Remembering lives lost to overdose
Before Jolene Berger-Bowman died of a drug overdose on July 1, Jennifer Powell says, her younger sister had been clean for months and was making plans to better her life. “She had a good job. She had just got out on her own. She was really making progress,” says Powell. “Things were looking up, definitely,” adds Sommer Melton, Jolene’s 19-year-old daughter. Her mom was even there – clean and sober – when she graduated from Woodford County High School in June 2014. And Powell says she had been in contact with her 37-year-old sister almost every day as they walked together on her road to recovery. “Actually, I spoke with her about 20 minutes before she made this choice,” says Powell. She says her sister died within a minute of ingesting fentanyl, which was allegedly provided to her by a Versailles man who is facing federal charges for his role in Powell’s death. Before Rachel Hood died of a heroin overdose on Aug. 12, 2013, at age 28, Martha Kragel says her only daughter had been clean for 11 months, living at the Chrysalis House (a substance abuse treatment facility) in Lexington and “doing everything that she was supposed to do.” It was only a few days after her daughter returned home to Versailles that Kragel received a telephone call from a police officer telling her that Rachel was being taken to Bluegrass Community Hospital and “it doesn’t look good.” Her worst fears became reality when she arrived at the hospital. Rachel had died from an accidental overdose. Rachel had been partying with friends. They left her in the passenger-side seat of her truck next to a dumpster, Kragel says. “That is my biggest regret,” she says with tears in her eyes, “that my child took her last breath by herself…” In spite of her addiction, Kragel says she wants people in the community to know that Rachel loved her six children with a passion. “Don’t ask me how she died. Ask me how she lived. And that has been what’s gotten me through this,” she says. In February, Rachel’s youngest child will celebrate her third birthday. Her youngest son will celebrate his sixth birthday in January. “The only memories they’re going to have of their momma are the ones that we give them,” says Kragel. “…It’s my goal for those kids to grow up and feel like they’ve known their mom all their lives – even though they were just babies when she passed away…” Kragel says she’ll raise her grandchildren in a home where they’ll always know how much their mom loved them. Before her passing, Jolene wasn’t always open about what was going wrong in her life because her biggest fear was disappointing people. “And she made some not-so-good choices in her life. She struggled. And they were her struggles. And she admitted her struggles,” explains Powell, pausing for a moment to compose herself. She describes her sister as someone with “a big heart” who had faults just like everyone else. “She wanted a good life. She just didn’t know how to get there. And it’s a shame,” says Powell. “…I really miss her a lot and it’s hard…” Rachel’s adult life had been a constant struggle. Her mother says she knew right from wrong, but drugs and the people in her life kept pulling at her. She and her “friends” shared a desire to do drugs together – while other people couldn’t look past her addiction. Kragel remembers a conversation with her daughter after she got clean for that last time. Her words became prophetic. “Mom, I know that I can never use again … If I use again, I’m going to die.” And yet, she did use again. “She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to leave her kids,” says Kragel. “Her kids were her life.” Rachel’s drug use began after the birth of her first child. An epidural had not taken, so she was given opiates to help her deal with physical pain, Kragel says. “She could get up and function while taking her medication,” explains Kragel. When Rachel could no longer get prescription medicines to deal with her pain, she started getting drugs from friends. Her drug use escalated from there, according to her mom. “I didn’t want to accept that’s going on with my child, my daughter,” Kragel says of the early warning signs of drug abuse. “So I was in denial also.” As a mom, she says, “there is some self-blame. If I had done this or if I had done that?” Kragel still finds herself struggling with a reality. Her daughter was afraid of needles, but used needles to inject heroin into her body for that high she craved so much. “That’s the pull,” says Kragel. Watching Jolene go through “horrible withdrawals” helped Powell truly understand the struggles faced by someone trying to overcome a physical addiction to drugs. “Unfortunately, the light doesn’t always get bright enough until something horrible happens,” says Powell. “…We just want other people to open their eyes. Because when you close them then you have to go through what we did.” She says Jolene’s loved ones sometimes wanted her recovery more than she did. So they didn’t always see what was really happening in her life. “Nobody wakes up one morning and says, ‘I want to be an addict…’ These people are crying out for help,” says Powell. “They need help and we’re pushing them together…” When Jolene stopped abusing drugs, it took months before someone would take a chance and hire her, Powell says. She remembers pushing away her own sister when she found out about her addiction to drugs. “I didn’t want to accept that it was anybody else’s fault other than her own,” explains Powell. “…I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want to understand it.” Jolene’s drug use began during “a very poor relationship.” Her drug use continued and “escalated a little bit” after their breakup, says Melton. Drugs became a way for Jolene to escape life. It was her release. She didn’t worry about being behind on her rent when she was using. During her mom’s drug-dependency struggles, Melton remembers being there for her. “I wasn’t the one with the issues – she was, and I helped cope her through that (drug dependency),” explains Melton. She witnessed her mom’s physical struggles from drug withdrawals whenever she tried to stop using drugs. The worst came when she tried to stop “cold turkey.” “I sat by her bedside while she detoxed and was just as sick as a dog,” says Melton. “(I) just sat there like a mother would, and petted her hair and said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’” This role reversal was not uncommon to their relationship. Growing up, Melton remembers reminding her mom to help her younger brother, now 16, with his homework. Their mom was fun-loving and free-spirited – often acting younger than her years. Melton’s outlook on life and her future changed after her mom’s death. She’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in family science and a minor in art studio at the University of Kentucky. “More than anything,” says Melton, “(losing my mom at such a young age) makes me value the time that I have.” Powell and Kragel say they want people in the community to know their sister and daughter were more than their addiction to drugs. Powell describes a teenage Jolene as “very athletic, very outgoing, very popular.” She was always willing to welcome a stray – an animal or neighborhood kid – into her family’s home. Because she was nine years older than Jolene, Powell says, their relationship was more like mother-daughter. Jolene grew up on her older sister’s hip. “She was not just my sister. She was mine,” says Powell. Kragel describes Rachel as an outgoing person who always took up for the underdog. She and her brother – 21 months her senior – were inseparable. “He made her tough or she made him tough, I’m not sure which,” says Kragel. As a seventh-grader, Kragel says Rachel – whom she described as “a five-foot-three dynamite” – became the first girl to play on the football team at Woodford County Middle School. Rachel continued going to school after giving birth to her first child at age 17. “And graduated with her class, which is an accomplishment,” Kragel says. She’ll especially miss her daughter’s infectious laughter. “She laughed with her whole body,” she explains. Powell says Jolene taught her that people who try to walk away from an addiction to drugs are much stronger than others believe. “I could never be as strong as my youngest sister was during the time that she was clean,” she says. A month before her death, Jolene had been prescribed pain medication after having five teeth removed, she says. “I really believe now that the pain medication instigated that craving inside her,” says Powell. “And then she would feel pain when there may not have been pain because her body was saying: I need this.” It frustrates Powell, Kragel and Melton that people do not want to acknowledge that there’s a drug problem in this community. It infuriates them that people do not want to accept reality. They know tragedies like theirs can happen in anyone’s family. “It doesn’t matter where you live or how much money you make or what you drive. It doesn’t matter what kind of clothes you wear or where you go to school or if don’t go to school. It doesn’t care what you look like,” explains Powell. “It doesn’t discriminate,” adds Kragel. “It’s everywhere. It’s anyone. It’s your mom, brother, his sister. It’s everyone,” says Melton.