Spring City, PA
My sister, Alisha Renee Gambone, was born November 28, 1988. I was 2 years, 2 months, and 12 days older than her. We shared many things throughout our lives, including a bedroom, friends, mom and dad, a sister and a brother & many family memories. We grew closer still through our shared experiences of addiction and recovery. She died July 7, 2018 – she was only 29 years old. I remember talking to her a few months ago and she told me she wanted a big celebration for her 30th birthday. She had plans for a bright future that will never be realized. This was her fifth overdose that we know of. She had been living in a sober house in York, PA, working a full-time job and going to AA meetings, even chairing one weekly. She had a strong support network of sober women, worked steps with a sponsor, and yet she relapsed after having eight months sober.
Alisha was brilliant. She graduated in the top ten of her class at Owen J. Roberts High School in 2007. She always scored high on aptitude tests and when studying for a test, she memorized her textbooks. She enjoyed reading and she loved Harry Potter. Whenever a new book would come out, she would start the series over and read all of the books within days. When she was young she enjoyed sports, especially basketball. She kept everything – old report cards, awards, movie ticket stubs and she loved organizing these things into binders and scrapbooks. She was the one who always organized the cabinets in the kitchen and packed the car for vacation and put away the holiday decorations. She appreciated music as therapy and loved singing all kinds of music from contemporary Christian to hardcore rap. She liked to joke and laugh and watch scary movies.
Probably most of all, she enjoyed spending time with family, especially her nieces and nephew. She often stated that my daughters and our brother’s kids were her purpose for living and her reason for staying sober. She loved God and had an overwhelming and unbreakable faith that she shared with everyone she knew. She had friends from all walks of life and accepted people for who they were without judgement, but she also was a protector. She would go to war to defend any of us – her siblings, her parents, her nieces and nephew. I confided in her my deepest and worst thoughts and fears and so did many others. Her advice often was to rely on God and hold onto faith and things would work out.
I noticed a change in her attitude and behavior about two weeks before she died, what they call “pre-lapse”- staying out late, isolation, not being honest. I spoke to her everyday about this and she told me she wasn’t going to use. She blamed her behaviors on this new relationship she started. Like the drugs, that was only a symptom. The problem was Alisha was feeling worthless and unloved. Even though the eulogies at her funeral and shared stories from friends and relatives clearly show how loved she really was, she often struggled feeling this. She didn’t always see the important and positive role she played not only in our immediate family as a daughter, sister and aunt but in the lives of countless others who clearly saw the beauty of my sister’s soul as I did.
She was diagnosed as bipolar as a young adult. She used drugs to make her feel more “like herself” and accomplish her goals. She started experimenting when she was 16. It was difficult for her to find the right cocktail of prescribed medication to quiet her intrusive racing thoughts and fears resulting from mental illness; the drugs seemed to “work” more quickly.
Alisha went to Antonelli’s Medical School to become a CNA. She worked at several geriatric centers and was a hard worker, but her battle with herself and drugs became catastrophic and her life began to crumble.
Alisha knew very well that drugs were not a real “solution” to her problem and she experienced many negative consequences as the result of her using. She sought treatment frequently including detox, rehab, psychiatric treatment, suboxone maintenance, intensive outpatient therapy and attending and participating in 12 step fellowship meetings. She prayed every day that God would help her. I believe my sister’s relapse was the result of her feeling lost and hopeless. I wish she would have opened up more to me in her final days but I’m not sure she even realized she was about to relapse. The disease of addiction is insidious, cunning, baffling, and powerful. Honesty with ourselves and others is critical to prevent a relapse, but when guilt and shame are involved, it’s not always that simple. She didn’t end her life on purpose, but she felt like she needed to escape her own mind. I believe she had the thought and intention to maybe only get high “this time.” Fentanyl, marketed on the street as heroin, took her life and she doesn’t have another chance.
The reality of death from overdose is devastation, not for the addict because Alisha is no longer struggling but for the family and those who miss her physical presence. Our family is broken, missing an integral part of our everyday lives. My mom, dad, brother, sister, children, and I are all trying to process this as best we can. One thing we know for sure is that it is our hope and duty to continue Alisha’s legacy: LOVE.
In my sister’s memory, our family and friends are walking in the 2018 Pro-Act recovery walk to raise awareness and donations to help fight discrimination against those suffering with addiction; educate the public that recovery is a reality; and advocate for prevention, treatment and recovery support as essential services protecting the health, safety and economic stability of our communities. My parents are considering group grief counseling through our local church and GRASP (Grief Recovery After Substance Passing). We are still struggling with acceptance of this loss, but we know we have to continue living one day at a time. I carry my sister with me, everywhere I go. She is a part of who I am; that will never change.