nod, or a “they’re okay,” but I do know she told us we could go up to the room to talk. When we saw our family member, we met them with a mix of thankfulness, relief, and anger at being panic stricken. I thought telling them about Cory Monteith would scare them like it had scared me, but I didn’t understand their disease and how when you’re actively in it, logic and consequences don’t always break through. I’ll be the first to say I still don’t understand it completely.

We took them home with us, shaken but at least able to take comfort in the fact that we hadn’t reached the worst outcome. Yet.

Because that’s the thing with addiction.

It’s an ongoing battle, one that never ends for the person suffering from it. All it takes is one day, one choice, and addiction can become the victor.

In the days after Cory Monteith’s death, people made comments about how he had done it to himself, not realizing, or more likely not caring, how insulting it was, particularly to his family who was left to hear it. Nine years has done little to change that.

While there is the choice to pick up a drink or use drugs or substances, addiction is also a mental illness, a fact that in my experience, many people and institutions, including health care and the legal system, still do not fully recognize.

This does a disservice to not only the person with the addiction, who may not receive the full scope of treatment they need or have other comorbidities addressed, but it also is a disservice to their loved ones, who are working within a system that offers them few tools to help their loved one and themselves as they many times, too, suffer.

This is where I will scream loudly from my soapbox.

The stigma hampers progress, and does no good, only harm.

For years, my family has kept our story to as few people as we could, because although it is our story to tell, we are not the ones who will bear the brunt of the judgment and possible consequences.

It’s another tragedy of the disease, as if maybe we spoke about it more when it happened to us, in our families, with our friends, people would not stay so long in the darkness of fearing repercussions and judgment and may be more willing to get treatment. Families like mine may feel less alone in our struggle.

Because the reality is, addiction is not restricted to the “bad seed” that we typically typecast it as in our minds.

With a combination of choice and genetics, it can happen to anyone, no matter your race, gender, income, or “moral standing.” It happened to Cory Monteith. It happened to my family. It has happened to those of my friends. It can happen to you or someone you know, too.

Each year, when the anniversary of Cory’s death comes around, headlines popping up in remembrance that never fail to elicit sadness, my family and I think back to that hotel lobby and how things have changed since then. There have been years of gratitude for sobriety and progress. There have been years where it feels like we’re still in that lobby.

But we have not reached our worst outcome yet, and I hope we never do.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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