It is now two months and one day since Mommy has seen or felt your beautiful face. As I sit here visiting you and writing to you, your beautiful flowers and precious memorabilia remind me of your beautiful eyes. I miss you so much! I miss everything about you my baby. Jacob, you are and always will be my hero! You fought as hard as you could and had so many great moments! Those moments make this even harder. Your smile is infectious and remembering that one time you squirmed from being tickled. That was a wonderful day. You gained weight, picked your head up, babbled, grabbed Daddy ‘s finger, cried when you were hungry, breast-fed a bit, gave your brother and sister a kiss and more.
Bubba, your life here with us was so short but you have impacted us greatly. You have taught mommy, daddy, Mana, and Jesse so much about many many things. My baby, my only wish on my birthday and Mother’s Day is that I will one day live with you in another life. Live with you and hold you, and watch you crawl, turnover, drink from a bottle and more. Go and run free sweet boy. Mommy will be OK. I want you to know, I will always mix your socks with Jesse’s laundry so I can remember you. I will hang your photos everywhere. Talk about you every day. I will always watch your videos and imagine you were here, make baskets for your toys and always keep all of your blankets with me at night. I will always write to you and smell your pillow while holding it tight. In your honor, I will do everything in my power to never let anyone forget you. My sweet Jacob, I miss the sound of your feeding pump but I am happy that now you can run free. I wanted to Thank you my baby, for waiting for your brother and sister to say goodbye my sweet Angel. This Mother’s Day is all about you. Thank you for being my third precious moment. My baby, you taught me how to fight the fight, you gave me courage I didn’t even know I had, this Mother’s Day I will spend remembering you with your brother and sister and daddy and including you in any activity. Always remember, My sweet precious owlet I will always love you.
As a cannabis writer, I am so thankful for the opportunity to meet folks who are in the cannabis industry for all the right reasons, including Meagan and Chad from The Hand That Heals. I support Meagan and Chad's mission to educate mission to educate others on how cannabis can contribute to greater quality of life and also provide an antidote to opioid addiction, an epidemic that continues to claim thousands of American lives every year but also impacted their young daughter, Maddie, after she was prescribed opioids to treat Zellweger syndrome. Upon meeting Meagan and Chad at Seattle CannaCon 2019, I shared one of the reasons that I am also taking up cannabis advocacy: to help provide education and possible solutions for those currently impacted by the opioid epidemic. This topic is personal for me, because my best friend, Shannon, passed away from an opioid overdose in late 2015. After hearing my story, Meagan and Chad have graciously invited me to share Shannon’s story on their blog. A big thank you to The Hand That Heals for this platform to share her story and also speak to how cannabis can help those that are still struggling with opioid addiction (also known as opioid misuse disorder).
After quitting my 9-5 and deciding to become a cannabis writer, I am spending increasingly more time researching the benefits of the cannabis plant. What I know now, I wish I had known years ago when my best friend was struggling with opioid addiction.
Cannabis would not have been able to cure Shannon’s addiction, but it may have helped to improve her quality of life while she worked to dig herself out of the hole she was in. However, I will never know, as I did not realize that cannabis was a potential treatment option for opioid addiction until after she had already passed away. I can only hope that sharing her story will illuminate the amazing woman that she was, illustrate how quickly someone’s life can be overcome by opioid addiction, and also allow others to understand how cannabis may be able to assist those seeking treatment in the face of this epidemic.
Throughout this article, I will provide personal anecdotes about how the opioid epidemic impacted Shannon, her loved ones, and our community. I will conclude by providing some recent research on how cannabis may be able to improve quality of life for others who are struggling with opioid addiction.
The Darkest Hour
December 13, 2015. I have experienced many rough days throughout my life, but nothing will ever compare to the day that my best friend from childhood, Shannon, died of an opioid overdose. I had known for some time that she had been struggling with addiction, but learning about her death and then conceiving of the fact that she was actually gone... it literally took my breath away.
The moment I heard the news, it felt as though my heart had fallen right into the pit of my stomach and my whole body burned with instantaneous grief, anger, and acute physical anguish. I couldn’t breathe. I made a few of the worst telephone calls of my life and then sat in my car for a few hours, sobbing, realizing that nothing was going to feel “right” again for a long, long time.
And I was right. After getting through the next month, which included meeting with Shannon’s family to spread her ashes at her favorite beach and participating in a touching memorial service, I attempted to bury the pain of losing her. As I went through my day-to-day life, I attempted to stifle thoughts about Shannon because every time I thought of her (all the time), or saw something that reminded me of her (um, constantly), or even heard a song she loved (and she loved music), I would simply lose it.
But I continue to toughen as the years go on, and so it gets easier and easier to talk about Shannon without falling to pieces. I have now had time to reflect on our friendship, the impact she has had on me, and how our relationship continues to evolve even though she is no longer here by my side. Rose Kennedy once said, “It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree. Time - the mind, protecting its sanity - covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone”. I have significant scar tissue, but underneath, my grief is expansive.
Shannon’s addiction and subsequent death have taught me a lot about what it means to struggle with guilt. To be close to an addict is a painful exercise in both grief and guilt because, while you want nothing more than to be able to help your loved one, the situation can feel overwhelmingly hopeless. While I certainly do not have all the answers today, I have learned to forgive myself for not knowing how to help Shannon. But, self-forgiveness has not come easily and is fleeting.
In the years leading up to Shannon’s death, while she was still struggling with her addiction, I had already been experiencing pangs of remorse on a regular basis, punishing myself with questions - had I given her all the support I could have? Was I making myself emotionally open enough for her to confide in me? Should I show her more tough love to force her into taking control of her life, or continue to simply praise her when she took positive steps? These worries and fears only intensified after her death.
One morning in 2016, when I met a friend for lunch and was particularly teary-eyed when the subject shifted to Shannon, my friend reminded me that “you did the best you could have at the time”. Since then, this quote and overall mentality have continued to resonate with me. To this day, whenever I experience self-doubt about doing enough for Shannon, I remind myself that I had done the best I could have at the time. At age 25, I did what I could to support my ailing friend as well as protect my own emotions. Not to mention, I was trying to create my career out of thin air and was overwhelmed with my own personal drama. And while it’s true that I did the best I could, I still fixate on the fact that now, after three years and taking the time to research the opioid epidemic, I would be able to do better for Shannon today.
A Brilliant Light
Beginnings of a Lifelong Friendship
“Things are never quite as scary when you have a best friend” - Bill Waterson
I met my best friend, Shannon, at age 4 when we participated in ballet together. We both grew up in a suburb near Tacoma, Washington. In 4th grade, we were placed in the same class and discovered that we both loved Britney Spears and cats. And just like that, we decided to be best friends. And so it was!
In middle school, Shannon and I became close with another classmate, Amber. From then on, it was the three of us against the world. My fondest and warmest childhood memories include just being with those two. I can recall a montage of days spent together at school, each other’s houses, and soccer practice where we were always up to mischief and never really doing what we were supposed to be doing. Life with them was full of giggling, storytelling, eating too much, doing each other’s homework, watching movies, and going to Starbucks to gossip about boys and spend our parents’ money on sugary Frappucinos. Ahhh, life was so sweet!
Out of our trio, Shannon was always the most vivacious, charismatic, and self-assured among us. As someone who has always struggled with self-confidence, body-image issues, and negative self-talk, I was immensely fortunate to have a friend like her. Whenever I would make self-deprecating comments about my figure, Shannon would have none of it, telling me to “be nice or shut up” (Shannon’s love-language was definitely tough-love). Throughout our friendship, Shannon would always tell me that I was lovable and fun to be around, and being with her really made me feel this way. She also knew how sensitive I was to others’ criticisms, and she always encouraged me to fight for what I want and not care so much about what other people think. She also shielded me from reality when she knew I needed to hear something positive (for instance, she’d say, “of course he likes you, just ask him out!” regardless of whether or not I had a chance).
Her entire life, Shannon was witty, clever, and very intelligent. She was exuberant and always lively - a brilliant light all around. She was affectionate and kind like her mom and had clearly received her quick-witted, dry sense of humor from her dad. Everyone enjoyed meeting and being around Shannon. Even when we were just kids, Shannon was always the queen of driving real, authentic interpersonal connection with other people. She made everyone feel welcome and valued. Shannon also took the time to give the majority of our friends a charming nickname. Once she came up with your moniker, this is how she referred to you in all subsequent conversations. Some of the nicknames she bestowed on others included Porky, Bartholomew, Sebastian, and Dinky. Her nickname for me was Feather, Feath for short.
To read more of Heather's work about living one's best self through intentional cannabis use and consistent self-care, visit her blog Bud & Blossom or via Instagram @bud_n_blossom
Growing Older, Together
Of course, as teenagers get older, habits and past-times transition. This was no exception for Shannon, Amber, and I. Seemingly all in one summer, boyfriends, cars, and marijuana became a part of our life. While I don’t advocate for teenage marijuana use, I can also tell you that our first summer smoking cannabis together was one of the most memorable and joyful times of my life. We lovingly referred to cannabis in notes and texts as “les verts”, or “the greens” in French, and we had a blast experiencing life through this enhanced perspective. When I am feeling most nostalgic, I pine to revisit some of the sunny, jubilant, ephemeral experiences from that summer. We drove each other around Tacoma, day in and day out, listening to west coast rap songs and eating Taco Bell all along the way.
Over time, our friend group started to incorporate new thrills, but also more instability, into our lives. Particularly during our junior and senior years of high school, we began to drink alcohol and go to house parties more regularly. Shannon, Amber, and I were often together, but also spent a lot of time with our individual boyfriends and their social circles.
Naturally, as we became more involved in the local party scene, Shannon excelled in this new world. Shannon had developed into a beautiful woman and enhanced her looks with a spunky style, neon colors, and loud, stunning jewelry. Aside from her look, her charisma was one of her greatest appeals. She was magnetic - you simply didn’t want to be apart from her. Shannon made turning absolute strangers into great friends look easy and she was always the life of the party.
Shannon’s social circle expanded extremely quickly and she would always invite me to come out with her and her new friends. It was truly exhilarating. We were becoming thrill seekers and getting pretty good at finding new highs night after night. We started to drink heavily and eventually expanded into experimentation with other drugs that we could purchase from some of our newfound contacts.
After Googling it, I have come across eight core reasons why teenagers typically abuse drugs and alcohol, including other people, popular media, escape and self-medication, boredom, rebellion, instant gratification, lack of confidence, and misinformation. I think that all of these factors played into our
behavior, most notably rebellion.
Additionally, some of the substances we experimented with seemingly provided utility to our lives. Personally, I liked alcohol because it provided an escape from academic stress and worry about the future. I also liked Adderall because it made me feel energetic but it also allowed me to go days without eating, fueling disordered eating habits that I had picked up in junior high. Shannon didn’t like “uppers” like I did, though, and she started to seek out pills and substances that could “chill her out”. I believe it was during this time, in high school, that she had her first experience with painkillers.
I look back at this time, now that I am at the tail-end of my 20’s, and I shudder thinking about how dangerous our behavior was. I can also reflect back and remember that we hadn’t intentionally caused any harm. Rather, I think we were just so enthralled with having fun that we were quick to overlook potential consequences. We were just being teenagers, or that’s how I justified it, anyway. Besides, we were good kids. We still maintained healthy grades, participated in sports, genuinely cared for our family and friends, and had plans for the future.
After high school, I moved to Seattle to start attending classes at the University of Washington, and Shannon moved to Pennsylvania for a brief time before moving back to Tacoma to work as a waitress and bartender. Her parents had moved to Ohio, but she established her own household with her live-in boyfriend, Dan, someone who I liked and trusted very much.
Throughout my college career, Shannon made me feel like her house was an extension of my house. After particularly grueling weeks at college, I would head down to Shannon’s to stay with her and relieve some stress. She also nursed me through two difficult breakups during that time. And of course, we continued to enjoy parting with one another; Shannon would invite me down for her frequent house parties and I would invite Shannon to parties that I threw with my college housemates. We have so many happy pictures from this moment in time.
Since high school, I had known that Shannon continued to use painkillers recreationally. For the most part, it didn’t really worry me, though; I mean, she was just taking pills, she wasn’t smoking them or snorting them or anything. Also, Shannon always had everything under control; her house and car were fastidiously clean, her schedule was incredibly organized, and her hair and makeup were always just so. Sometimes, I would ride with Shannon to the house in Tacoma where she bought painkillers. A lot of our mutual friends knew she was taking them and so it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I wish I had audited the situation further.
However, I started to get concerned in 2012. Sometimes, when we got together, Shannon seemed “off”. Or, we would make plans to hang out and then she would cancel at the last minute. Then, she didn’t make it to my college graduation party. And when she came to visit me at my new job after college, she alluded to the fact that she had just lost her bartending job due to her pill usage.
I remembered back to a time in high-school when my doctor prescribed me pain-killers after an ACL surgery. The doctor warned me about the addictive qualities of opioid-based pills, but I hadn’t really paid it much mind because I knew that I didn’t like the depressive and nausea-inducing effects of painkillers, anyways. But, now, clearly, my friend’s mind and body had started to crave these pills. Could this have been the opioid addiction my doctor had warned me about?
I wasn’t sure how to address the changes in Shannon. When she told me about losing her job, she assured me that she had a plan and that she was going to be OK. I didn’t like to push the subject because she didn’t like talking about it and I worried about pushing her away.
From my perspective, the transition from when Shannon seemed healthy to when she was clearly sick was abrupt.
In February 2013, Shannon moved to Ohio to live with her family. I wasn’t sure if her temporary move had anything to do with her pill-use, but since she didn’t mention it, I just didn’t ask. I was glad that she was temporarily with family, the people who could provide her with unending love, support, and stability. With the increased distance between us, we started to talk less and less frequently and I often had difficulty reaching her.
Not quite a year later, Shannon moved back to Tacoma and into a rented room. I visited Shannon a few times at this house and got to spend some quality time with her. However, there were a few unsettling times there, as well.
One morning after I had spent the night, she left the house to go get us coffee and didn’t return for three hours. I was mad, but I didn’t press her too much because I didn’t want to fight and I had already been having a hard time reaching her.
Another time, I came to Tacoma to celebrate her 24th birthday. After dinner, our group of friends went bar hopping and eventually transitioned the party to Shannon’s house, but suddenly we realized - where was Shannon? She had driven away and wouldn’t answer her phone calls. My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I slept in Shannon’s bed and drove home in the morning. I didn’t know what to think.
She texted me a few days later and apologized for disappearing and said that she hoped everything was OK between us. I told her not to worry and that everything was fine. However, I should have said something else because it was becoming clear that things weren’t actually “fine”.
I wish I had been there for her in the ways that she needed. I am certain that Shannon felt like she couldn’t open up to me about her drug addiction because… well, she knew I wasn’t strong enough to deal with it. Like she had throughout our whole life, I think she was protecting me from a reality that I couldn’t handle. She always had been the strong one.
After January 2014, I didn’t see Shannon for a full year, although we would occasionally exchange text messages. She didn’t have her phone, and so I wasn’t able to reach out to her; rather, I’d wait for her to text me, always from unknown numbers. But, like every year before, I still received a midnight message on my birthday in March. She had always been one for making a big deal out of my birthday - this was just the kind of friend she was.
Finally, a week after her 25th birthday, I received a text from Shannon saying she wanted to get together and that she was sober! I was so proud. A few days later, we went to lunch. It was so nice to connect with Shannon again.
She explained that she was an addict and that she would always be an addict, and this meant she would never be able to drink again. I let her know this was, of course, no problem, as I had been meaning to cut back, anyway!
After lunch, she came over to my apartment and we talked for a few hours. She invited me to one of her upcoming narcotics meetings, to which I happily accepted! I was so excited to be present, in some way, in her recovery process. She also let me know that she would be happy to support me in my journey to replace drinking with other, more productive habits. We bid adieu and she drove down my street.
This was the last time I ever saw Shannon. Whenever I see a sporty red Mazda Protege hatchback driving down 65th St, I am sharply reminded of that day.
Within weeks, Shannon texted and said that she had relapsed. We never ended up going to a meeting together. In the most direct thing she had ever said to me about her addiction, she texted, “I’m struggling, Feath”. A few days later, she asked if she could spend the night at my place as she had been kicked out of sober housing and needed somewhere to stay. That was a tough day. I ultimately told Shannon that I could not allow her to stay the night with me, but that I would meet her at a grocery store and buy her some food and supplies. She told me not to worry about it and that was that. I felt broken and conflicted and I didn’t handle it well.
I wish I had known what I know now. I wish I had the chance to tell Shannon that cannabis might be able to help with her recovery. I also wish I had just invited her to my apartment to chit chat and smoke a bowl. Cannabis may have helped her resist using that evening. I also firmly believe that under the influence of cannabis, we would have been able to have the discussion that we needed to have.
But that didn’t happen.
I don’t know a lot about what happened after that, although I know Shannon was in and out of sober housing and had support from her family in the area. But I also saw things on social media that hinted that she was still struggling.
Suddenly, Shannon moved to Ohio to live with her parents. I wasn’t sure under what circumstances she had moved, but I was relieved. I knew that she was going to be in the best care with her parents and that if they were moving her home, they were absolutely aware of what was going on.
Shannon and I texted a little bit after she moved to Ohio, and for the most part, she seemed healthier! I could see from her social media pictures that she had put on a little weight and was looking more like her usual self. She was excited because, for the first time in a long time, she had found a job as a waitress at Cheesecake Factory. I was so happy for her. With her charisma, witty remarks, and impeccable memory, Shannon had always been an excellent waitress.
A few months later, in December 2015, I had a long, bewildering dream. In the dream, I was surrounded by a group of people that I knew. Shannon’s dad and brother were there, but I didn’t talk to them. I wasn’t really talking to anyone. It was hazier and more elusive than my standard dreams. I remember asking at one point, “where’s Shannon?” but nobody would answer me.
I woke up and dismissed it… I was under some significant work stress and I figured that this fever dream was just an expression of my internal anxiety.
On my way into work the next day, I decided to listen to Shakira’s 2001 album “Laundry Service” on my way into the office. I laughed upon hearing “Whenever, Wherever” because one time, when we were 12, while impersonating Shakira’s iconic belly dance, Shannon smacked her hand into her bedroom dresser. At the time, I had laughed first, but she eventually started laughing, too. Now, I thought about texting Shannon to remind her of the infamous Shakira folly. I’d text her after work.
It was that evening, on my way home from work, that I received the call informing me of Shannon’s death.
Although Shannon had been working in Ohio and pushing, with her family’s support, to get better, she had continued to struggle with her addiction. On Sunday morning, she passed suddenly after using heroin, seemingly while she was getting ready to go out that day. Coroners found fentanyl in her system, the synthetic opioid that had just started to be linked to an increase in opioid overdoses across the midwest. It is possible that she didn’t know there was fentanyl in her standard dose. Shannon’s mom shared with me that a few days before her death, Shannon had entered her shift schedule into her journal, fully intending to be there.
After she passed, a number of things happened. I connected with her parents and they were sweet enough to include Amber and I in a lot of the end-of-life milestones for Shannon. We spread Shannon’s ashes at her favorite beach near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Amber and I were invited to speak among those who provided remembrances at her memorial service.
When news of Shannon’s death spread, so many people from our past reached out to me to tell me how sorry they were about Shannon passing. I also received messages from many people that I had never even met before, people that had previously worked with Shannon or knew her from rehab. In life, and in death, she left a huge imprint on the people she knew.
Staring At the Sun
Recently, after being invited to share Shannon’s story, I decided that I needed to revisit some old conversations and look through some of my personal effects that remind me of Shannon. I set aside a few hours, vaped some cannabis, and then spread all of the papers, notes, photos, and drawings across the living room floor. I have trouble describing the emotion of looking through all of these vestiges from our friendship over the years. I laughed at almost everything I read but then cried knowing that I am not able to share this joy with her. Remembering what Shannon meant to me… if feels like doing heart surgery on myself. It’s like staring at the sun.
Shannon, for me, was the feeling of home. You know that feeling you get when you know you’re in the right spot and you know that you are loved? Well, that’s how Shannon made me feel.
My relationship with Shannon will always be one of the defining relationships of my life. I am so thankful for the support and friendship she provided me in life and the strength that she continues to inspire. I am also grateful to everyone that has joined me in the celebration of Shannon’s life, including many of our mutual friends, Amber (my rock), Shannon’s wonderful parents, and her siblings (three of my most favorite humans on the planet).
A Glimmer of Hope
Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. - Desmond Tutu
In the wake of the opioid epidemic, researchers have been searching for ways to either prevent opioid addiction or help to improve the quality of life of addicts battling opioid addiction. Along with many other potential improvements, including the implementation of safe-use sites and the distribution of other drugs that can assist in treatment, including methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine, researchers and policymakers are starting to consider that cannabis may also provide an effective antidote.
This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=Hx7WLlJzrlw), released by Vox, highlights that while cannabis will not be able to solve all of the issues plaguing opioid addicts, cannabis is one of the best chances we have to counter this ongoing epidemic.
The National Cannabis Industry Association, the most prominent organization representing the needs of the cannabis industry in Washington, DC, has issued a report (https://thecannabisindustry.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/NCIA-Cannabis-and-Opioids-Report.October-2016.pdf) outlining the various ways in which cannabis can help to treat those struggling with opioid addiction. The report highlights that cannabis has the potential to both treat chronic pain as well as reduce withdrawal symptoms for people struggling with opioid misuse disorder. The NCIA report also profiles multiple patients who have regained their lives and are now addiction and pain-free due to the use of marijuana, including NFL defensive linebacker, Kyle Turley.
Finally, one hopeful statistic that I have come across is this: Among opioid addicts, addicts that are daily marijuana users are 21% more likely to stay in treatment (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30238568). And I know that consistently staying in treatment centers is one of the biggest challenges for an opioid addict; many of my final conversations with Shannon highlight this truth.
For more information on how cannabis can help to curb the opioid epidemic, see my blog post on the topic here (https://shesabud.com/cannabis/2019/1/4/countering-the-opioid-crisis-with-cannabis)
To read more of Heather's work about living one's best self through intentional cannabis use and consistent self-care, visit her blog Bud & Blossom or via Instagram @bud_n_blossom