Recovery: A Mother Redefines Her Daughter’s Memory by Amy Blades Steward - December 30, 2014 Talbot Spy
It starts like any other love story. For Valerie and Rick Albee of Easton, their daughter, Mariah Albee, was the apple of their eye. Their only child, they raised Mariah with love and support. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, the family relocated to Severna Park, Maryland when Mariah was three. They enrolled her in Montessori School where she was a high achiever. Her mother, Valerie recalls, “She was very artistic, self-confident, and although shy, she had many friends. It was a happy childhood.”
As her interests grew, Mariah competed on the swim team and participated in cheerleading. She took private flute and ballet lessons and by the age of 10, she was the youngest member of the Anne Arundel Community College Concert Band and in the All County Middle/Jr. Band. She also performed with the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis in several Nutcracker productions.
In the middle school years, however, Mariah began to experience bullying by her peers. She went on to attend Severna Park High School and by age 14, she began suffering from anxiety and depression. Her mother recalls the trips to the therapists, who at different times diagnosed Mariah’s behavior as either acting out or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
During high school, Mariah began self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs to deal with her anxiety and depression. Even though she was experiencing these conflicting emotions, she still managed to be a cheerleader, football manager, and a member of the Maryland Youth Symphony Flute Choir. She also found time to help the poor and the homeless. Eventually, the debilitating effects of her emotions required her to be homeschooled to complete her senior year. In 2000, she was ultimately diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital with having bipolar disorder.
Although Mariah was capable of acquiring several jobs, she was unable to sustain them due to her emotional conflicts. During this time, Mariah was slipping away. By 2003 she attended drug rehabilitation for the first time. By this point she was using heroin, prescription drugs and alcohol. The addiction continued through the next five years, with repeated rehabilitation stays. In 2008, she was able to “get clean” and was married in 2009, only to have the marriage dissolve in 2010. During that time, Mariah was happy and worked as a manager for approximately two years. Her employer commented how she was loved by everyone for her organizational skills, her great attitude, her giving personality, and most of all, for her enthusiasm.
By 2012, Mariah had moved home and was again trying to get her life together – attending Anne Arundel Community College to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. The family took a two-week vacation to visit Valerie’s sister Eileen and her family in Michigan. Everything seemed perfect. Then one week after returning home, the unthinkable happened. On September 7, 2012, Mariah died of a heroin overdose at her parents’ home at the age of 29.
For Valerie and Rick Albee, the effects were devastating. Their only child was gone. Valerie turned to grief counseling to try and deal with her loss and eventually found solace in a bereavement group of parents in Pasadena. The members were like her, having lost children to substance abuse. She recalls, “I wouldn’t be alive today without their counseling help.”
It has been two years since her daughter’s death and Valerie has been searching for meaning in it all. She comments, “I don’t want drugs to define who Mariah was. These kids don’t want to be drug addicts.”
In November 2013, the Albees moved to the Eastern Shore for a new start. While living in Easton Village in Easton, Valerie met a group of women who have embraced her and want to get involved in making a difference with the issue of substance abuse on the Eastern Shore.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported in July 2014 that the number of heroin-related emergency department visits for Marylanders has more than tripled, with 1200 visits in 2013 – up from 871 visits in 2012. Two age groups showed large increases in heroin deaths between 2012 and 2013, one of which was individuals ages 25 to 34 years of age, just like Mariah. The State reported that there has been an 88 percent increase in heroin-related deaths in Maryland since 2011.
Encouraged by her group of friends, Valerie approached the Mid-Shore Community Foundation and established Mariah’s Mission Fund. The purpose of the Fund reads: “Mariah’s Mission Fund has been established to honor our beloved daughter, Mariah, who lost her life to heroin. The mission is to provide resources for worthy organizations that support families who have lost loved ones to drugs and/or alcohol. We will use our struggles and experiences to empower the community through awareness and education.”
Valerie adds, “I recently decided to tell my story to gain support for services to help families struggling with the issue of addiction on the Shore. By establishing the fund at Mid-Shore Community Foundation, I hope to support the development of these services and make them available to the community here.”
Buck Duncan, president, Mid-Shore Community Foundation, states, “We are thrilled that the Albees have decided to start a fund of this kind. It will provide resources to help families in our region who are trying to cope with the stresses of substance abuse and increase awareness of this important community issue.”
When I was little my dreams were so bright
I never imagined my life wouldn’t be alright.
Like any little girl, I played and went to school
Taught to always live by the rules.
My mind was filled with dreams and hope
Unaware of the nightmare of dope.
Somehow, somewhere, my dreams went up in smoke
With real life I could no longer cope.
With drugs and danger I began to flirt
After all, who could I hurt?
Whenever there was pain or anger to feel
It was stopped and stifled by little pills.
Oh, but I made some progress didn’t I?
I found stronger drugs to get me high.
My dreams turned to hallucination.
My world was empty of imagination.
If my visions were to become real
There was always another pill.
Slowly, all my hopes and dreams were destroyed by addict schemes.
My morals and values were tossed aside
As I deserted my hopes and dreams
My childhood lullabies were replaced by bent spoons
I woke to the nightmare of looking through bars
I knew I could no longer reach for the stars
I finally had to face a scary reality
No one could change this situation but me.
I have learned its okay to think and feel.
To go through life without the needle
Now I can reach for the stars.
ONE DAY AT A TIME.
“The lives of the dead shine bright in the memories of the living.” ……. Cicero
Sounding like the hideous monster he was, Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy, but thousands of deaths are only a statistic.” Unsurprisingly, he was as wrong about that as he was about most things in his wretched life for as any decent soul knows, thousands of deaths become thousands of tragedies for tens of thousands of loved ones who are left behind to live with memories of the departed. This is especially true for the legions lost to the scourge of substance abuse. You see, there’s a serial killer on the loose and sadly, while it still stalks the mean streets of our inner cities, it has more recently expanded the geographic reach of its swath of destruction. Increasingly it culls its victims from the ranks of our sons and daughters – young men and women from small towns and suburbs who were healthy and happy and who once glowed bright with the promise of many tomorrows.
In 1993, at the age of eleven, artistically gifted Mariah Albee was a loving child with many friends in the midst of a happy childhood. She not only competed on the swim team and cheerleading squad, she studied flute and ballet. She not only enjoyed the distinction of being the youngest member of the Anne Arundel Community College Concert Band, she even performed with the Ballet Theater of Annapolis in several Nutcracker Suite productions.
In 2007, at the age of 25, she wrote the following poem to her parents and grandfather while in drug rehab:
Mariah’s Mission - And They Called the Wind Mariah - By Cliff Rhys James, February 2016, http://tidewatertimes.com
Mariah's Mission Fund of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, a 501(C)(3) public charity, was founded to honor Mariah Albee, who lost her life to heroin, a devastating drug that is destroying lives all across our nation. Established in 2014 by Mariah's family, the Fund provides support groups and resources to empower families and individuals struggling with the effects of substance use disorder.
Families struggle in silence to cope, answer "why?", and deal with the stigma of shame often associated with substance use. These families are part of a club no one wants to join. They need support, a forum to talk, and a sense of togetherness to move forward in a positive manner with their lives.
Along with established support groups for family members, Mariah's Mission Fund seeks to increase awareness, educate, and contribute to community initiatives aimed at our youth, such as Project Purple and Best Fest. Valerie Albee has become an active volunteer sharing Mariah's story through personal speaking engagements. It is never easy for Val, but the impact is powerful.
Artistic, talented, beautiful daughter of Valerie and Rick Albee. Mariah died of an accidental heroin overdose at her parents' home on September 7, 2012. She was 29 years old. Her family was devastated. Their only child was gone. Valerie eventually found solace in a bereavement group in Pasadena, MD. After moving to the Eastern Shore, Valerie decided to tell her story to gain support for services to help other families struggling with the issue of addiction on the Shore.
Won’t you look down upon me Jesus?
You gotta help me make a stand,
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand,
And I won’t make it any other way.
….. James Taylor (Fire and Rain)
In many parts of Maryland, one of every three adults says they know an acquaintance or relative addicted to opioids. A wise friend once told me, “you can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” I suspect that Valerie Albee, propelled into action by the death of her beloved daughter, would help everyone if only she could. Why? Because the facts are not in dispute: The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths and just how bad the heroin epidemic becomes is presently unforeseeable. The CDC reports that since 2000 the rate of deaths from opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin) has increased 200%. The heroin death toll has more than quadrupled in the past decade. More people die from drug overdoses according to the CDC than in road accidents. How big is that number? Just under 33,000 people died in traffic accidents last year! But because of people like Valerie and Rick Albee and the many neighbors, friends and supporters who’ve rallied to their side, elected officials who’ve themselves been touched by the epidemic are now speaking out and directing resources toward the problem.
“I know the devastation it can cause for families and communities,” said Maryland governor, Larry Hogan, who lost a close cousin to heroin. “Everywhere we went during my 2014 election campaign we were saddened by stories of how just under the surface of every community, heroin was destroying lives.” It’s so bad that once elected Hogan declared a state wide emergency to create the Maryland Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force. “I have some personal experience with this,” said Jeb Bush to a town hall style meeting in Merrimack, N.H. His daughter Noelle was jailed twice while in rehab, once for possession of prescription narcotic pain pills. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett – Packard and current presidential contender tells audiences that she and her husband “buried a child to addiction.” N.J. governor Chris Christy released an ad in a hard hit region declaring, “We need to be pro-life for the 16 year old drug addict who’s laying on the floor of the county jail.” Finally, in April of 2015, the U.S. Justice Department launched a National Heroin Task Force to help address the emergency.
Says one Maryland law enforcement professional, “I’ve been a police officer for 27 years and worked narcotics for the last 15 and this is the worst I’ve ever seen.” But unlike past national drug epidemics, this time around there are many more young adults of both sexes from middle class homes who’ve become addicted to prescription opioids and who then move on to heroin. People addicted to pain pills are 40 times more likely than the general population to become addicted to heroin. Viewed from a different angle, over 80% of all heroin users made the switch to heroin after abusing narcotic painkillers. “It’s easy to switch to heroin,” says Dr. Edward McDevitt, “because it’s more euphoria producing and yet cheaper than oxycodone.”
The fire this time has erupted from several sources: Between the massive flow of illegal drugs flooding across our nation’s southern border and the successful crackdown on prescription drug abuse in recent years, the street supply of narcotic pain pills has been limited, driving up their price and making heroin a more economically attractive alternative. On the streets of many cities prescription drugs can sell for about $1 per milligram or $20 per single dose. A stamp bag of heroin on the other hand can be had for $8. Of course once use begins and tolerance builds, the need for increasing amounts of the stuff becomes a fait accompli’. “Once addicted to opioids, most people cannot stop,” says Mandy Larkin of Pathways Substance Abuse and Treatment Center, “It’s an evil, sickening withdrawal, so they’re going to need help.” Or as one addict said, “I’m no longer chasing a high, just chasing normal – but even that normal is but a shell of my former self.”
“Mariah loved kids and worked odd jobs, including baby-sitting to earn $ 2500 eventually spent for a used Honda Civic,” Valerie tells me, (Mariah’s parents matched her savings toward the purchase of the car) “but going into Middle School, some of the bullying started and I could see her struggling with anxiety and depression. I knew she was hurting in different ways and I began to wonder if she was bi polar because that disease runs in my family. We went to half dozen or so counselors and therapists. Some said she was just acting out and being rebellious. Others felt she had ADD or ADHD and prescribed Ritalin.”
In high school, seeking shelter from the perfect storm of bullying, anxiety and depression, Mariah began self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs. And yet she soldiered on as a cheerleader, football manager and member of the Maryland Youth Symphony and Choir. She also spent time helping those less fortunate. “When she was Mariah, she was Mariah,” Valerie says in a voice filling with emotion, “just so talented and loving and giving. Despite her condition, she regularly worked to help the homeless – that’s the kind of wonderful person she was. She would go with me on the trucks at Holiday time to donate food, clothing and blankets to the poor, the homeless and the less fortunate families and there she encountered a lot of desperate people of the streets – people with undiagnosed mental illnesses, people who were self-medicating with anything they could find – alcohol, drugs – anything.”
Nearing the end of her rope, Valerie, with raw emotions close to the surface was one day visiting yet another counselor seeking help without Mariah present when the woman finally shook her head slowly and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” But then in that crushing moment of despair as Valerie broke down crying, the woman continued, “but you’re not leaving here until we set up an appointment with a specialist who can help you. I think Mariah has a mood disorder and is bi-polar.” A week or so later after a five hour examination that very same specialist formally diagnosed Mariah as being Bi – Polar. Leaving the exam, Mariah herself broke down sobbing, “Mom, at least now I know what’s wrong with me.” Valerie hugged her daughter and said, “no honey, there’s nothing wrong with you, you simply have a disease.” Mariah was 17 years old at the time.
But even after the salubrious effects of a proper diagnosis and medication, the pain and uncertainty of psychological imbalance manifested itself in daily life. There are no magical solutions – not in this world – at least not yet. Mariah would sometimes take off and leave. Other times, she would dutifully accompany her mother to the weekly Johns Hopkins doctors’ visits. When Mariah was a sophomore in high school, a friend committed suicide by jumping off the Bay Bridge. Mariah kept the newspaper article in her room for the longest time. She graduated from High School in 2000 but was so depressed by that time that she had to be home schooled for part of the academic year. “That was a very difficult period for her and for us,” Valerie says.
Valerie Albee has “suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” She is no stranger to the pain and anguish that mental illness visits upon a family. Who among us is? Certainly not this writer. I have at least one relative who is bi polar. My paternal grandfather, a brilliant but tormented man after whom I’m named took his life at the age of 42. Valerie’s younger brother, also bi-polar, regularly self-medicated with alcohol and drugs until at last he was hospitalized in a manic state of exhaustion. “What a piece of work is man.”
In 2003 Mariah was using heroin, prescription drugs and alcohol in a desperate attempt to wash away the pain. That year she also entered drug rehab for the first of many times. In the years following, while she would valiantly rebound for periods of health, happiness and productive endeavors, she was in fact losing her fight against this dreaded adversary. In a war of heavy attrition, she was slowly slipping away.
In the aftermath of Mariah’s death, Valerie and her husband Rick were absolutely devastated. No parent should have to bury an only child. But, she adds, “My life was saved by the support I received and the solace I found among a group of fellow sufferers – a bereavement group of parents who had also lost children to substance abuse.”
Then in 2013, after Valerie and Rick moved to the Eastern Shore for a new start, she encountered something unexpected. Whereas she previously feared the cruelty and stigma of being judged by others perhaps less sympathetic toward substance abuse, in Easton and more specifically in Easton Village, she met a group of neighbors who not only embraced her, but jumped in to help make a difference. “Suddenly, it was like it was meant to be,” Valerie says with astonishment still lingering in her voice. Local writer / activist Amy Blades Steward gently encouraged her to share her story; Mariah’s Mission was formed as a component fund of the Mid Shore Community Foundation; Pat Chrisfield, a neighbor, invited her to the local book club whose members got involved; an enthusiastic planning committee bloomed; Sheriff Joe Gamble threw his support behind the group; an enormously successful silent auction was planned, organized and conducted; generous donors stepped forward; funds were raised; Mike Campbell and Jennifer Wagner donated the use of their Ouvert Gallery space in St. Michaels for support group meetings - an unstoppable high speed train of good will and good deeds had picked up speed and was roaring down the tracks. “We were simply overwhelmed and blown away by the response,” Valerie tells me. “Frankly, neither Rick nor I was accustomed to such displays of compassion or generosity of spirit.”
Today Mariah’s Mission Fund, in addition to the original Pasadena / Severna Park grief support group, now sponsors and helps underwrite the costs for two Eastern Shore support Groups led by professionals: “Together – Positive Approaches” helps families currently struggling with loved ones suffering from substance abuse. And “Together – Silent No More” helps individuals grieving the loss of a loved one due to substance abuse. The mission of the fund is to provide resources for worthy organizations that support families who have lost or may be losing loved ones to drugs and/or alcohol.
[Note: As a public 501 ( c ) ( 3 ) charity, gifts to the fund are fully tax deductible as allowed by law. For more information call (410) 820 8175 or go to www.mscf.org or send an e-mail to email@example.com]
(Postscript: Maybe you can understand me a little better now. I love you mom, dad and grandpa! – Mariah)
In 2012, at the age of twenty nine, Mariah’s parents, family and friends gathered to commit her spirit, honor her memory and celebrate the shining moments in a life tragically cut short by a heroin overdose. What happened before 2012 is a moving, cautionary tale of mountain top highs and rock bottom lows, of joy and sorrow, of love and remembrance. What happened after 2012 is the story of a courageous mother’s determination to help others avoid the torment she’d suffered by sounding the alarm about a ravaging disease – a disease which has reached epidemic proportions not only across the whole of our state but across much of our nation.
The looming specter of heroin and the pale horse of death upon which it rides is coming to a neighborhood near you. Or, more likely, it’s already galloped into town and is loose in the land of leafy sidewalks, ponds and picket fences – you just don’t know it yet! Heroin addiction is a death sentence - that is unless the condemned are pardoned by the tough love of swift and effective intervention, and even that can be insufficient. And while many of us are just now awakening to this new and harsh reality, the blight of that addiction has descended upon one community after another in all its glowering malevolence leaving death and destruction in its wake. It’s a ring of fire – a burning ring of fire, and it burns, burns, burns, tormenting all who get too close. Usually slowly, sometimes suddenly, but more often than not it takes its victims.
Many a famous song writer has penned a poignant lyric about the ghastly plague of heroin addiction, about being singed by the hot breath of the Angel of Death which hovers nearby beating its leathery wings in cruel anticipation.