Edit­ed from the cov­er of #Qui­et­ingth­e­Si­lence

My younger sis­ter, Sari, and I grew up in the afflu­ent, tight­ly knit Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Coral Springs, Flori­da. We were raised with strong fam­i­ly val­ues and were lucky to spend a lot of time with our grand­par­ents, cousins, and a large group of very close fam­i­ly friends. Over­all, even with our par­ents’ divorce when we were in ele­men­tary school, we had a very nor­mal Amer­i­can upbringing.

But as Sari got old­er, cop­ing with the day to day was dif­fi­cult for her. In high school, she final­ly was diag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der, and like many oth­ers who suf­fer with this dis­ease, she cycled through med­ica­tions, treat­ments, and ther­a­pists. Treat­ments would help for a few months and then sud­den­ly wouldn’t. Dif­fer­ent trig­gers would set her off. Lit­tle issues became big ones, and she met them with scream­ing, insults, and sad­ness. Faced with con­stant frus­tra­tion at her­self, she start­ed look­ing for oth­er ways to be hap­py, includ­ing occa­sion­al drug use.

Unable to help her­self, Sari respond­ed out­ward­ly by devot­ing her life to help­ing oth­ers. In col­lege, she vol­un­teered with chil­dren who had autism and even­tu­al­ly earned a master’s degree in sign lan­guage edu­ca­tion. She was teach­ing third grade, and both the stu­dents and their par­ents talked about how much she cared for them. She even made YouTube videos trans­lat­ing pop­u­lar music into sign language.

When things were good, she was good. Real­ly good.

At thir­ty years old, Sari had touched many lives for the bet­ter and seemed to have kicked her bad habits. To oth­ers, she pre­sent­ed a warm, nur­tur­ing young woman. But when things got bad in her mind, cop­ing with­out drugs must have seemed an impos­si­ble task.

It was our grand­moth­er who found her. Hur­ri­cane Irma was bat­ter­ing Flori­da, and Sari had lost pow­er, so she went to stay with our grand­par­ents. After spend­ing a won­der­ful day togeth­er cook­ing and grad­ing school papers, she was set to spend the night. Lat­er that evening, Grand­ma heard her on the phone hav­ing a tough con­ver­sa­tion and then heard the front door close. This call obvi­ous­ly had been a trig­ger for Sari. Look­ing in the hall, Grand­ma real­ized she was gone.

When Grand­ma called her cell, Sari said she just had to run an errand and would be right back. She returned about mid­night and imme­di­ate­ly went into the bath­room. After about 10 min­utes of silence, Grand­ma knocked. No answer. She opened the door and found Sari hunched over, bare­ly breath­ing. She called 911. Can you imag­ine a nine­ty-year-old woman doing CPR on her grand­daugh­ter? The ambu­lance came, and the EMS team admin­is­tered Nar­can before rush­ing her to the hos­pi­tal. (If you don’t know, Nar­can is a med­ica­tion used to block the effects of opi­oids, espe­cial­ly in an overdose.)

When my mom called me ear­ly that morn­ing, I knew some­thing was wrong. But I expect­ed it to be about my grand­par­ents, who were nine­ty and nine­ty-nine. I nev­er thought it would be the news she shared: We’re in the hos­pi­tal. Sari overdosed.”

I imme­di­ate­ly booked a tick­et and flew home, and for the next sev­er­al days, I don’t know how we sur­vived it. Why did this hap­pen? We had so many ques­tions. How did we not know what she was doing?

We do not believe Sari inten­tion­al­ly took her life. After los­ing a dear friend years ago, she said, I won’t kill myself.” I don’t want peo­ple to expe­ri­ence how I feel now.” And there was no way she would do it at our grand­par­ents’ house. She loved them so much. But like­ly unknown to her, the drugs she took were laced with fen­tanyl, a pow­er­ful and dan­ger­ous addi­tive, and the drug became a game of Russ­ian roulette.

She nev­er regained con­scious­ness. After sev­er­al days and yet anoth­er brain scan, there was min­i­mal brain activ­i­ty and no improve­ment. She was liv­ing only because of a machine, and my fam­i­ly had a tough deci­sion to make — one I don’t wish on my worst ene­my. Eleven min­utes after she was removed from the ven­ti­la­tor, she was gone. It was crazy to expe­ri­ence. You nev­er think this could hap­pen, but it did. Things can change very quickly.

Sari died on Sep­tem­ber 14, 2017, from a hero­in over­dose. Even worse, she wasn’t the only one. With­in two days of Sari’s death, twen­ty-one oth­er peo­ple in South Flori­da of var­i­ous ages died from fen­tanyl-based overdoses.

So here we are two years lat­er. Sari is buried with our oth­er grand­par­ents and a dear friend who also strug­gled with men­tal health. Her head­stone is sim­ple yet descrip­tive: Daugh­ter, sis­ter, grand­daugh­ter, friend. A meno­rah and a play­ing card. She was buried in the dress she was going to wear to my wed­ding, which was four months after she passed away.

At Sari’s funer­al, we talked about how she strug­gled at dif­fer­ent times in her life. We did not say she died from an over­dose at the funer­al, but most peo­ple knew. It took me six months to tell peo­ple out­side of my inner cir­cle how she died and to share my sto­ry. How do you talk about it? There is a stig­ma attached. Today, I feel com­fort­able say­ing it. I think it just took time. At the time, I couldn’t even focus on what happened.

Mom wasn’t ashamed. Our com­mu­ni­ty knew she had a daugh­ter who strug­gled with men­tal health. She talks about it today, and she’s OK. She’s stronger than we all imag­ined. My father, who lives far away, con­nect­ed with oth­er par­ents on Face­book and local­ly who have suf­fered through the same thing. My step-father suf­fered a stroke short­ly after Sari died and is talk­ing about it too. We couldn’t have got­ten to where we are today with­out that same won­der­ful com­mu­ni­ty of fam­i­ly and friends who sup­port­ed us so much grow­ing up and sup­ports us just as much today. They nev­er cease to amaze me by show­ing up with food, sto­ries, and big smiles.

I’m less of a talk­er and more of a doer. I have tak­en every oppor­tu­ni­ty I could to make a dif­fer­ence in an area that needs so much work. I imme­di­ate­ly start­ed vol­un­teer­ing. It helped me with my griev­ing process. Being involved and try­ing to make change hap­pen is the only way I know. Today, I am the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Blue Dove Foun­da­tion. I see dai­ly how much con­nect­ing with peo­ple means and how many peo­ple are look­ing for light.

I have learned a lot over the past few years. I learned that in this nation­al endeav­or to fight opi­oid use, recre­ation­al users often get over­looked. I learned how tight­ly men­tal health is con­nect­ed to drug abuse. And I learned it can hap­pen to any­one — even when you come from a nice Jew­ish fam­i­ly. We as a soci­ety have made a lot of progress, but there still is so much room to grow. I learned help is out there through var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions and a wealth of peo­ple; you just have to ask. And we need to talk more. We as a com­mu­ni­ty need to qui­et the silence that sur­rounds the issues of sub­stance abuse and men­tal health over­all. I hope you and oth­ers will join me in the conversation.

Gabrielle (Gab­by) Leon Spatt is a gen­uine con­nec­tor who is pas­sion­ate about bring­ing peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions togeth­er to accom­plish big dreams. A per­son­al tragedy led Gab­by to the The Blue Dove Foun­da­tion, an Atlanta-based non-prof­it focus­ing on men­tal health and sub­stance abuse edu­ca­tion, out­reach and aware­ness through a Jew­ish lens. She devotes her time to her pro­fes­sion­al role along with com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment through dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship roles inside and out­side the Jew­ish community.

The Blue Dove Foun­da­tion was cre­at­ed to raise aware­ness about and help address the issues of men­tal ill­ness and sub­stance abuse in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and beyond. Based in Atlanta, we work with peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions across the Unit­ed States and around the world. Erase the shame and stigma.