by Tony Wyman
On October 7, 2018, in the idyllic community of Burlington, Vermont, a 30-year-old mother in police custody laid in a hospital bed where, later that evening, she would take her last breath, succumbing to the ravages of opioid addiction.
Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir left behind a 3-year-old son, a life full of promise and unrealized talent, as well as a family that penned her obituary so full of heartbroken melancholy that it touched the world. Publications like People Magazine, The Washington Post and USA Today in the United States and The Guardian Newspaper in England picked up the story, sharing it with millions of readers all over the globe.
“To some, Maddie was just a junkie—when they saw her addiction they stopped seeing her,” said the obituary written by her sister, Kate. “And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay.”
Blessed with delicate good looks, the gift of a singing voice her sister described as “so beautiful it would stop people on the street,” and raised by a good, loving and devoted family that stuck with her to the end, Madelyn wasn’t the stereotypical victim of drug addiction most Americans think of when they contemplate the toll the opiod crisis is taking on the nation.
“She was a member of FolKids of Vermont, a dance and musical troupe that toured the world. Maddie visited Russia and Thailand with the group, and as part of their exchange program hosted kids from other countries at home in Vermont. She loved to ski and snowboard, and she swam on the YMCA swim team, winning medals at the New England regionals,” Maddie’s sister wrote in her obituary.
But, when she and her family moved to Florida so she could attend a performing arts high school, everything changed. At a party when she was 16, Maddie tried the opiod OxyContin for the first time, a youthful experiment that would redefine and, ultimately, end her life.
“Her disease brought her to places of incredible darkness,” wrote her sister, “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. For 12 days this summer she was home, and for most of that time she was sober. For those 12 wonderful days, full of swimming and Disney movies and family dinners, we 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.”
Like 42,245 opioid addicts killed by the drugs, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Maddie left behind family, friends and treatment professionals devastated by her death and frustrated by their inability to prevent her loss from happening.
Race and How We See Drug Use
Her death also led Burlington’s Police Chief Brandon del Pozo to ask, of those who read and reacted to the obituary, why it took Maddie’s death to get such an outpouring of emotion. “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?” the chief asked in a Facebook post he wrote the night Maddie’s obituary went viral. “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. 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?”
Chief del Pozo makes a great point, of course, even if it’s delivered more bluntly than some who read his post were comfortable with (he faced some criticism from readers who thought his tone was unduly harsh). Why doesn’t the nation respond with the same tears it shed for Maddie when victims of the opioid epidemic die in the hospital where my wife treats impoverished addicts in Dayton, Ohio, the opioid capitol of America? Why doesn’t People Magazine run a story about an inner-city mother’s death from crack addiction? Why doesn’t CNN spend air time talking about the young rust belt boy whose hopes of making his high school football team ended with an overdose of meth?
The answer, as uncomfortable as it may be to face, is, as a nation, we see drug users in a very different light based on their race. As far as drug addiction goes, if you are a white opioid user, you’re a victim, but if you are a person of color, you’re a junkie.
This may seem like semantics, just different words for the same problem, but the difference is very real and meaningful. Not only does the difference between the labels affect the way the media perceives the real story of drug addiction, it even changes the self-image of the victim, himself.
Brian Broome, a black recovering opioid addict with a masters degree in fine arts from the University of Pittsburgh, put it this way in a 2018 article published in The Guardian:
I remember my own psychological self-abuse when I was using drugs. I was just an addict. It was my fault, and there was no way out. I remember knowing for certain that I was no victim of an epidemic. I was just garbage and knowing that made me want to use more. I wondered, if I had known that I was just the victim of an epidemic, whether I would have thought differently.
Despite his education, despite his intellect and accomplishments, Mr. Broome saw himself the same way most Americans see people of color who use drugs: as addicts guilty of doing themselves harm, rather than as victims of a disease that overwhelms their ability to control it.
But as more and more middle- and upper-class white families are coming to terms with the addictions of their loved ones, attitudes towards drug use is changing.
Famously, then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke during a 2015 town hall meeting, one of many that were preludes to his 2016 presidential run, about a close friend of his from law school who later became addicted to opioids that would kill him at 52. Gov. Christie described his friend as “perfect,” a man who had a dream life – his own law practice, a remarkable and beautiful wife and three adorable children. “We loved him and hated him,” joked the governor. But, as the painkillers a doctor prescribed Gov. Christie’s friend to treat an injury he got from running evolved into illegal opioids purchased to feed his addiction, the man’s life began to fall apart. With compassion borne of familiarity, Gov. Christie told the assembled and hushed crowd about how his friend lost his wife and family, then his law firm and his job, and, ultimately, his life.
When I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral, and looked across the pew at his three daughters sobbing ’cause their dad is gone, there but for the grace of God go I. It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover, because every life is precious.
To his credit, Gov. Christie has a long history of compassion when it comes to non-violent drug offenders, even saying to an assembly of the Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2014, “I doubt that there is a person in this room who hasn’t had the problem of drug and alcohol addiction touch their family or neighbors.” He advocated treatment and counseling over incarceration early in his political career, even during the crack epidemic when most white politicians in America demanded harsh prison sentences as the countermeasure to growing addiction rates and the associated crimes that supported them.
But the governor’s compassion highlights the difference we see now in America among politicians of all stripes: familiarity with a crisis on a personal level can lead to serious political initiatives that resolve problems in more effective and compassionate ways.
Now that more white communities are suffering from opioid addiction, politicians are becoming more willing to find solutions and treatments that don’t include lengthy incarceration and other punitive measures. This difference in approach isn’t lost on members of the minority community who saw how white politicians took a different approach in the past.
Ithaca, New York Mayor Svente Myrick, a black man governing a predominately white city, said in 2017, the typical response to the new approach to drug use in the African-American community is, “Oh, when it was happening in my neighborhood it was ‘lock ’em up.’ Now that it’s happening in the (white and affluent) Heights, the answer is to use my tax dollars to fund treatment centers. Well, my son could have used a treatment center in 1989, and he didn’t get one.”
But, he added, “Just because these are now white kids dying doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, because these are still kids dying.”
Just kids dying. Some of them are white, beautiful, talented and full of promise, like Madelyn Linsenmeir. Others, like Chief del Pozo said, are not. Regardless, the mothers of the victims of America’s drug epidemic grieved for them, all the same. The sooner we see the tragedy in each death, regardless of race, wealth or promise, the sooner we will do what is needed to put an end to the crisis, once and for all.