The U.S. is in the midst of a public health crisis that kills approximately 142 people every day (1), sparking an epidemic on a local, state, and national level. The culprit is opioids.
On Oct. 26, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. On a state level, the total number of deaths in Indiana due to opioid overdose during 2010 totaled 283. Five years later, it almost doubled to 529 deaths (2). In Vanderburgh County, opioids already this year have claimed 57 lives, surpassing the previous record of 50 deaths in a single year (3).
Statistics speak loudly, but a group of women in the Tri-State believe their personal experiences will shout even louder to raise awareness about the impact of the opioid epidemic. The group is 7 Sisters, composed not of related sisters but of women who each lost a sibling to opioid-related causes.
May 18, 1990 – Aug. 19, 2014
It had been almost a year since Adrianna O’Daniel’s brother Nick O’Daniel had passed away. He suffered from depression for a long time, which grew worse after the death of their grandfather and decline of their grandmother just a month before Nick took his own life by taking all of the opioids in his possession and shooting himself.
“He would sometimes closet his own demons to protect other people and put other people’s feelings first,” says Adrianna. “We didn’t even know he had pills. We knew he was taking something daily for depression, but we didn’t know he had the amount of different pills to overdose with.”
After Nick’s death, Adrianna heard about the overdose death of a family acquaintance, Evan Wininger, and reached out to his sister Casey Blake. Adrianna says she didn’t have anyone to talk to who understood the situation after her brother’s death. She wanted to make sure Casey didn’t have the same experience.
Jan. 29, 1984 – Nov. 29, 2015
A couple years later, Casey Blake heard of another acquaintance, Lindsay Locasto, whose brother had died of an opioid overdose. The three girls — Adrianna, Casey, and Lindsay — all wanted to do more but didn’t want to do it alone. On Aug. 8, Lindsay sent a group of women, who would become 7 Sisters, the first message that cemented the group together.
“It’s not something people freely talk about,” says Casey. “I realized it was bigger than what I thought it was.”
Erin Purdue, Casey’s and Evan’s sister and another member of the group, says there were people who came to Evan’s funeral who had no idea he struggled with opioid addiction.
“Evan struggled for more than a decade,” says Erin. “It was more than a 10-year battle, and these people didn’t even know. So it may be something you don’t even see.”
For Evan, his struggle with opioids began during the end of his high school career after having three knee surgeries within 18 months for a sports injury.
“It was really easy on my part to be like, ‘Why can’t you stop?’” says Erin. “I think that is the biggest understanding I’ve developed is they can’t. Every morning they wake up it’s a new battle. That’s the only thing I really get peace from is knowing Evan isn’t waking up every day and having to face that.”
Oct. 1, 1981 – July 27, 2016
For most of the women in 7 Sisters, the experience of losing siblings to opioids was a lesson in addiction and mental health.
“I myself was uneducated, and now I’m doing research,” says Katie Keown Carley, who lost her brother, Cory Keown, last year. “I know his personality; he didn’t want this. They’re all human beings at the end of the day. They all have hearts.”
Katie not only lost her brother, but she also lost her cousin, Christopher Alvey, who died holding Cory that same night.
“When I got the phone call, after I had a minute to process, I kind of could take a deep breath for the first time in a long time,” says Katie. “What I believe is that he’s with God; he’s at peace. Then I feel bad. I think about him every day, and there are moments the tears come unexpectedly.”
Oct. 21, 1986 – Sept. 14, 2016
All of the sisters say guilt is a feeling they struggle with and experience. There always are regrets and “what ifs” in the back of their heads.
Kerri Leach, who lost her sister Kelli Peter last year, says she wishes she had been more understanding.
“I struggle with that the most,” she says. “I would get really angry, and I would fire out these texts. I was like ‘You’re not trying. You don’t want to keep your daughter; you’re not taking care of her.’ People think they don’t want to better their lives, but my sister really wanted to.”
While Kerri is the only person in the group to have lost a sister, Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear says the opioid epidemic is affecting all demographics.
“We have a problem in this area,” he says. “It’s been a dirty little secret for years, and now everyone is picking up on it. I still have families who get upset that’s what I’m putting on the death certificate. There still is that stigma.”
Aug. 18, 1989 – Jan. 18, 2017
Fighting the stigma and educating the community on drug addiction is at the heart of everything 7 Sisters is doing. Their stories prove that drug addiction does not just affect families of a certain socioeconomic level or zip code. No family is immune to addiction.
“People think people who are doing drugs don’t have any drive or are uneducated,” says Lindsay. “People think they come from bad families or don’t care about what happens. There are so many stereotypes and, even if they fit a stereotype, they’re still a person. They’re still a human no matter what.”
Even though Lindsay and Sam were close, she says there were periods where she didn’t talk to her brother due to his drug use. What helped Lindsay was realizing and remembering that his addiction was a disease they could try to treat.
“There are people who still think it is a choice, and they don’t understand why you can’t just stop,” says Lindsay. “Our whole thought is if we can do something through this process and just save one person or help one family, to us that would be enough.”
Dec. 31, 1981 – July 25, 2017
Ally Fields lost her brother Kourtney Fields earlier this year, the last of the siblings in the group to pass away. Kourtney struggled on and off with drugs from around the age of 20.
“People aren’t open minded about addiction,” says Ally. “They want to say they think the worst of addicts and about addiction and say they’re junkies. I always would come to the realization after being so mad that this isn’t Kourtney. This is something much deeper. I truly believe this is a mental illness.”
Many describe telling a drug addict to quit using drugs as equivalent to telling a cancer patient to quit having cancer. Treatment might help, but there is no simple cure.
“The one bad thing about all of our stories is it didn’t end well,” says Lindsay. “If you think there’s something you should do, don’t put it on the back burner and wait. Don’t think it’s just going to go away.”
For more information about 7 Sisters, visit facebook.com/ 7sistersstoppingthestigma.
Note from Staff Writer Elisa Gross:
When I took on this story, I didn’t think I had any personal connection to the opioid epidemic. I thought I didn’t know anyone who was or is an opioid addict. As I was doing my interviews and research, however, I realized I had connections to two of the sisters in the group, Adrianna O’Daniel and Erin Purdue.
The closest connection, however, was because of a post I made on my Facebook page. Someone close to me saw my post and messaged me about their connection to the opioid epidemic. This person and a close friend of theirs had gotten hooked on pills like Vicodin and Oxycontin several years ago. They both cleaned up and went on with their lives, but the friend of theirs relapsed after two and a half years of sobriety and passed away last year. I had no idea about their friend’s or their own history with opioid use.
The opioid epidemic is the largest, most far-reaching epidemic of its kind in our country’s history. You may think you aren’t connected to this epidemic, but you are. The opioid epidemic affects everyone.
1. Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, whitehouse.gov/ondcp/presidents-commission
2. Indiana State Department of Health, in.gov/isdh/27393.htm
3. Statistics as of Oct. 24, 2017, from Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear.
4. National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-crisis#seven
5. Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI in Indianapolis, rmff.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/RMFF-Opioid-Addiction-Summary-12-2-16.pdf