My sister was born on November 1, 1972, and from what our mother told me, she was a delightful baby. I came along two and a half years later, and from my earliest memories, we always shared a wonderful sisterly bond. Of course we had our moments when those hormones kicked in during our teenage years, and we fought like cats and dogs. But we were always there for each other.
In my early teens, I went through my rebellious stage. I dabbled in drinking, smoking, and some light drug use, but I never got addicted to anything. My sister, however, never dabbled with anything. She was a straight A student, a member of all the “nerd” clubs (as my friends and I called them). She could pull an A with no struggle, while I had to work my tail off for a C. She was just naturally smart, and I always felt she was Mom’s favorite. I even ran away from home once, leaving our mother a note saying, “You still have the good child, you don’t need me anymore.”
Eventually, though, we were both on good paths. I had overcome my rebellion and actually wanted to graduate high school. My sister was in her first year of college, studying Early Childhood Education. Then things changed.
After only two semesters of college, my sister got pregnant. She quit school, and she and her boyfriend married. I really don’t know why she didn’t go back to college after her son was born; maybe she felt that it was more than she could handle. Instead, she worked in daycare centers and seemed to love it. Then things changed even more.
Her marriage was falling apart, and she started running around with a friend who had gotten into drugs. Looking back, I think at this point in my sister’s life she was both weak and curious. She started doing drugs with her friend, and it got really bad. She couldn’t get off the drugs, and it became very apparent that she had an addictive personality. She and her husband got divorced, and she almost lost her son. About that time, our mother went into a deep depression. I was just starting college and wanted to do well. I didn’t understand my mother’s struggles, and I didn’t understand why my sister couldn’t shake her addiction. I was angry with both of them.
A couple of years passed, and my sister met someone else and had another child, a daughter. She was still using drugs, and my mother was still depressed. I was doing great in college, and about to graduate.
Then came Friday, October 31, 1997. That morning I got ready to leave for my job at Gap Kids. My mother had not been to work all week because she was so depressed. I went into her room and woke her. I told her to get up and please feel better, and said, “I love you.” When I came home that evening, I found my mother in her car, in our garage, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. I clearly remember the police asking me, “Do you have any idea why your mother would have done something like this?” “Yes,” I replied, “because of my sister.”
To this day I am thankful that my sister was not there and was not the one to find our mom. I was able to calm myself down before my sister arrived, and never once spoke of my feelings to her. I never let her know I wanted to blame her at the time. I knew it would destroy her. And later I learned that you can’t blame anyone for a suicide except the one who does it. We were both very angry with our mom for leaving us like that, and we both went through counseling. I thought this would be enough to get my sister to stop her drug abuse, but it wasn’t. She continued to use, and even tried to take her own life in the same manner our mother did.
What a dark time this was in our lives. I didn’t know how to help my sister; I never did. And she was showing all the signs of depression our mother had. Eventually my sister did go into rehab and got better. She married her daughter’s father and all seemed to be well. She even went back to school, this time for a paralegal degree. Then, just shy of her graduation, she had another relapse and was back in rehab. But again, she came out and seemed fine and graduated with honors. We were all so proud of her. A few years passed. I worked for a few years, then married and started my own family. We moved around the east a bit and then finally settled in Pennsylvania. In the midst of my own happiness, there was a part of me that felt bad for leaving my sister. Although I was the younger sister, I felt like I needed to keep an eye on her and make sure she was doing okay. I struggled with this for some time. But she seemed to be doing well, enjoying her husband and children, although I knew she still struggled with depression.
Then, one day in the summer of 2009, when she called I could tell something was wrong. I could hear it in her voice. She had spoken of some problems in her marriage before, but something within me knew this was different. I immediately booked a flight and flew home to see her. It was a good visit, but I sensed an awkwardness—nobody in the family was really talking about anything. She had told me before I came not mention anything to her husband about the issues in their marriage. And all my father really said to me was that my sister really needed me right now.
About two weeks later my sister called to tell me she was in rehab again. She finally told me she had used computer duster to get high. I was shocked. Why would she do something so stupid? Well, for a former drug user, this is an easy, cheap, and legal way to get high. However, at the time I didn’t really understand. I thought it was just another cry for help because she was depressed and unhappy in her marriage.
To be honest, I was tired of all her drama. I just wanted her to get better and be happy again. We had some family conference calls over the phone and she finally came to the decision that she was going to go back home, try to work on her marriage, seek Christian counseling, and she wouldn’t use this canned air stuff again. I was only aware of her using it one time, so I thought this was a reasonable solution. Slowly, my sister started healing. I could hear it in her voice. She was going to counseling, had starting attending church, and was even looking for a part-time job. It was tough for her for a little while, I could tell. But she was different. I could just feel it. And after several months she did find a part-time job in retail and seemed to be enjoying life.
I was so happy for her. And I could finally relax. I didn’t feel bad about moving so far away from her, and thought everything was going to be good again. I had my sister back.
On the Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2009, we talked about my plans to come south in March to visit and celebrate my younger daughter’s second birthday. I told her that I wished she could fly up for a few days and visit and just be together like old times. She told me she wished she could, but with her new job, and money spent on Christmas, she just didn’t see how it could work out. I told her I understood, and at least I would see her in March. The next day would change my life forever.
On Monday afternoon, my girls were up from their naps and we were listening to music, keeping cozy and warm on that cold December day. About 4:30, my husband walked through the door. I remember thinking, Great, he is home early! He took me aside and said, “I have some bad news,” and went on to tell me that my sister had died of an overdose. I was completely in shock, and yet there was a small part of me that had thought this day would come. It was just a matter of when. My sister died of what is known as Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. She had been inhaling duster, and the inhalant causes the heart to beat rapidly and results in cardiac arrest. I learned later that she had been caught by her family numerous times using the inhalant. No one had ever shared this with me. I only wish I had known the seriousness of it. I wish I had known she was using when I went home to visit her in the summer of 2009. I could have talked with her about it. But nobody shared her struggles, not even her.
About three months after her death I decided to research inhalant abuse. I found a Web site, www.inhalant.org. Then I remembered her telling me that she had met a friend through a support website about inhalants. And sure enough, as I read through old postings on the site, I found my sister. She signed herself simply “lostgirl.”
She wrote for the first time on May 28, 2009, seven months prior to her death: “I have been on various drugs and this is on the same level as crack if not worse because it is legal.”
Another post, “I think the show ‘Intervention’ about Allison gave a lot of people the idea of huffing the duster spray. I know it put it in the back of my head, and when I had nothing else and was feeling lonely, I bought it.” Two days later she wrote, “I was alone and wanted to get duster . . . I kept telling myself life is so much more worth it. And I kept picturing my husband and kids. The thing is I know where it is, heck, I know where cases of it are.” In her last post, just thirteen days before she would die, my sister wrote, “Please, reach out . . . it’s worth your life.”
I am reaching out for her, my lostgirl. It is too late for me to help her, but what I can do now is tell her story.
Please seek help if you are addicted to inhalants. Talk to your family. Seek help from an online or other support group. I lost my sister to something you can buy over the counter. I am still amazed how common this problem is, and it needs to be addressed. What you can do as a parent, teacher, relative, or friend is look for the warning signs. I couldn’t see them in my sister because I lived so far away, and because I had no idea what was going on. But knowing what I know now, I heard the signs through the phone. I spoke with her once and her speech was slurred; she had probably been using. She would tell me she fell a lot and had lots of bruises; she chalked it up to being clumsy. She also once told me she was going to the doctor because she slipped and fell and injured her lip. It had caused her to get blisters; I questioned this one, but she just said it had gotten infected.
All of these things are warning signs of inhaling computer dusting spray. There are many products out there that can be abused. Other warning signs of inhalant abuse can be glossed-over eyes, mood changes, and, for teenagers, a decreased interest in school. Also be aware of material lying around the house that may come up missing, such as paint-soaked rags, spray paint cans, or any other household products.
The best thing you can do for someone you think may be using is communicate with them. It could save their life. Some stores will require ID and that you be 18 years of age to purchase computer dusting spray. My sister was 37. How did that help her?
Sister of “Lostgirl”