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Beyond the Stigma: Finding support and solace after an overdose

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Union Leader

May 29. 2018 3:42AM
Janice Steenbeke of Boscawen talks about her daughter, Pamela, who died from a drug overdose in Florida in January. Steenbeke and her sister attended a monthly drop-in discussion group run by Concord Regional Visiting Nurse Association for people who have lost loved ones to addiction. (Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News)



CONCORD — Losing a loved one can be difficult enough. But when that person dies from a drug overdose, the shame and isolation that accompany the loss can be devastating.

Concord Regional Visiting Nurse Association offers a monthly drop-in discussion group, Loss After Addiction. At this month’s gathering, only two people showed up: Janice Steenbeke of Boscawen and her sister, Becky Gauthier.

Steenbeke, 70, was ready to tell her story.

Her daughter, Pamela Steenbeke-DeSantis, died in January from an overdose, Steenbeke said. She was 48.

“She had an addiction she just could not get a handle on, and it ended up taking her life,” she said.

In Pamela’s obituary, her family wrote that she died “after years of struggling with mental illness and the disease of addiction.”

She didn’t want to hide what happened, Steenbeke said.

Carmella Dow, CRVNA’s bereavement coordinator, and Eric Stanley, a hospice social worker, gently guided the discussion, explaining that everything said in the room is confidential. Dow also stressed there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

She doesn’t feel ashamed, or guilty, Steenbeke told them. “I don’t know what else I could have done.”

But she is angry at times, she said. “How did this happen? She’s from a very strong, loving family.”

Her husband worked hard; she stayed home to raise their five kids, she said. “I was there.”

If this can happen in a family like hers, she asked, “How about the ones who don’t have the support? They’re never going to survive.”

Pamela had a daughter whom she adored, Steenbeke said, but even that love couldn’t save her. “These drugs are so strong.”

Pamela had started using painkillers after an injury and later turned to illicit drugs, she said. “Meth is really the one that did her in, but she did it all,” she said.

Her daughter had struggled with mental illness for years and spent time in the state hospital. The drugs only made it worse, she said: “She saw demons all the time.”

Last July, Pamela left a note, saying she was going to work. “We never saw her again,” Steenbeke said.

They later learned that Pamela rented a car and drove to Florida, where she ended up in jail, charged with grand theft auto of the rental car. When Janice tried to find out more, she was told her daughter was being released for lack of evidence.

In the months before Pamela’s death, she said, “The only reason we knew she was alive is when we’d get these horrible texts.”

“We were Satan, we were the body snatchers. We were the bad people.”

On Jan. 29, they got a call from police in Florida: Pam had been found dead outside a casino.

“What’s so sad is she died all alone on a sidewalk in Florida,” Janice said. “My husband says, ‘You knew this was going to happen,’ but your mother’s heart...”

She paused to collect herself, wiping away tears.

She and her husband went to Florida to see where Pamela died. “The security people were so nice,” she said.

It gives her comfort to know Pamela didn’t die from violence or hypothermia, she said. Her greatest fear had been that she’d never know what happened to her daughter.

Steenbeke said her Catholic faith sustains her through the darkest times. She planted a memorial garden for Pamela, where she likes to spend quiet time.

And she hopes that telling her daughter’s story might somehow spare others the same heartbreak.

“We can’t save Pamela, but how can we save other people?” she asked. “I hope this is not in vain.”

Dow assured Janice she’s already making a difference. “By being open and talking about that, you can’t ever know how that is helping other people,” she said.

Addiction is a powerful thing, but it doesn’t define who Pamela was, Stanley told her. “It’s what ended her life way before her time, but it wasn’t her,” he said.

Her niece was “the happiest, bubbliest child,” Gauthier said. “She always brought good into the room.”

Dow asked Steenbeke if she’s able to remember her daughter that way. Yes, she replied. “That was not my Pamela that died in Florida,” she said. “That’s not my Pammie.”

Leanne Tigert, hospice care services manager for CRVNA, said the drop-in group was created at the suggestion of a Concord Hospital physician. She said losing someone to addiction is different from what she calls a “life cycle” loss, the death of a parent or long-time spouse, for instance.

“There is so much stigma and shame around drug and alcohol misuse and overdosing,” she said. And that can make it difficult for someone to walk into a general bereavement support group.

Still, as the drug epidemic has affected more and more New Hampshire families, Tigert said, the stigma seems to be lessening. “It’s like a good side effect of a horrible situation,” she said.

Steenbeke later said she hopes more people come to next month’s group, which is on June 20 at 4 p.m. at the CRVNA Hospice House.

“What I was really looking for was listening to other people’s stories, to see how they’re handling the grief,” she said. “Seeing how other people handle it.”

Her advice to others who might be afraid to attend: “Whatever emotions they’re feeling, this is the place to share that with the group. We’re all feeling the same emotions, I guarantee that.”

In recent days, Steenbeke said, she has been dreaming about Pamela — good dreams. Maybe going to the group is the reason, she said.

“I think it’s healing when you can share,” she said. “It’s like confession; you feel better when you get absolved. You can start clean again.”

Steenbeke also wants to send a message to young people about how deadly drugs, especially meth, can be: “Look at this beautiful girl, who had a career, had a family. And she died on the street, on a sidewalk in Florida, all alone, fighting demons.

“This is how you want your life to end up?”

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Beyond the Stigma, sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.


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