Peter Ballesty died of a heroin overdose in 2013 and his family disclosed his addiction struggle in an obituary. Wochit
Through December, reporters will be looking back at and following up on stories and topics that were the most popular with our readers in 2017, according to metrics on lohud.com. This story is part of that series.
When Dianne Ballesty’s son died of a heroin overdose in 2013, obituaries seldom mentioned the devastating toll of addiction.
Now a retired Suffern High School teacher, Ballesty recently recounted why she disclosed the traditionally private tragedy. She wanted to dispel misinformed judgments about her son, Peter, who died at 32.
“I was angry at the stereotype, and when your son or your daughter don’t fit it…you refuse to accept that people would believe he was a derelict in some alley shooting up and stealing,” Ballesty said.
Instead, the obituary detailed Peter’s addiction struggle while celebrating his life as a free-spirited college graduate and hard-working tattoo artist beloved by family and friends.
The Ballesty family is increasingly less alone. Since their disclosure, stories of New York’s drug crisis are more commonly shared in obituaries by those fed up with the stigma and guilt in many addiction-related deaths.
In fact, the Ballesty obituary was apparently one of just three statewide to directly attribute a death to addiction in 2013, despite 2,175 drug-related deaths in New York that year, a review of the legacy.com obituary database found.
By contrast, 45 obituaries acknowledged addiction’s deadly consequences over the past 12 months, while the worst drug epidemic in American history killed thousands more.
One obit came from Lisa Mackay, whose story about losing her son, Michael, to an overdose after 500 days of sobriety was published recently by The Journal News/lohud. It went viral online and drew heartfelt support on social media from hundreds touched by addiction.
“This disease shouldn’t be something that nobody talks about,” reads one Facebook post. “It needs to be addressed asap so there aren’t more stories like this. It’s the most horrifying epidemic.”
Ballesty uniquely sympathized with Mackay. Peter’s fatal overdose followed 480 days of sobriety.
“That happens to so many after they work hard to stay clean,” Ballesty said. “They have a moment of weakness and use and their bodies can’t take it.”
Table of Contents
Evolution of addiction view
While the circumstances of many fatal drug overdoses are unchanged since 2013, the obituary evolution paralleled efforts to treat addiction as a chronic disease rather than a lifestyle choice, according to doctors and treatment experts.
“The monster in the room is this complex brain disease has been shrouded in secrecy up until now,” said Elaine Trumpetto, executive director of the Council on Addiction Prevention and Education of Dutchess County.
Ballesty expanded on how addiction shaming just four years ago inspired her family to publicly air its battle against drugs.
“We wanted people to know that we were never ashamed of Pete,” she said. “He had a physical illness; addiction is not a character flaw and unless we are open about it there will never be a public dialogue regarding its cause or cure.”
After the Mackay story ignited an anti-stigma firestorm, The Journal News/lohud sought to learn how often obituaries mentioned addiction.
The effort led to the database that can search for the word addiction in obituaries statewide. The search revealed a growing trend of honesty and compassion that some experts said could save lives.
“People who struggle with addiction often times reveal profound shame and guilt that they feel, and a lot of that is not just personal but possibly a reflection of how society views them,” said Dr. Timothy Brennan, a Mount Sinai Health System addiction specialist.
“A lot of people who suffer from this never seek help because of the shame and embarrassment, and the more it sits in the daily narrative in America the better.”
The ‘addiction’ obituaries
While just three obituaries directly linked a death to addiction in 2013, others included the word. The search returned 85 hits overall with some duplicates.
Many of the search results praised addiction treatment professionals who died, and others directed memorial donations to recovery programs. Several unrelated mentions of addiction, such as addicted to golf or candy, also got caught up in the search.
But in the years since 2013, more direct mentions of addiction-related deaths have been showing up in newspapers statewide.
The obituary search returned 87 hits in 2014, and 10 of them linked a death to addiction. It had 89 hits in 2015, with 15 deaths linked to addiction.
Over the past 12 months, 144 obituaries mentioned addiction and 45 detailed how the disease cut short the lives of mostly promising young men and women. Many told of brokenhearted families and lengthy substance-abuse battles that scarred generations.
Ballesty has scoured many of those stories since her son died and focused on the language. Over time, more started describing addiction as a disease. Yet phrases like died unexpectedly or suddenly still frequently appeared to mask a fatal overdose.
“Every time I see an obit I look at the age, and if it’s young I know that’s what happened,” Ballesty said, adding she understood the many reasons to exclude a loved one’s addiction.
Experts expanded on the culture of addiction secrecy, citing decades of silence before Americans started to discuss the dangers of alcohol in the 1970s and 1980s.
Despite recent gains, many drug and alcohol recovery groups still operate anonymously to avoid harming reputations.
“Revealing the cause of a loved one’s death is a profoundly personal decision, and one can imagine why people are hesitant because many people in society still look down on addiction,” said Brennan, the treatment specialist.
Scrolling through the obituary pictures and stories offered a rare glimpse into the drug epidemic’s scope.
The deaths touched every community from wealthy New York City suburbs in Westchester County to small rural upstate towns.Many died in their twenties and thirties and many were from white populations outside big cities, though some deaths hit New York City.
The stories included families proud of a loved one’s valiant fight to break addiction’s deadly grip. They detailed lengthy bouts of sobriety and happiness followed by tragic losses, such as babies left without a father or mother and parents outliving children.
Many other details of life obviously couldn’t fit into obituaries.
Dianne Ballesty didn’t disclose in the obituary that Yonkers drug court Judge Arthur Doran posthumously honored Pete. After a minor drug-possession charge, Pete essentially volunteered for the program in hopes of turning his life around, court records show.
“The family says he will be remembered by all as a kind, soft-spoken soul…and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Dolan said in court, adding Pete’s art reflected a kind nature befitting a man of peace.
Ballesty spoke about the judge’s comments as a rare example of addiction acceptance in 2013.
“Our Pete was an artist, a writer and a philosopher … we were and will always be proud of him,” she said.
As the director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai West and St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, Brennan described recent breakthroughs in addiction-related obituaries and drug courts as crucial to ending the opioid epidemic ravaging a generation.
“Many people still pass judgment on those who struggle with addiction, but that same judgment is never applied when someone is suffering from cancer or heart disease,” he said. “Not until fairly recently with the opioid crisis have people been comfortable sharing that they’re struggling with this disease.”
The obit searches also occasionally turned up famous musicians, politicians and actors, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death from a drug overdose spotlighted the rise of heroin in 2014. Other notable obituaries recently disclosing addiction struggles included the actress Carrie Fisher, musician Gregg Allman and journalist David Carr.
Addiction the new HIV crisis
Brennan and other experts compared the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s to the current fight against heroin and opioid addiction.
They recount how panic and prejudice delayed the public-health response to AIDs until it spread outside the gay community. Similarly, drug addiction is no longer exclusive to poor and minority communities as millions of Americans got hooked on opioids over the last decade.
“People are much more willing to talk about it, and admit that it’s in every family,” Brennan said, referring to addiction. “Think of how far we’ve come with HIV/AIDs in accepting these are our friends and family members.”
But the opioid death toll has mounted despite the emerging public dialogue, and authorities have focused on tracking fatal overdoses more closely to save lives.
For example, a new smartphone app recently started offering real-time overdose data to mobilize public safety responses to an overdose spike.
State and federal governments have also funneled billions of dollars into the fight against opioid addiction since 2015. Money has gone to improving access to opioid antidotes, treatment programs and other anti-addiction efforts.
Further, communities are suing pharmaceutical companies tied to the prescription painkillers at the heart of the drug crisis, claiming they misled the public.Many New York counties, including Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam, have joined the nationwide court battle.
Experts said the lawsuits might be the turning point in securing enough money for lengthy public-health campaigns needed to curb illicit opioid use, citing the previous settlements with the tobacco industry that prompted dramatic reductions in smoking.
“We have the science to demonstrate what happens to the brain on substances of any kind, and learning that addiction has many pathways to the brain,” said Trumpetto, the addiction education official.
“We need to no longer demonize them for a choice, when it is clearly a disease.”
We need to get the truth out there. Removing the stigma is the only way to fight this illness, both before and after death!