Elizabeth’s funeral was held on Monday, February 18, 2013, at Transfiguration Catholic Church, the same church where she had received first communion and made her confirmation. She was laid to rest in the Sacred Heart section of the Kennesaw Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Marietta, GA. Her grave is just beyond the outstretched hands of a statue of Jesus with Kennesaw Mountain in the background.
Elizabeth was born in August 1988, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She was raised in an all-American home with her older sister and brother. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and her father was in the information technology industry. As a result of her father’s job transfer, the family moved to Georgia when Elizabeth was seven. She swam on the neighborhood swim team, was a Girl Scout, took dance lessons and played the flute in the middle school band. She did well in school and quickly made many friends.
Throughout her childhood, Elizabeth was a trusting person, but in high school she encountered people who would betray her trust, turn on her without warning and hurt her feelings. She started experimenting with alcohol and marijuana before the age of 16, hiding it well from her family. Despite her experimentation with these substances, she continued to do well academically and appeared, at least on the surface, to be mature beyond her years.
In 2006, Elizabeth enrolled at Auburn University, where she was introduced to Oxycontin. Her grades quickly plummeted. By her second semester she was addicted and failing her classes. Her parents asked her to return home to finish school at Kennesaw State University, which she did.
Over the last six years of her life, Elizabeth went through many highs and lows. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She overdosed many times, ending up in the ICU, but had always been able to pull through. She was arrested for two DUIs and entered multiple rehab facilities. In one of her rehab classes a “friend” introduced her to heroin. During this time, Elizabeth saw 16 of her friends buried due to addiction.
Three months before Elizabeth died, she was receiving help for her heroin addiction and was “clean”. She had a full-time job and was looking forward to starting an internship at a dental office. On February 8, 2013, Elizabeth went out with “friends” and never returned home. She had overdosed on heroin, was brought to a hospital and was in a coma. She was pronounced legally brain-dead on February 11, 2013. Since her death, six more of her friends have died.
Elizabeth’s four-year-old niece gave us a sense of comfort after her aunt’s passing by pointing out, “There are no drugs in heaven.” We remembered those words a year later when our family created a social media campaign to promote drug abuse awareness. The No Heroin in Heaven web and Facebook sites were created in January 2014.
We initially focused on sharing Elizabeth’s story; but after just a few short weeks, our efforts quickly became a much bigger campaign. We now share the tragic stories of a different person each day. No matter the zip code, age, gender or socio-economic background, many people relate to these stories. They are the experiences of children and young adults who underwent painful surgeries, sports injuries, undiagnosed mental illness and rape – even stories of normal teenagers just trying to fit in and be accepted by their peers. Every story is so different, and yet so much the same. The common denominator is the destruction caused by the use of alcohol and drugs.
We told ourselves that if just one person is touched by Elizabeth’s journey, we would consider our family blessed. Every day we hear from other families who have lost their own loved ones. Our website gives them the sense that they are not alone. We hear from recovering addicts that our Facebook page serves as a powerful daily reminder of just how much is at stake if they use again. We will continue to serve our new friends until there are no more stories to share. With close to two million website hits in six weeks and a Facebook presence of 12,000 followers, our small task of sharing Elizabeth’s story has created a strong and positive community. How powerful to have a mother or father who has lost a child to substance abuse cheering on a recovering addict they have never met! Equally powerful are the messages from those in recovery who share their journeys and explain the “behind-the-scenes” of addiction to families who have lost loved ones.
In conjunction with our social media campaign, Elizabeth’s older sister, Jennifer, is working with middle and high school children. She shares the warning of the slippery slope of drug abuse. This campaign has drawn the attention of our local news media. Jennifer has worked with WSB TV Atlanta, Channel 2 News and our local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which draw attention to our message. She is visiting schools and churches in the Atlanta area, sharing the stories we publish and providing literature encouraging parents and children to begin speaking early and often about the dangers of drug abuse.
In addition to our social media and education campaigns, we partner closely with our local animal rescue organization, Inspire Pet Rescue. Inspire has dedicated their rescue work to Elizabeth’s name and now endeavors to place pets in the loving homes of recovering addicts. We’re proud to work with Inspire and share their goal of creating bonds between animals and our neighbors in recovery.
Our Elizabeth was beautiful – inside and out. It is our family’s mission to share her story and to do our part to erase the stigma associated with prescription drug and heroin abuse. We are not experts on addiction; we are simply the family that Elizabeth left behind. We will continue to share her story and the stories of others as long as there is a need for people to hear them.
Jennifer Echols may be reached at the No Heroin in Heaven Facebook page or on their family website at http://noheroininheaven.com.