When my younger brother, Alex, died of an opiate/heroin overdose in 2008 at the age of 20, it shocked and devastated my family and those who knew and loved him. We knew nothing about heroin other than our assumptions about its typical user profile, and could not imagine that our Alex would even try a drug so notoriously destructive.
I had seen his drug use escalate through high school and into college. After years of pleading with him to come clean and seek help, it was the moment I found out my baby brother had overdosed when I began to sense that he had suffered in silence. I had a feeling he was not alone in his shame, and I quickly discovered for myself how widespread addiction stigma is.
The more research I did and the more people I spoke with, the more confused I became about why heroin entered into our Chicago suburban, upper middle class town. What I came to understand was that opiate/heroin use was spreading in silence; I was not about to sit by and watch as the silence destroyed thousands of other families like it did mine. I chose to leave my growing marketing career to focus solely on activism and on founding my grassroots non-profit organization.
I started Live4Lali in January 2009 alongside my parents and a passionate group of friends with the goal of educating people through drug awareness. Since our inception, we have developed special community-based outreach projects, including activity scholarship opportunities for underprivileged youths, and evidence-based research initiatives including overdose prevention, harm reduction and overall awareness efforts.
I decided to lean in for several reasons. Alex's death changed me and the dynamic of my family. My mother lost her son, a grief- and guilt-bearing weight she will carry the rest of her life. My sisters and I lost our brother, whom we regarded as our protector, companion and most of all, our friend. The world lost another incredibly kind-hearted, intelligent and compassionate individual. I lost half of myself.
Tragedy shatters people, but over time, it became motivating for me to fight against the ignorance our country has towards drug addiction. If I had continued my career in marketing, I most likely would have enjoyed a fruitful career, but as a passionate person, I would have always regretted pushing down the fire in my belly. Ultimately, my decision to lean in was about opening hearts, enlightening minds and saving lives.
I moved back to Chicago and got to work. Throughout that first six months back, I met with other non-profit groups, community leaders/elected officials, treatment facilities, recovery groups, addiction experts, substance abuse counselors, researchers and beyond. I ate, breathed, slept this cause. I would read until my eyes gave out on me. And I, along with our incredible supporters, promoted Live4Lali and the cause. One fateful day, I met the incredible team at the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. This team of researchers, social workers and all around advocates were the soul sisters I never knew existed. Now a team member myself, I have found a home doing the work I love.
After leaning in, my life has changed drastically. Professionally, I am so proud and ecstatic about my work because it is important. I am honored to say I am contributing positively to this critical public health crisis. Personally, I feel happier, healthier, more fulfilled, and closer to my brother than I have felt since his death. Waking up each morning is no longer a battle with the alarm clock, but a genuine joy. My energy level is higher than ever before. I have found peace.