Telling his story: The powerful effects of substance abuse

Easter Sunday 2015 marked the last time I ever saw my Uncle Jimmy. We dined at an Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh. Covered in white cloth, a table as long as the one in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” seated our extended family of twenty or so people. An upbeat ambience persisted throughout the meal. After all, it was a day of rebirth.

Uncle Jimmy dressed up for Easter Mass, just days prior to the unfortunate events that would unfold. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio

Uncle Jimmy dressed up for Easter Mass, just days prior to the unfortunate events that would unfold. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio

As it happened, I sat next to Uncle Jimmy. With his iPhone, he showed me comical videos of dogs doing absurd deeds and getting into trouble. He was a dog lover, owning a Jack Russell Terrier named Ziggy. “Look at this!” he would say before handing me the phone. If I had known what was soon to come, I would have taken a better look at him.

On April 9, 2015, Uncle Jimmy went missing. My mom, grandmother and aunts visited the Meadows Racetrack and Casino, where he had frequented most of the time after Easter. They drove around his neighborhood, looking for his car. And they constantly tried to reach him on his iPhone. Although his absence worried me, I refused to believe that anything was seriously wrong. This was not the first time he had gone missing. He had a habit of spending days with recently made “friends,” either hanging out or gambling.

Despite being almost pathologically shy with women, he was always seeking to find a girlfriend. His relationships, which usually started online, rarely lasted one month. His limited economic resources were a constant issue, and living with his mother likely didn’t help. He enjoyed drinking beer and occasionally smoking marijuana, but he rarely used other, harder drugs. However, he was one to go along with the crowd.

Sometime between Monday and Thursday, Jimmy apparently got lucky. As best as we can piece together, he won a sizable amount of money through gambling. He then met a young woman and man, and they partied in a cheap motel. That Thursday, he overdosed and stopped breathing. He was left alone with a sheet over his head.

A maid briefly entered the room on Friday, but left upon seeing Jimmy in bed; she assumed he was asleep. On Saturday, the day his room rental expired, the manager discovered his body and alerted the police.

Poker was Uncle Jimmy's favorite game to play at the casino. A study done by the University of North Carolina showed that gambling addiction can lead to other types of mental illnesses, including substance abuse. According to the University of New York, 750,000 people from age 14 to 21 have a gambling addiction. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio.

Poker was Uncle Jimmy’s favorite game to play at the casino. A study done by the University of North Carolina showed that gambling addiction can lead to other types of mental illnesses, including substance abuse. According to the University of New York, 750,000 people from age 14 to 21 have a gambling addiction. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio.

The autopsy confirmed that his death was the result of a cocaine overdose. Prior to this, he had been in good health. Considering that his chest lacked any marks or bruises, it is evident that his “friends” never tried to save him with CPR, nor did they dial 911. His date of death on the certificate is not when he died, but when his body was discovered.

His funeral and wake were closed casket because his body had drastically deteriorated by the time it was discovered. Even while acting as a pallbearer, I struggled to accept the reality of his death. I never had the opportunity to look inside that black casket and see that he had truly passed. How could someone be dead after being so full of life just a few days beforehand? It made no sense. He was only 43.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47,055 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2014, a 6.5 percent increase from 2013. Of these deaths, nearly two-thirds involved a type of opioid, such as heroin.

Prescription drugs including OxyContin, Percocet, Fentanyl and Hydrocodone are also responsible for a significant percentage of these overdose deaths. Although these medications are useful in treating acute and chronic pain, they are too often taken in excess or diverted to others.

Risk of death increases when a person takes these medications in non-prescribed manners. For instance, injecting these drugs causes a more significant high, but can trigger respiratory depression and cardiac arrhythmias, which may lead to death. Smoking or injecting heroin also increases its effectiveness and risk of dying..

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2012, 17,000 deaths involved the overdose of prescription opioid analgesics, otherwise known as pain medications. This number has only continued to rise. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2012, 17,000 deaths involved the overdose of prescription opioid analgesics, otherwise known as pain medications. This number has only continued to rise. Photo courtesy of S.Bonfiglio.

Deaths from drug overdoses are becoming more common, with Pennsylvania being one of the states experiencing a drastic surge in its drug mortality rate. Nowadays, more people die annually from drugs than motor vehicle collisions or AIDS. Additionally, drug-related deaths cut across socio economic levels, ethnic groups and age groups. The lure of drugs can also lead to incarceration from illegal activities performed to obtain the money for the drugs, or from getting caught while acquiring or possessing the drugs.

As can be ascertained from my uncle’s case, people do not have to be heavy drug abusers to die from an overdose. It only takes one instance for a life to end or be drastically altered. Considering that illegal drugs are unregulated by the government, they are frequently laced with dangerous ingredients such as PCP and Fentanyl, which increase or prolong the high, but also increase the risk of death.

Numerous drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers exist throughout Pa. and the nation. In Pittsburgh, one particular center with a great reputation is Right Path Drug Rehab. Their phone number is (888) 539-6947. If you or someone you know abuses drugs, I urge you to learn from my uncle’s case and get help before it is too late.

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