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'My Heart Still Beats' Part 6: Kate (Transcript)

A drawn portrait of Kate O'Neill.
Illustration: Janelle Sing | Design: Angela Evancie

"We're not alone. People who have this addiction, and people who love people who have this addiction — we're not alone."

Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode of My Heart Still Beats here. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.

My Heart Still Beats logo. Text says VPR My Heart Still Beats, a project of Writers for Recovery and has illustrations of six people.
Credit Janelle Sing


KATE O'NEILL, READING: “My sister was 16 the first time she fell in love — not with a boy from school or a girl she met at summer camp, but with a pill she took at a party. Or more accurately, she fell in love with the way that pill made her feel. … Later she would fall in love with needles, injecting water when she was sober because she missed the feeling of the needle slipping beneath her skin. …  Eventually she fell in love with a baby. Everything was different after she had her son, and we were sure that this time she would stay sober. But her love for her son was no match for the call of that drug; not even he was enough to save her.”

BESS O'BRIEN, HOST: That’s Kate O’Neill, reading from an article she wrote for the newspaper Seven Days. You’re listening to My Heart Still Beats, a project from Writers for Recovery and Vermont Public Radio. I’m Bess O’Brien.

My Heart Still Beats features conversation and original writing from the recovery community all around Vermont. People in Recovery from substance use disorder, and people helping those in recovery rebuild their lives.

In the fall of 2018, Kate wrote an obituary for her sister Madelyn Linsenmeir. Maddie had died after struggling for years with opiate addiction. Often obituaries hide the reality of death from addiction because of the stigma around this illness. But Kate’s obituary about her sister Maddie was different. It celebrated Maddie’s life AND candidly acknowledged her struggle with heroin use. Within a week of its publication in Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press, millions of people around the world had read it. I met with Kate in her apartment in Burlington to talk with her about her sister.

KATE O'NEILL: You know, I think when she was around 16 she started getting into a little trouble, but I don't think we thought it was a huge deal. It seemed more like normal teenage stuff. When I was growing up in Burlington, Vermont, as a teenager, there was a heroin. But you had to inject heroin to use heroin, so it was really — you know, I was, I had a mohawk, I was a punk teenager, like, I experimented with drugs — but I never would have injected a drug. Like, that needle was a barrier. And I think the ability to take a pill and become addicted to opiates just was such a game-changer for people. And it's funny, Maddie went to Burlington High School 15 years after I did. And when I did, went to high school, nobody was, you know, addicted to heroin and multiple kids that were in Maddie's class at BHS, you know, used heroin.

So for me, the realization that something really serious was happening was when my mom called me and told me that she had found a needle and spoon and what Maddie used to inject drugs underneath her bathroom sink.

That was the wake-up call that this was not kind of normal teenage rebellion or experimentation, that something serious was happening.

BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: So talk a little bit about, you know, this starts to happen in your family, like, your mother calls you and says, 'Wow there's something really going on with Maddie.' How for you as a sister did you react to that and deal with it?

KATE O'NEILL: People say they can remember like where they were when they, 9/11 and [when] JFK was shot, like I remember exactly where I was when my mom called me and told me that. I remember the weather, I mean, the feeling of the air on my skin, like, I remember the moment exactly.

But it became for, more than a decade, a, like, all-hands-on-deck effort, you know? So, you know, loving somebody who's addicted in this way is, is just, it's tragic.

In the beginning, there's a lot of drama to it. There's the shock of, you know, finding the needle underneath the sink and the first attempt at rehab when you think 'Oh this is, you know, she'll get sober now.' So, you know, and then it becomes this kind of drudgery. Not just for the family but I think addiction becomes a kind of drudgery. You know, like, people have the drudgery of their nine-to-five jobs. I think that people with addiction have the drudgery of having to get up every day and score and get high and then get the money to get drugs.

And people, you know, really terrible, terrible things happened to Maddie as a result of her addiction. And people would ask me sort of like, 'Well, how do you cope with that?' You know.

And I think over time you just, you cope by turning off a little bit, you know? You can no longer react in the same way that you did in the beginning. You can't — you can't live at that level of drama all the time and the things that are happening to this person that you really love — and it creeps up on you, you know?

So you sort of numb yourself to it and then all of a sudden you wake up in the middle of the night and you think of the most gruesome things happening to this person you love and it's just, I mean I sometimes felt like it was making me actually sick.

So, I think that trauma is humongous for people, you know? For some people, it's, you know, the trauma they had growing up and they, you know, maybe became addicted as a result of that. But for a lot of people it's the trauma they experienced as a result of their addiction, as a result of being addicted to opioids. The places that it takes people is really, there are really terrible places. You know, she was at Rikers Island for six weeks. I think that was really hard. The pain and shame of losing her son was huge. I think that was literally unbearable.

BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: Talk a little bit more about that. Tell us about, you know, when she became pregnant, her son and then what happened.

KATE O'NEILL: So Maddie was, you know, um, she was doing OK when she got pregnant, I think she, um, you know, was trying very hard to stay clean, but relapsed.

And it's just so much pressure and so much work. And then trying to stay sober on top of that was just a lot of pressure, and so ultimately they relapses and they lost custody of their son and he went to live with my sister Maura, and then they got custody again and then they lost custody again. And I think part of what's tragic is just the difficulty getting both treatment – you know, at this point now anybody who can make it to a clinic can get medication-assisted treatment, but that requires that you be near enough to a clinic or able to get there. But there's still a lot missing in terms of, like I said, helping people sort through the traumatic experiences they've had. Helping people find jobs. And, you know, those are larger societal problems but they also deeply affect people who have addiction.

BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: So, you know, often I think people also focus on the person who's struggling around addiction. But obviously we know that it traumatically affects the family. So you, you touched on that. But talk a little bit more [about] how this impacted your family.

KATE O'NEILL: Yeah, I mean, it definitely changes the family dynamics, having somebody who's addicted. They become the center of everything. For better or for worse. You know, I think sometimes that's good and helpful, you know, trying to get a person help. But the other times it's just, it's exhausting.

And I think it also puts a lot of pressure on the person who's addicted to be that center all the time and then, and then if you fail in any way you're failing your whole family system. You know, you're failing your mom and your dad and your sisters and your son and everybody who's been trying to help you.

So it's a lot of pressure. But for me personally, I mean her addiction has just broken my heart. I mean it just, it really did.

She had the gene. You know, she had a genetic predisposition towards addiction. And then I think she took a pill at a party. And I think that she became addicted to that pill before she knew what was going on. And it changes your brain, right? So I think that she didn't realize she was stepping off the deep end.

After she had her son, she sort of felt normal — but I actually think she felt most normal when she was using. So I think she felt most like herself when she was using. You know, she'd gotten to the point where she was so conditioned to that life that in a way that felt more normal. But I think the other thing that I, always struck me was that the minute she had relapsed, it felt like there was no going back. So it seemed like, you know, if she relapsed and she used again that slip would become an entryway into a big, a much bigger relapse. So I think she would feel so guilty and so terrible for having done that one little thing, that it was impossible to just be like, "OK you know, I relapsed, I used, but I'm not going to let this spiral." It was more like, "I relapsed. I used. I've let everybody down. I failed everyone, I failed my son. I can't handle all that emotion." And then it would spiral into a much, much bigger relapse.

BESS O'BRIEN, ON TAPE: I wonder you often, you know, if you just ponder like, "Oh God, you know maybe one more time she would have really, it really would have stuck."

KATE O'NEILL: We always had hope. My biggest fear was that my sister would die. You know, that was my biggest fear. And I also did not believe it would happen. Like I really believed that she would get sober and get out of that life. I believed it until the, literally the moment she drew her last breath.

BESS O'BRIEN: Maddie was in and out of rehab. There was a warrant out for her arrest, and she was eventually sent to jail. During this time, she was complaining of not feeling well, and eventually ended up at the hospital, where she died quite suddenly of a staph infection and endocarditis. She was 30 years old. Her sister and her mom were by her side.

KATE O'NEILL: I mean, I was so glad that my mom and I were there. It was one of my biggest fears that she would, you know, die alone. And she didn't.

And I think with her obituary, she was sick for a long time. She was sick for a decade. To not acknowledge that would have been to omit a huge part of her life. For better or for worse, it was a huge part of her life, and so it would have been — you, she was alive for 30 years. For 10 of them, a third, she was addicted to opioids. So to not acknowledge that would have just been, the whole thing would have been a lie.

You know, in an obituary about somebody who's died with cancer, you'll talk about their struggle with that disease and people can feel empathy for that. And we need to start feeling empathy for people who have this other disease.

And, you know, one of the things that was most important to me about what happened is the response that my family got from people who are addicted and who have family members who are addicted. Like there was a woman who wrote that she was on her way to rehab and was had Maddie's obituary, and, you know, she was hanging Maddy's obituary in her room at rehab. There was a woman who left a voicemail on my mom's work voicemail who said, you know, she was a foster kid, whose mom was an addict, and she just [crying] she recognized her mom in Maddie. And, um, I think it helped her forgive her mom. You know? So, hearing from other families and from people who are addicted that this had even the tiniest positive impact, it meant everything.

I know my family felt very alone a lot of the time. It's odd that there's an epidemic and this is happening to millions of people and that you still feel so isolated. But that's the case, and so the fact that people felt less alone as a result of it is huge. We're not alone. People who have this addiction and people who love people who have this addiction, we're not alone.

And I think our combined voices are very, very powerful.

BESS O’BRIEN:  That was Kate O’Neill and this is My Heart Still Beats. Kate will be spending the next year writing for Seven Days, in a series called Hooked: Stories and Solutions from Vermont’s Opioid Crisis. You can find a link to follow her work at

My Heart Still Beats is a production of Writers for Recovery, made possible with support from Vermont Public Radio and the VPR Innovation Fund. Producers for this series are me, Bess O’Brien, and Gary Miller. Erica Heilman edited the series and Angela Evancie is VPR's managing editor for podcasts. The music in this series was by Brian Clark.

Writers for Recovery is made possible through major underwriting from the Vermont Department of Corrections, The Rona Jaffe Foundation and Nat and Martha Winthrop.

Writers for Recovery is a series of workshops for people recovering from substance use disorder. For more information about the project and how to join a workshop go to

If you like what you heard here, please take a minute and review us on Apple Podcasts. This helps new listeners find the show. I'm Bess O’Brien. Thanks for listening.

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