Grey's Anatomy, The Opioid Crisis and My Sister: What They All Have in Common

*WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD*

Everyone’s favorite medical drama Grey’s Anatomy aired this past Thursday with an episode that dealt with America’s increasingly-troubling opioid crisis. The episode, titled “I Want a New Drug”, centered on a mass overdose in a park and the panic it created both in and out of the hospital. Between the massive amount of overdoses all at once, the mom who brought her three-year-old to the park to buy drugs, and Betty and her boyfriend’s overdoses (and his death), this episode showed just a sliver of the crisis going on in our country between addicts and their addictions. To most, this episode was probably just another emotional rollercoaster like most Grey’s episodes seem to be. I’ve been watching Grey’s for years and I’ve cried my fair share of tears for the beloved characters, but no episode has rocked me like this one.  

For me, it echoed a reality incredibly close to home. 

In September of 2016, my oldest sister, Rachel, died of an opioid overdose. She was 35 and had most likely never used heroin before, but in a moment of crisis and pain, she took a chance on what she thought was her only choice. The heroin she bought was laced with a powerful opioid called carfentanil, a drug 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

It killed her instantly.

Rachel had been taking prescribed painkillers that she needed for legitimate health problems, but soon it turned into an addiction. She needed them, she relied on them for relief from the pain she felt every day. But when she moved to Ohio from Texas in September of 2016, she no longer had access to them. She was desperate. Rachel was one of over 63,000 people who died of overdose-related deaths in the U.S. in 2016, and the amount of people dying from opioid-related overdose deaths is growing every year – 2017 saw six times more opioid-overdose deaths than in 1999. Approximately 130 people are dying every day in America due to overdoses. It’s not just a problem; it truly is a crisis.

In Grey’s, teenaged Betty (or Britney, as it recently was revealed is her actual name) is a teenager struggling with similar addictions to what my sister faced. Sometimes when watching the show, it can be easy to get mad at Betty/Britney for the things she does; she runs away from home, she gets treatment and immediately relapses, she struggles to bond with her son. At one point in “I Want a New Drug”, I found myself staring at Betty/Britney before she passed out, and I was angry. I was so angry at her for falling back into her patterns, for risking her life for something that to a non-addict, can seem so ridiculous. She may just be a character on a TV show, but Betty/Britney represents the fight addicts struggle with every day just to keep the balance between the need for normalcy and the need for drugs, a fight my sister ultimately lost. It’s a fight we may not always understand, but a fight that is real.

If I had known what I know now about the addiction Rachel was struggling with while she was still alive, I would’ve fought so much harder for her. But Rachel was so much more than the problems she faced. She was a wife, a sister, a daughter. She was a mother to my incredible nephew Eddie, named after Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. She loved Pearl Jam. She loved to fight for the things she believed in and fight for those she loved. She loved Diet Coke, and she loved the game The Sims, something she passed on to me. When she died, she had her laptop open to play The Sims, and an unopen can of Diet Coke by her side. She didn’t want to die; she just didn’t want to be in pain. Unfortunately, now, our entire family carries the weight of her pain.

March 17th, 2019 will be exactly 2 ½ years since she died, and despite what everyone says, it hasn’t gotten easier. It won’t, because my world will never be the same. The world will always be a little bit lonelier because Rachel isn’t here. But I will continue to fight for her, like she always did for me. I will continue to use my voice to shed light on the truths of addiction - addiction is a disease that can plague anybody, and it has started a crisis that our country doesn’t know how to face. But I won’t stop fighting to make sure there comes a day when no more Rachels or Betty/Britneys are lost.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can call the National Drug Helpline for help at 1-888-633-3239.