Reads & Radio: Dear Dealer

Nadia Bowers (R) and her sister, Alexandra “Sasha” Bowers (L). Courtesy of Nadia Bowers

Dear Dealer, by Nadia Bowers

“Hey, man, what’s up? I’m saying “man” because most of the people who blew up my sister’s phone offering and seeking drugs were men. Men who had negative impacts on my sister’s life. Since I don’t know your name, I’ll just call you Dealer. You had the greatest and most negative impact on my sister’s life: You killed her.”

So begins Ms. Bowers’ letter, an examination of grief over her sister Sasha’s death from opioid poisoning. I heard Bowers read the piece as Act One of The Secret of My Death episode of This American Life. I often download TAL podcasts, saving them up for the six hour drives between my home in the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Barbara, where some of my family lives. I love the show, finding it shares extremely compelling stories most of the time.

Bowers’ story stopped me cold, not just because of the subject and how she writes about it, but especially because of how she sounds reading it. I can hear the depth of emotion, the complexity of her relationship with an addict sister and the struggle to reconcile her part in that relationship, and the questions of blame and responsibility she’s working through. It’s a really powerful piece.

Death is usually hard to deal with, especially in Western culture which is not comfortable with it and where the rituals surrounding it are in general not especially helpful. Unexpected death has its own complexities. The recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain hit me hard because it felt so surprising. I did not know Mr. Bourdain, so what I felt about him came from impressions from his television work, an occasional article he penned or interviews he did, and the social media messages he wrote – all of which I usually enjoyed and appreciated. I had no other basis for my surprise, yet that is what I felt, and it seems many of those who did know him very well were also surprised. Depression can be that way.

Sasha didn’t commit suicide, at least it doesn’t seem that she did. I’ve heard it said that death from drug addiction or overdose can be like a long suicide, but that doesn’t fit all cases, and it doesn’t seem to fit this one. I’m guessing that’s a question Nadia might have asked herself about Sasha or any addict, but as Nadia writes, there are others who contributed to Sasha’s death. Addiction is a complicated disease most often with no simple remedies.

Sasha’s life and death as an addict is part of the opioid epidemic our society is currently suffering. It’s a curse which we often hear about in terms of statistics, such as the one Nadia quotes at the beginning of her printed piece in Time, “In 2015, 33,091 people died from opioid overdoses in the U.S.” From what I have read, that number has since soared to 42,249 in 2016 (Center for Disease Control report) and beyond.

What we hear about less often are the people behind those statistics, the stories of who they were and how their addictions ended in death. Hearing Nadia’s story puts a face on those statistics, and her honesty and authenticity leaves the listener with far more than just a number for Sasha. It also gives us insight into what a loved one like Nadia might face, and although I’m saddened by what this epidemic is doing to so many lives, I’m grateful that Nadia shared about what it’s doing to hers.