Last Day Episode 11 — Wake Me Up transcript
[00:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know I say this all the time, but this time it’s really true. If you are just joining us for the first time, this episode will make so much more sense if you go back and start the series from Episode 1.
[01:06] Gary Mendell: When you lose a loved one — in my case, a son — it’s hard to not continually think about the things you might have done differently. Conversations you might have navigated differently. Decisions I might have made differently. Moments that might have made the difference between the life and death of my son.
[01:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is Gary Mendell. His son, Brian, died by suicide in 2011 after struggling for a decade with addiction.
[01:40] Gary Mendell: So then the question is why did someone 13 months substance-free, 25 years old, who’d just been home four months earlier and had a great time with his family, and felt loved and connected — why did he take his own life? The reality is I’ve never had to wonder. He told me in his suicide note. He said, ‘it’s about not being treated like a human. After trying so hard, working so hard to get back to normal. The reality is, Stephanie, my son did not foresee a world, did not envision a world where as a young adult he could develop a disease, get treated in the health care system, learn how to manage a chronic illness successfully for the rest of his life — like someone with diabetes or asthma — and live a happy and healthy life. He did not envision that world. And so my energy right now with Brian in my heart is to bring everybody together to create that world for the next young man, the next young woman, the next family that comes along.
[03:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: As a way to create this world that Brian didn’t foresee, Gary did something pretty extraordinary. He founded Shatter Proof. It’s an organization that’s actively working to reverse the addiction crisis in America. Because what he found is that for every major disease in this country, there was one well-funded national organization that was leading the fight. American Cancer. Susan B. Komen. Autism Speaks. But there wasn’t an organization on that scale for addiction and there needed to be. So he quit his job as a high-powered businessman to create it. And Shatter Proof is helping a lot of people. But it’s also a way for Gary to proactively address all those questions that plagued him early on after he lost his son.
[03:55] Gary Mendell: Certainly in the beginning, I found it almost impossible to stop obsessing about those moments, those decisions, those conversations. But then over time, I began to realize that it could be a tribute to a life that has been lost. To turns one’s energy to the things that can be accomplished, and at the same time helping others. And that is what, in a lot of respects when I look at it that way, feels really good. It feels really good. It feels like — at the worst case — I can’t say for sure — the worst case, we’re gonna help a lot of people from this. Best case, my son and your brother are together right now because you and I are together and they’re watching us. And I mean, how can you not cry when you think about that?
[04:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. I do cry, often. And this is Last Day.
[05:13] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So you know our executive producer, Jessica Cordova Kramer? Her story is basically Gary’s story, only instead of being a businessman, she’s a podcast producer. And she’s been in the industry for a minute. And by a minute, I mean for a lot of minutes. But in some ways, this show is new territory for her. I’ve talked about how weird it is to host a show about the most terrible thing that’s ever happened to you. But Jess is in the bizarre position of having to sell people a show about the most terrible thing that’s ever happened to you.
[05:46] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Oh, it’s a fucking shit show. I mean, I have calls with our core executive team where I’m like, hey, we should really put digital ads behind the Stefano’s Last Day episode because so many people are going to resonate with that storyline. And that’s like a disgusting conversation to have. But like, I want his story fucking heard. And I know it’s cleansing to people to hear it because it’s so mundane. Like he went to work, he bought drugs and he died in his bathroom alone. And we didn’t find him ‘till later and it was too late to save him. And that is the story of so many people. You know, maybe it wasn’t the bathroom, but it’s the same fucking story over and over again. And I want to amplify it. I want people to hear it. And I don’t, like — holy shit, what am I doing?
[06:38] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Gary and Jess don’t want Stefano and Brian to have died in vain. In Judaism, we say may his memory be a blessing. And both of them are hustling to make that happen. But that doesn’t make it any easier on the grief front.
[06:55] Jackie Danziger: What is a bad grief day?
[06:57] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Uh, hmm. What is a bad grief day? I just need to check the time real quick because I don’t know where I’m supposed to be. [07:03][8.1]
[07:05] Jackie Danziger: I just want to put out this entire time, no matter how emotional things are getting, your phone is like —
[07:09] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I know, my phone is blowing up with a million messages.
[07:13] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That is not hyperbole. Frankly, it’s probably more than a million messages, which is how this whole thing works, by the way. There’s just no time out for grief. So, yes, phones. All the phones. That is totally OK. This is a phone-OK zone. Also, that’s Jackie, our stone-cold producer with the magical ability to make a person feel all of their feelings. And by that I mean cry.
[07:45] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So grief in the very beginning, when you lose someone core to your life, is complete denial. So you’re just going through the motions and doing the things that you’re supposed to do. And then I think for some period of time, it’s like someone is screaming in your ear: Stefano is dead, Stefano is dead. And that screaming, like the volume goes down? And my brother being dead is the first thought I have every morning and the last thought I have before I fall asleep every night. And it’s been two years. And that has been true every single day. And I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air because in my lack of consciousness and sleep, I remember and I take my breath away even while sleeping. And I think for me, a bad grief day now after two years is that volume is back up. Like, you know, I’ve lived into this new reality where I have a dead brother and not a live one. And, you know, most days are, like, just days where I have a brother who’s no longer with me physically. And the bad grief days are days where you’re like, no, this can’t be true. And it feels like it just happened again.
[09:07] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The way that Jess deals with this new reality is to do this work. And like Gary, it’s productive, mission-oriented work. And frankly, it helps. It can be a very effective coping mechanism.
[09:26] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I think I’m good at compartmentalizing, and I think when people are really struggling with complicated grief, which is a medical term for grief that sort of takes over almost like a form of depression, they are having trouble compartmentalizing and that you just can’t turn the volume down. And so going to work, or going through the motions, becomes incredibly challenging. And for me, my coping mechanism is distraction. And my life is very distracting. So generally speaking, I think it’s been okay. But I’ve also let myself just hurt. Like this sucks. I lost my — I lost my brother, but we were supposed to see our parents grow old together. And we were supposed to have kids who are cousins. And we were supposed to travel together. And I really liked him. And we don’t — I don’t have him anymore. Not in that way. And that sucks for me. That sucks.
[10:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So up until now, I have gotten to say stuff like that. And process it in real-time into a microphone like I’m doing right now. And because of that, a lot of shit has come up for me over the course of making the show, and sometimes that is mortifying, but mostly it is super cathartic. I get to remember Harris every time I write a script. And that makes me wonder if Jess has ever wish that the roles were reversed.
[10:53] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Do I ever — no, I think Stephanie is the exact right person to host this show. We had to — she and I had to work through some shit in the beginning. Like, I am handing my brother’s life over to you and his legacy. Please, don’t fuck it up. And she has done a beautiful job, and I would trust her with my life. And it was really hard. Like I said, we hire producers to be like, take me to Boston and recreate his last day. We took three days to do that with a production team and it was not fun. It was not fun. And, you know, it included the conversations that people had with Paige. It included walking through Boston’s streets and watching businessmen passed out in their cars at the McDonald’s, mouth open, on a break from work. Homeless people cooking up heroin in the street. That was a lot.
[11:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But it was also a lot behind the scenes. You see this Boston trip that she’s describing was the first tape we ever recorded for this show. And honestly, at this point in the process, we didn’t even know what the show would be. It was just sort of this crazy, amorphous idea. I mean, we barely had an outline. But the trip was planned, flights were booked and she and a production team left for Boston anyway. And everything she described here as not fun is true, but there’s more to it than that. We had decided that we would make this show about losing our brothers. But this was the first time we actually had to ask, ‘how do you do that?’ I mean, do you take the role of an objective reporter? Is it a first-person audio diary? And Jess, committed to coping through this executive-producing torture device, didn’t just stick to the original already-potentially-triggering goal of retracing her brother’s last day. She also booked a full schedule of field interviews.
[13:00] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I don’t know if you know this, but my brother died here on October 23, 2017. He died of a heroin overdose.
[13:05] Marty Walsh: Sorry.
[13:08] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Thank you.
[13:09] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is how Jess opened pretty much every interview in Boston. And you know, the part that kills me? The way she says ‘thank you.’ I know that thank you. The one that used to be reserved for strangers complimenting your outfit, but is now your only line of defense against totally losing your shit in the middle of a workday. That particular thank you was directed to Marty Walsh, the current mayor of Boston, who was also in office when Stefano died.
[13:44] Marty Walsh: I’ve been in public office since 1987. I was talking about a crisis, the epidemic, in ‘97. It wasn’t officially labeled in ‘97, but you could see on the streets of Boston, in America, the devastation that addiction was doing. It was just different. You know, I just felt — I’m in recovery myself, so I just saw a different type of — different type of disease out there.
[14:07] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yep. Mayor Walsh is a self-identified recovering alcoholic. And his personal experience has factored into his priorities as a mayor. He recently established the Office for Recovery Services that supports harm-reduction programs, along with many other proactive measures in Boston.
[14:25] Marty Walsh: You know, we started off with an office with a couple people and have expanded into so many different areas of, you know, making sure we have Narcan in police cars. And looking at the way we treat people post-overdose. Focusing on access to treatment. Focusing on how do we get people into some type of treatment in the street, and really having a number of counselors out, almost street workers, walking the streets and talking to people that we can see. And, you know, we also talked about how do people access treatment? How do people get information on treatment?
[15:02] Jessica Cordova Kramer: What would you say in Boston is the face of the opioid crisis?
[15:07] Marty Walsh: People would say, Melnea and Mass Ave., where we have a lot of services, homeless services, and recovery services. And there’s a lot of active addiction going on on the street. I don’t view that — the face of addiction is — I don’t know if there’s one face anymore. I mean, if people in Boston think that Melnea and Mass is the face of addiction, well, then I think you’re wrong, because you have to look in a lot of homes up and down neighborhoods, nice neighborhoods, streets. There’s a lot of addiction going on in those homes that people don’t talk about. I mean, people in the neighborhood have put up with a lot down there. But every single person down there was loved or is loved by somebody. You know, if you ask me what’s the face of addiction? I think the best way to explain it is somebody’s loved one.
[15:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The neighborhood he’s describing is a neighborhood that is full of people who are loved by somebody. Downtown it’s a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue or Mass Ave., known as Methadone Mile. It’s a name that’s not embraced necessarily by health care workers in the area because they feel like it stigmatizes the people and the treatment. This neighborhood is a complicated intersection of drug use and rehabilitation. Nearby you have the Boston Medical Center, homeless shelters, numerous methadone and Suboxone clinics, along with a booming open-air drug market. It’s a lot. And it’s where we’re going after the break.
[18:53] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. It’s May and Jess is in Boston.
[19:00] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So we’re standing outside with Pat Hayes from the Boston Fire Department, lieutenant with the fire department, who has been sort of on the front lines of the opioid crisis here. Across the street is methadone clinic.
[19:12] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Lieutenant Pat Hayes is the EAP coordinator. EAP stands for the Employee Assistance Program, a free and confidential program focused on the wellness of fire department employees and their immediate family members, which is necessary because the day-to-day stress firefighters experience, like many first responders, takes a toll. And the EAP offers a wide range of behavioral health services to help with all that.
[19:39] Pat Hayes: Firefighters are gearing more towards helping each others out, there’s a lot more peer support. There’s still some stigma because firefighters tend to think that they’re indestructible, that they can fix everything. But it is — I’ll tell you, the younger members that are coming on the job, they’re Iraqi war vets, Afghanistan vets — they’re more attuned to if there’s a signal, they need help. They see something wrong. And they recommend it to each other. They’ve been in combat together, some were deployed together — they see someone not acting right, they say, you know, maybe you should get some help. The department does a lot of training on it and we try to be proactive instead of reactive. But still, it really is the individual, because if they don’t want to share, if they don’t want to unload that burden, they just tend to carry it. And it gets worse if you isolate and keep it, you know?
[20:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So this is pretty cool. I mean, picture it: a bunch of tough firefighters who aren’t too tough to talk about their feelings and support each other. It helps that every person who works at the EAP is also in recovery.
[20:39] Pat Hayes: You know, the good thing is like so say someone, you know, substance abuse is usually just a symptom of the underlying cause. Usually there’s something more going on. They self-medicate. And when they see someone that they might have drank or used drugs with that’s sober and is working in the office, they know it’s not like the department is out to get you. ‘Cause I used to run amok with this guy. Or I’ve heard of this guy. Look at him now. Now he’s — it gives a little bit of legitimacy that the guys know that they kind of walk the walk. But I think most of the guys realize that we’re just trying to help.
[21:18] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Being the helper that he is, Pat was the perfect person to walk Jess through Methadone Mile.
[21:24]: Jessica Cordova Kramer: And is that a clinic where people are getting help? Or they’re just kind of hanging out there?
[21:30] Pat Hayes: They’re just kind of hanging out there. But if you go down a little bit further down the street here on the right, there is a methadone clinic in there. And they seem to congregate from here all the way down to Melnea Cass Boulevard. You can get services at Mass Health.
[21:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This stretch reflects so many contradictions at play in the opioid crisis. On the one hand, yeah, it’s very useful to cluster social services to support people dealing with substance use. On the other hand, you’re essentially rounding up a vulnerable population into one central location, which makes them even more vulnerable. People seeking treatment are face-to-face with public drug use.
[22:16] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I mean, we — I’m sure you guys both know this — just passed someone cooking up heroin with a needle in their mouth as we were walking over here, between the fire department and the prison.
[22:27] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This image of a person shooting up out in the open right next to a prison is so shocking and noteworthy to our producer, but seems totally normal to Pat because he sees it every day. Pat and his team haven’t succumbed to compassion fatigue. In fact, they’re going the extra mile. Teaming up with Mayor Walsh’s Office of Recovery Services to bring harm reduction to people’s front doors, literally. This program is called Knock and Talk.
[22:56] Marty Walsh: We go out twice a week for four hours each time, try to go door-to-door and get in touch with people and see if they need any — if they want help, number one, and number two, we can also help them get into treatment centers that they might have trouble getting into. So going pretty well. I think we’ve been doing it for about three or four years now.
[23:20] Pat Hayes: My first overdose response was when I was on engine 17. And it was probably 11 years ago, 12 years ago. It was before this had even hit the radar. And it was in Fields Corner. It stuck out at me, it was a young female, 21 years old, well-dressed, and she had overdosed in a McDonald’s bathroom. So, little did I know, that was the beginning of what we are at right now. So it left an impact on me because I have a daughter. So I was like, wow, how did this girl end up on heroin?
[23:54] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: These encounters are intense, but so fast. First responders are asked to swoop in and out, and are usually given no information on how the story ends, nor an opportunity to engage with the people they serve in any sort of meaningful way. The Knock and Talk program allows them to make a far greater impact.
[24:14] Pat Hayes: Firefighters, when we’re on companies, we respond to the actual overdose sometimes. And then come back later and you get to talk to the family members, and the person who overdosed, and try and get them that help they need.
[24:29] Marty Walsh: A lot of the times we’re going to the same address over and over again and we still approach it, as, you know, it’s the first time we’ve talked to them. And we try to get them into treatment. If we have to get them to treatment, you know, a few different times in order for it to stick for them, I mean, that’s what we’ll do. You know, it’s heartbreaking to see.
[24:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Not too far away. Michael Botticelli sits as the executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine at the Boston Medical Center. This is impressive, but before that, he served as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under Barack Obama. That is a big deal. And guess what? He is also in recovery. And between that and years of working in this field, he’s passionate about changing things.
[25:22] Michael Botticelli: We have three highly effective medications for the treatment of people who have an opioid use disorder. And, you know, research here showed that if we can get people on one of those medications, particularly buprenorphine or methadone, that we can reduce mortality by 50 percent. And, you know, I think anybody who looks at a disease and says you can reduce mortality by 50 percent, will be jumping up and down and doing everything they can.
[25:49] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Here we go again with the data and science. And I have to be honest with you that every fucking time I hear this, I just get angrier and angrier that this wasn’t something I knew when my brother was alive. Botticelli is frustrated, too.
[26:07] Michael Botticelli: I think what was kind of aggravating to me, why I kind of lose my patience sometimes is, you know, we know that still a minority of treatment programs in the United States actually incorporate or offer medications into part of what they’re doing. We still have, I think, less than 7 percent of primary care providers in the United States who have gone through the training to treat people with an opioid use disorder. And a very small portion of them actually treat people. So it’s just kind of one stunning example to me of the things that we could be doing and should be doing that can make a major impact in this. And I know I’m looking at you and thinking about your brother’s trajectory and kind of wondering, you know, if he went to a treatment program and they offered him medications, or people, you know, gave him good objective information on, you know, what are appropriate treatment for the disease that he had.
[27:06] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, I can tell you a little about that.
[27:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You’ve heard this story before. Stefano needed Vivitrol. The treatment center wouldn’t give it to him. And this is the first of many times that Jess has to explain this story.
[27:20] Jessica Cordova Kramer: He said it’s a life-or-death situation. He died two days later. So that’s, you know, he was working on it. He was aware that it was wearing off and he needed help and he didn’t get it.
[27:32] Michael Botticelli: You know, I think that, you know, we often kick people out of treatment for exhibiting the symptoms of the disease that they have. You know, it’s hard enough to get in, let alone to stay in. Right? So that’s, I think, the other piece, you know, your brother’s story illustrates.
[27:47] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. I’m curious. So for people who are listening to this show and their person or people are struggling with with an opioid addiction at some level, you know, there’s inpatient stuff that you see, where you sit at the Boston Medical Center, that is working. And I assume that there’s outpatient stuff that is working. Do you mean every record that goes in the ambulance? OK. So —
[28:12] Michael Botticelli: We should keep that in.
[28:13] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, it is.
[28:14] Michael Botticelli: No, seriously. Like I always think, you know, I think that’s probably an overdose run.
[28:19] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, it might be.
[28:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Isn’t this striking? Botticelli hears an ambulance and assumes it’s an overdose run. I mean, all over the country, people feel like their state is ground-zero for opioids. But New England actually is at the forefront of this crisis. In 2017, every state in the region experienced higher rates of overdose deaths than the national average. So it makes sense that just felt compelled to cover this part of the story. Boston, not just as the site of her brother’s death, but as a case study of a larger issue. But her brother wasn’t hanging out on Mass Ave. He wasn’t visited by empathetic firefighters, or treated by Michael Botticelli at Boston Medical. He died alone in his bathroom. When we come back, we revisit a conversation with someone much closer to home, Stefano’s wife, Paige.
[31:21] We’re back. So in Episode 2, we met Paige. If you need a refresher, she and Stefano had gotten married just a few months before he died. When you think of newlyweds, you think of hope and joy. Like, everyone cries at weddings because it’s this beautiful union that’s filled with promises between two people who are building a life together, building a future together. Now, juxtapose that with the destructive nature of active addiction. Stefano was in it. He used on their wedding day. He used during the first few months of their marriage. I mean, Paige had to administer Narcan several times. And ultimately, she’s the one that found him dead. So Jess was there to get the story of her brother’s last day. But I think she was also curious about the day before and the week before and really any information on whether or not this story could have ended differently.
[32:25] Jessica Cordova Kramer: What was your understanding of addiction before meeting Stef and marrying him and being with him when he died?
[32:35] Paige Cordova: Well, I kind of have an idea because I kind of, like, deal with some of that myself. Like with drinking and stuff. So I know what it’s like to just kind of feel like you don’t really have any control, or hope of stopping.
[33:05] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So you felt sympathetic from the start. And how do you feel about it now that it’s taken someone that you loved?
[33:11] Paige Cordova: I mean, I still cannot — I feel the same way. Like, I don’t — I don’t blame him. Like, you know, I mean, obviously no one thinks they’re gonna die. Like you can see a million people die and you still don’t think it’s going to happen to you.
[33:28] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do you think he had any thought that he was gonna die that day?
[33:31] Paige Cordova: No, not at all.
[33:39] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Even with all the clues, no one expected him to die that day. And that’s partly because Stefano always felt on some level like he was still in control. He never surrendered to the disease. And it’s hard not to look back and wonder if you should have done more.
[34:03] Jessica Cordova Kramer: What about, like, you know, we loved him. He had friends who loved him. Did — how did you feel like those people were helping or not helping, including me, in all of this?
[34:16] Paige Cordova: Well, I think the problem in general was that everyone was so far away and like, honestly, I think that he kind of liked it that way. Because like, no one could really be, like checking up on him.
[34:28] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. Do you — how did he manage his close friendships and his family from intervening in this?
[34:36] Paige Cordova: I mean, I think that his friends, all his friends live in New York. So I know he did see them a couple times, but he was very concerned with them, like, seeing how he’s changed because, you know, he wanted them to see that he kind of turned his life around, so to speak. Like, you know, he has this job now, and he’s getting married, and his life is back on track. So, you know, they weren’t exactly people that he would see regularly. And with family, you know, same thing. It’s kind of just like he could just show what he wanted to show.
[35:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It sucks to feel like you’re being kept in the dark, like, you know something’s going on, and you want to help, but you’re also trying to respect your person’s boundaries while trying to piece things together from 1500 miles away. And it’s just totally impossible to do the right thing. And when you look back at the situation, in hindsight, it’s so easy to be like, why didn’t I see that? But of course, part of the answer is because your person didn’t want you to. They were doing everything they could to specifically hide it from you. For Jess, Paige provides so many missing pieces to this puzzle. About her brother’s death, but also about his life.
[36:12] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Is there something that comes to mind when you think of, like, your best day ever with him?
[36:33] Paige Cordova: [Long pause] I’m sorry, I’m trying to think. Just like a regular day, I guess. We would always wake up early and go to the gym because we live right next to the gym, you know. Then come home and have some smoothies and, I dunno, just watch TV and stuff. Just regular things, you know. It’s not necessarily anything like super different or amazing, just like the regular stuff.
[37:22] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Once your nervous system has adapted to chaos a normal day feels pretty fucking good. And it makes sense that Paige would find comfort in the mundane because the days that followed her husband’s death were anything but.
[37:40] Jessica Cordova Kramer: What was the next day like?
[37:43] Paige Cordova: Um, I don’t remember like if you guys came that day or what?
[37:48] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, we got there that morning, the morning of the 24th.
[37:51] Paige Cordova: Yeah. It was just sad. I just remember it was just — it was just terrible. I don’t know.
[38:02] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Did you have any thoughts running through your head at that time? Like I can remember my brain —
[38:06] Paige Cordova: Yeah. I wish that I had been there. Like, you know, I wish that, like, you know, I don’t know. Yeah, I wish that I had left work to come home, you know, when I started thinking about it. When I wasn’t getting a response back, like, I wish that I had been home in general, like I wish that I had had like maybe a better conversation with him.
[38:36] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Like your last conversation?
[38:44] Paige Cordova: Yeah. Or that like, I don’t know, that’s basically it. I just wish I had been there to do something about it.
[38:51] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. I understand. I don’t know that it would — I don’t know what you could have done. I understand in that sense.
[38:56] Paige Cordova: Well, like, Narcan.
[38:58] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. Right.
[39:01] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Both of these women have their own list of things that tortures them. The things they didn’t do, the things they could have done differently. In hindsight, it feels totally reasonable that we should have been mind-reading superheroes who could always be on call to drop everything and save the day. This is the struggle for people who love people who use drugs. Yes, Narcan can save lives if someone chooses not to use alone. But you can’t be expected to be there holding their hand 24 hours a day.
[39:34] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Some of the idea around this show is that fine line between life and death and, like, the moment things changed. Like, the background of my phone is still your wedding. And I always look at my Instagram on like, October 22nd. And then I’ll go on October 23rd. And like, I was just not the same person. Like, I had no clue. And I texted with you guys. And it was my mom’s birthday. We were sending cat memes, because that’s what I did. That’s what 90 percent of your relationship with your 30-something year-old brother who has a cat is gonna be cat memes.
[40:09] Paige Cordova: Yeah, he loved the cat.
[40:10] Jessica Cordova Kramer: What do you think he missed out on?
[40:13] Paige Cordova: What did he miss out on? I don’t know. What didn’t he miss out on? Just like everything.
[40:25] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Are there things that stick out?
[40:26] Paige Cordova: You know, just, like, even like, he doesn’t get to see the cat. He’ll never get to do a lot of things. Like he’ll never get to have kids. He’ll never get to see his nieces grow up. You know, anything.
[40:52] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I also think about, like, you go all the way back to birth when something like this happens. Or you know, what signs did we miss? What could we have done differently? And all the way until hours before he died. Do you think there’s something I could have done differently, or something that happened in his childhood, or anything that you think —
[41:15] Paige Cordova: Like it was nothing you did. Nothing anything anyone in your family did. You know, it could be something that’s just like present in someone’s brain. And then the right situation happens, like, someone’s just like exposed to an environment where they try something horrible, like opiates, you know. And then they can’t really quite get back from that. I think also he felt like he was like, you know, he once told me when he was on drugs, like he felt like he was better at his job, better at selling, more confident, less anxious. Like, you know, when you have that kind of thought, that’s kind of toxic as well. Like if you think you’re better when you’re high then, you know, that’s crazy. Like, how are you going to come back from that? But yeah, I mean, obviously, that’s false. But I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I don’t think anyone can know.
[42:24] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah, he told me the same things. The only time I feel normal is when I’m using drugs and, yeah, you don’t even know how to respond to that. What do I do with that?
[42:38] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s heartbreaking to hear them compare notes like this. Jess described those bad grief days, the moments when the volume is deafening. Paige experiences this, too, but in a very different way.
[42:55] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So I think about him pretty much every day, all day long. And this is not a trick question, but like in the beginning, you know, when someone dies, you literally can’t think of anything else, it’s like screaming grief and disbelief. But now it’s been 18 months. How is he present and not present in your life?
[43:16] Paige Cordova: Like, it’s not like I’m always thinking about him. But it’s more just like random things, like, when I’m driving to work, I drive pretty much past where we used to live. So like, you know, just things make me think of him. Anything. Any of those things.
[43:37] Jessica Cordova Kramer: And what if you can like another 30 seconds or a minute with him, what would you say?
[43:43] Paige Cordova: I would just tell him that, like, I’m sorry. That I love him. There’s nothing really — I don’t know what else to say.
[43:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Even as this conversation was coming to an end, there were still a lot of unanswered questions, especially around how Paige was processing her own grief.
[44:05] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Do you feel like it’s like — you’re a widow, like, you’re 28 years old. Do you feel like that people look at you differently when they know? Do you tell people?
[44:13] Paige Cordova: I don’t really tell people now.
[44:17] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So, like, what about your friends or family members who were at your wedding?
[44:22] Paige Cordova: Yeah, like that feels a little awkward.
[44:27] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Do people have nice things to say, or they say stupid things, like, ‘are you better now?’
[44:30] Paige Cordova: People just don’t really talk about it. And that’s fine.
[44:35] Jessica Cordova Kramer: You’d rather not.
[44:36] Paige Cordova: Yeah. I know that people die all the time. You know, usually when they’re a lot older, or sick or something. But yeah, just kind of, like, people die.
[44:53] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yes. Does it — do you think, like, why did this happen to me, ever?
[44:58] Paige Cordova: Not really. No.
[45:00] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Did you think about that after, or —
[45:04] Paige Cordova: No. I mean because like it it wasn’t really something that happened to me. This happened to him.
[45:10] Jessica Cordova Kramer: It happened to you, too, though. I mean, it was pretty — pretty shitty.
[45:16] Paige Cordova: But, honestly, if I like really, you know, I don’t know. Like, I knew the — we just talked about it — like I knew what I was getting into. I mean, like, you know, I didn’t know it was going to be that bad, obviously. You know, I don’t feel bad for myself.
[45:35] Jessica Cordova Kramer: You can.
[45:36] Paige Cordova: Yeah. But I don’t, you know.
[45:37] Jessica Cordova Kramer: You didn’t deserve that.
[45:38] Paige Cordova: A lot of people are going through things all the time. You know, people are sick —
[45:48] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Yeah. I think we should we should stop for now. Thank you for doing this.
[45:59] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We ended Episode 2 with tape of a phone call that I had with Jess when we were discussing this impending Boston trip that, frankly, she was really dreading. And on this call, she’s running down a series of questions that motivated the trip and really the entire show.
[46:21] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I don’t know if it’s like six months or a year after the person dies, or the whole time after you find out that they’re using this drug. You think try to think — what the fuck? How the fuck did this happen? And I think for those of us left behind, you’re constantly trying to find out, what could I have done? What could I have done differently?
[46:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So what’s the answer?
[46:50] Jessica Cordova Kramer: A mom recently emailed me and she said my daughter’s been using heroin for the past seven or eight years and she just started using fentanyl. I don’t know what to do. Is there anything I can do? And I, with all the caveats of, you know, I love you and I’m sorry, and I am not a doctor. I said — all I, you know — if I had 30 seconds more with Stefano, I would say, please don’t use alone. Just don’t use alone. You don’t have to. Yeah, you can use right in front of me if you need to. And that is contrary to everything you learn about enabling addiction. And there are ways in which you could maintain an addiction and a dependency that won’t kill you. And expecting people to just not use, it doesn’t work. So I think the thing I say to people is just don’t use alone. Go to a treatment facility and have someone sit in the other room. Be honest. Don’t go in the bathroom in the middle of the night. Wake me up. Wake me up. If you’re going to do it, just wake me up. I don’t want you to die.
[48:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We ask a lot of you emotionally with every episode of this show, but this one feels particularly painful. And I’m not going to say I’m sorry, but I am going to just acknowledge that out loud. It’s so crazy that when we started making this show, there’s just no way that Jess and I could have predicted how, if at all, our perspectives on all this would have shifted or changed, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted that that change would be so aligned. I mean, talking to Garth last week, it really hit me that Harris could have used drugs for the rest of his life as long as it would have kept him alive. And here Jess is coming to a similar realization. Don’t hide the drug use. Don’t use alone. Wake me up.
[49:00] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I am making this — making this show has been, you know, an intense labor of love for my brother, and my family, and my brother’s wife, Paige, and my kids, because I don’t have anywhere to put that love. He’s gone. And there’s so many people struggling and it’s just all the love I have for Stefano in an art form. And somehow the universe put me and Stephanie together. I mean, we could have been best friends in college. We like each other genuinely. She’s my sister now. And we went to college together, we didn’t know each other. And it was only after my brother died that we found each other and the show really feels like something cosmic that needs to be in the world, both as a piece of art and as a piece of activism, but also as like these boys died and it fucking sucks that we have to make something good of it. It’s been really painful. And it just feels worth it. I hope it’s worth it.
[50:18] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Me too, Jess. Me too. Next week, we wrap up part one of our series with very important people. Our parents.
[50:36] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s like now it’s so easy now to understand.
[50:37] Maureen Wittels: Yes, but no one offered that option.
[50:43] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know, but why didn’t we, like, talk to an addiction medicine doctor. Or why didn’t we —
[50:49] Maureen Wittels: In all honesty, Stephanie, I didn’t know they existed.
[50:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. This episode was produced by Jackie Danziger. Jessica Cordova Kramer is our executive producer and our series producer is Danielle Roth. Kegan Zema is our technical director and our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can find us online at LemonadaMedia.com. And if you liked what you heard today, tell all the people that you know to listen and subscribe, rate and review us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And check out our show notes for a deeper dive into what you’ve heard today and how you can connect with our wonderful, glorious, fantastic, supportive Last Day community. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. See you next week.