The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An addict wanted her story told. So her mother did — in an obituary.

Casey Schwartzmier (Courtesy of Schwartzmier family)

Casey Marie Schwartzmier was feisty.

She was outspoken and smart.

And, at age 20, she died, after a long struggle with addiction.

That is the portrait painted in her frank and revealing obituary, which was penned by her mother, Michelle. The candid obit offers an affectionate description of the daughter that Schwartzmier lost this month, and speaks in clear and honest terms about the addiction that she faced.

“Casey never wanted to be defined only by her addiction and mistakes, she was so much more than that,” the obituary states. “She made it clear if she was to ever pass as a result of it, she wanted people to know the truth with the hope that honesty about her death could help break the stigma about addicts and get people talking about the problem of addiction that is taking away so many young lives.”

This remembrance, Schwartzmier says, was what her daughter wanted.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Schwartzmier said, describing how it felt to write the obit. “It was really hard, because I wanted to find the right words, that I think she would want. … I wanted to find the right words that would possibly make a change with someone, somehow.”

Casey was a cheerleader and a dancer, her mother said. She could always make you laugh. She looked out for her little brother, and took pride in everything he did. She had big dreams for her future.

“She was beautiful. I know, I'm a biased opinion, I'm her mother,” Schwartzmier said. “But she was beautiful.”

When Casey was in high school, Schwartzmier said, “that's when a lot of her problems popped up,” and she began to show signs of addiction. And she was open about her problems, Schwartzmier said, both in personal conversations and on social media.

“If she saw somebody else struggling, or they would put a post on Facebook about needing help, she was the first one to respond and put a hand out and say, go to rehab, do this, do it for yourself,” Schwartzmier told The Washington Post.

Schwartzmier would tell Casey that she was in the same spot. And Casey would respond that she realized that, but she knew how those who were struggling felt, and she wanted them to feel support.

After their children died of overdoses, these families chose to tell the truth

The obituary, Schwartzmier said, came out of a casual conversation she had with her daughter this month. Casey had sent her a link to an obituary she'd seen on Facebook. It was someone writing about their deceased child, who had struggled with addiction, too.

“She said that ‘I thought of you as soon as I saw it, because I could see you writing an amazing obituary,’" said Schwartzmier, whose story was also published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And she kind of laughed. She said, ‘I could see you doing this.’”

Schwartzmier asked Casey why, and if that was something she'd even want.

“She said absolutely,” Schwartzmier said. “She said, ‘I would want that.’ She said, ‘I would want you to tell them my story.’ … She said, ‘Because when I read this, it helps me,’ she said, ‘so I think it could help someone else.’”

Schwartzmier agreed to write the obituary. Not long after that, Casey suffered an apparent overdose. Results are pending, Schwartzmier said, but her daughter was found with a needle and heroin.

“That was her biggest addiction,” Schwartzmier said. “A drug addict will do a lot of different things, but that was the worst, obviously.”

Here is what her mother wrote after her death:

“Casey isn't just another statistic or just 'another one gone too soon,' she was a great heart with a bright future and a gift that the world lost and can never be replaced. So the best way to honor Casey, is for people who read this or knew her to think twice before you judge an addict.”

And: “She was very open about her struggles and now is not the time to change that. This strong attitude with a fierce drive and loving beautiful heart that wanted to help other addicts even in death is one of the many things that she can be defined by, not her addiction.”

And: “Casey believed strongly in second chances, maybe because she craved another chance for herself and other addicts, so she donated her life saving organs to give someone else, a second chance at life. That was Casey: this amazing woman should be remembered for this and not her mistakes.”

A new divide in American death

Casey lived in Ross Township, which is in Allegheny County, Pa. Her obituary describes her as “a beautiful, intelligent child of the suburbs” who fell into the grips of addiction.

In Allegheny County, a story like Casey's has played out again and again. The Post reported in October that the county saw more than 400 opioid overdose deaths in 2015.

“There is an opioid overdose epidemic in the U.S., and Allegheny County is not immune,” county officials said in a July 2016 report.

In September, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) addressed the state's opioid epidemic, calling it “a public health crisis, the likes of which we have not before seen.”

“Every day we lose 10 Pennsylvanians to the disease of addiction,” he said, according to a transcript of the remarks posted by PA Media Group. “This disease does not have compassion, or show regard for status, gender, race, or borders. It affects each and every Pennsylvanian, and threatens entire communities throughout our commonwealth.”

‘We don’t know why it came to this’: An American health crisis

Casey was in and out of several rehab facilities before her death, her mother said, and she had participated in Narcotics Anonymous. Ultimately, none of those efforts would work. Before her death, she was set to return to rehab in California.

For Christmas, Casey built her mother a memory box, her mother said. She painted it and bedazzled it, like a little kid. “She said, ‘I don't know if I'm too old for this, but you always said that you loved the homemade gifts the best,’" Schwartzmier said. In that box, Schwartzmier said, Casey left a letter.

“And in that letter, she talked about how she just wanted to make us proud again,” Schwartzmier said. Her daughter wrote that she had been depressed over the past year, “thinking that she'd never get away from this,” Schwartzmier said. Casey said she was going to go to California, though, and had hope.

“And the last thing she said in that letter is, ‘I want this to be the last Christmas you'll ever be sad,’" Schwartzmier said. “Because she knew I was scared, she knew I was upset. That was Casey. Right before it happened, she just was still thinking of other people.”

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