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Signs of life: A cautionary tale

Opioid-related hospitalizations and deaths have been on a steady rise and continue to soar across the nation. Last month, several cadets from the U.S. Military Academy overdosed with what was reported to be cocaine laced with fentanyl. The dosage was so potent that those who performed mouth-to-mouth CPR were also exposed and had to be hospitalized. A week after the incident, the cadets remained in the hospital and two were still on ventilators. 

It’s easy to feel distant from the opioid epidemic amidst all of the other turbulent news being reported in our world today. The West Point cadet story was deemed worthy of national news coverage, not because they overdosed on a synthetic opioid, but because these individuals are established future leaders of the nation. This challenges the common misconception that opioid overdoses predominantly relate to heroin addicts and people of lower social classification.

The drugs do not discriminate

I graduated from high school in a small Texas town where I met four friends who changed my world. Three of them I had known since kindergarten, but we never found ourselves in the same group. I was an athlete, Emmalee was an artist, Cade a photographer and Madison pursued theater. One day in eighth grade, a girl named Francesca (Frankie) moved to town and painted it red.

By graduation, she found a way to bring us all together into a very special group. I can’t refer to us as a friend group; it’s more like a family dynamic with endless admiration for each other’s existence. We agreed to attend Texas State University in San Marcos, which is known to be a “party school.”

The party school reputation was cool and all, but we went for the adventures that awaited us in the Texas hill country. College parties were never our thing because, well, we were the party. There wasn’t ever a place that felt better than being together, talking, laughing and creating, so that’s what we did. A group of old souls whose truths never aligned with the rest of the crowd.

“[Frankie] lived more life in a day than most can in a year’s time. Her curiosity kept her completely present in every moment, not missing a beat, a single word or a pretty view.”

Frankie, left, and Hannah pose for a photo in El Paso, Texas, in November 2019 during their trip west. (Courtesy photo)

Frankie graduated from high school with honors and was an aspiring geologist who had a passion for exploration and discovery. She loved the raw and untouched parts of life where it felt most real. She had a way of making everyone feel worthy, even strangers asking for spare change. I’ve never met someone who was so willing to understand the truth behind another’s reality. I could go on, but I will never be able to explain in words the entirety of who she was. That’s something I’m still trying to accept.

Our sophomore year, Frankie’s sweet father Leonardo was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The disease progressed rapidly and she was only able to go home to visit occasionally due to her busy class schedule. She was still very involved with his situation by helping him with insurance, scheduling appointments and making sure medications were accounted for. In late November 2019, Frankie got the call that her dad was in ICU and that it was time to say goodbye.

I remember sitting in the waiting room, holding her tight in my arms and having no idea what to say; but now I know there was nothing to be said. That night, we were sitting in Leo’s garden. Frankie shared something her dad used to say when he didn’t know the answer to a question. He would say, “It’s because of the rain.” Right as she finished speaking, it began to pour down on us. I like to call these sorts of circumstances “signs of life.”

Frankie’s family held a private celebration of life to honor Leo. I still had no words when I picked her up, but I did have an idea.

“What if we just drive and don’t stop driving?” I said.

Frankie seemed to like that idea, so my follow-up question was, “East or west?”

She said west, and west we went. Soon, it began to set in that I had a responsibility to take care of my grieving friend and make sure things went smoothly. Now that I look back on this thought, the only “right” thing at this point was intuition.

The first stop was Animas, New Mexico, to see the darkest skies with the brightest stars. Looking at the stars was one of Frankie’s favorite things to do, along with finding cool rocks and having good conversation. We arrived at a quaint Airbnb that doubles as a star observatory by our kind hosts Cathy and John, who even invited us over to enjoy a cheeseball.

Cathy finally asked, “Well what in the world are you two young girls doing out here?”

Frankie, left, and Hannah pose for a photo at White Sands National Park in November 2019 during their trip west. (Photo by Hannah Hunter/Kokopelli)

I saw Frankie look down and fiddle with her ring so I knew I needed to fill in the blank. The first words that came to mind were, “soul searching.”

Frankie looked at me with a soft smile and said, “Yeah, soul searching.”

After our night of stargazing, we loaded up and decided that White Sands National Park was next. There, we marveled at the sparkling gypsum and recorded ourselves dancing like fools to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone.” Fool. Frankie loved that word for some reason.

We eventually decided to stay at the Ramada hotel on University Avenue in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The sun was setting over town as we came down Hwy 70, and we couldn’t believe this place existed.

Frankie turned down the music and exclaimed, “Wait, University Avenue? There’s a college here!”

We discussed all the reasons why we should use college to relocate to the crisp air, mountains, and the overall energy of the space. Being the mystics we are, we decided that surely there would be a welcome sign for us around here somewhere. As we pulled up to a coffee shop near our hotel we were listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Leo’s favorite.

I’ll never forget what happened next. When I turned off the car and opened the door, there was someone next door singing “Dreams” on karaoke, picking up right where it left off. We stopped and looked at each other while listening to the lyrics, “Thunder only happens when it’s raining.” Another “sign of life.” It was unbelievable and believable at the same time.

After we almost got tattoos, we made it to the Ramada. The front desk staff upgraded us to a suite with a balcony, which was perceived as yet another sweet gesture from the universe. Well, we ended up getting locked out on that balcony for a while, and that was the night we lay on the floor side-by-side and planned our new life here. We looked at places to rent, called our parents and informed the rest of the gang that we were all moving together. Duh. We would’ve stayed longer if we didn’t have to get back to San Marcos for class.

Frankie and I grew even closer on that trip, which was something I didn’t know was possible. It was a reminder for both of us how big the world is and how much we had left to see. I saw that twinkle in her eye again and knew that this experience was driven by nothing other than The Divine.

In the coming months, Frankie continued to show up and be bold despite the lingering grief she felt daily. The group stepped up and tried to be as supportive as possible during this time, but now that I know grief, I understand that there’s no true remedy. She ended up making the conscious decision to speak with a psychiatrist to help her deal with the pain. Not long after, she was prescribed a benzodiazepine, a strong habit-forming drug. Like many others, Frankie became addicted to how the substance made her feel and developed a tolerance. After some time and an intervention from her friends, she chose to address the issue.

She was open about her desire to get clean and even counted the days of how long it had been. Some days were harder than others and one night, she just needed some relief. She found another source to purchase from, which is not difficult in a college town. No one, not even the dealer, knew that these pills had been laced with fentanyl. In April of 2020, Frankie lost her life to an accidental overdose.

Hannah, left, and Frankie pose for a photo in Animas, New Mexico, in November 2019 during their trip west. (Courtesy photo)

Her spirit was too pure for this world, and if you had years to listen, I could tell you much more about this girl and all of our memories. Again, I can’t fully express who she was in this world and who she is to me; but to put it briefly, she was a visionary, having the ability to see beyond systems and social narratives.

Frankie died young, but she lived more life in a day than most can in a year’s time. Her curiosity kept her completely present in every moment, not missing a beat, a single word or a pretty view. She didn’t partake in social media and felt no urge to share unless it was with her friends, who were always somewhere nearby. She worked hard in school and had a passion for new knowledge. She was destined for success.

One thing I’m proud to say is that absolutely nothing was left unsaid; every detail was discussed. We said “I love you” everyday and fully acknowledged how lucky we were to share what we did.

It’s a blur for me after Frankie’s passing until March 9, 2021, her 21st birthday. By this time I was trying to figure out a way to do the only thing I knew I wanted: transfer to New Mexico State University and start a new life in Las Cruces. I experienced a profound soul journey during this period which led me to a point of surrendering completely to whatever was next.

The day after Frankie’s birthday, I got a call from a tennis camp where I had previously worked. They were short staffed for spring break, and needed my help. My initial response was no, because I didn’t think my mental state could bear it.

I was reading “The Intuitive Way” by Penney Peirce at the time, which brought me to recognize my own intuition telling me to go, so I called back and packed my bags for camp. Thanks, Penney Peirce.

On move-in day, I welcomed 13 campers into the cabin. There was one little girl whose big brown eyes stuck out to me and reminded me of Frankie. She was the youngest of the bunch and asked if she could sleep next to my bunk. She stayed close to me always and asked interesting, simple questions, reminding me of the joy that is curiosity. She told me I was her best friend and gave me cool rocks she’d find on the ground, like someone else I knew. This eight-year-old child and I bonded all week and both shed tears when it was time to say goodbye. Her name was Francesca.

At the end of the week, Francesca’s mom introduced me to a woman named Clay, whose daughter was also a camper. I made a special connection with Clay.

“You remind me so much of my close friend Julie,” Clay said. “She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Let me give you her contact.”

“Pay close attention to what you put in your body, where you get it and how it makes you feel. Also, test your substances. I truly believe that if Frankie and those West Point Cadets could have easily tested their substances, they most definitely would have.”

Today, I live here in Las Cruces on Julie’s horse ranch with a mountain in my front yard and an orchard in my backyard. I knew I would make it, but I never knew it would be this sweet. I believe in manifestation. I believe that angels work through certain people on Earth to help align reality as we come into alignment with ourselves, finding unity with mind, body and soul. Frankie was an angel, so is Clay and little Francesca.

Thanks to my angels, I have been divinely guided into a new nest. My heart longs for the reality of Frankie and I being here together, but she stays close and sends me signs of life that usually aren’t so subtle. And yes, as hard as it is to believe, the rest of the gang is embarking on their own journeys elsewhere. Communicating virtually isn’t ideal, but we make it work for now. I’m lucky to be this young and have found such genuine companionship, thanks to Frankie, of course.

Over 100 Americans die everyday from the opioid epidemic, and it’s still a public health emergency

The vast majority of overdoses relate to an addiction that developed from a prescription medication. In 2019 alone, an estimated 10.1 million Americans misused prescription opioids and nearly 50,000 of them lost their lives. The American Medical Association provides 42 pages of resources and recommendations on how to fight the epidemic.

Switzerland led the way in Europe in seeing the larger picture by establishing widely accessible overdose prevention centers in the 1980s. OCPs provide drug users a safe space to test their substances, use, receive counseling, and undergo medical treatment and monitoring in the case of an overdose. According to the AMA, studies have shown these facilities, also known as harm reduction centers, do reduce the number of overdose deaths and effectively initiate treatment for substance use disorders.

The Drug Policy Alliance successfully advocated for the nation’s first OCP pilot program in 2021. It’s important that we continue to promote these outlets in a way that circumvents the stigma surrounding a person labeled as an “addict.” When a user feels guilt or shame from this stigma, they are less likely to get treatment. There needs to be a balanced approach to education so people like Frankie, who suffer from chronic pain, aren’t treated like “addicts.”

Remaining aware is the most direct way an average person can make a difference. Pay close attention to what you put in your body, where you get it and how it makes you feel. Also, test your substances. I truly believe that if Frankie and those West Point Cadets could have easily tested their substances, they most definitely would have.

Tune in with your loved ones and have those hard conversations when they are necessary. If you struggle with chronic pain, educate yourself on non-opioid treatment options rather than blindly agreeing to whatever you’re prescribed. If you do choose to take prescription narcotics, be aware that you are potentially vulnerable to an addiction that does not discriminate.

And if you are currently battling addiction, my message to you is to seek help and decide that you will survive. Sometimes changing your mind can change your reality, and if you cannot find the will to do it for yourself, do it for the ones that you could potentially leave behind.

There’s no such thing as a free or easy ride; loss is inevitable. There are miracles and signs of life to help light the way when you need a path. From here, I seek to be molded from the wisdom of my journey, and lead with radical honesty and love. My prayer is for only goodness to build a home in my memory. 

To be Continued.

Local and national opioid abuse treatment options:

Vista Taos Renewal Center

Bicycle Health

Recovery Unplugged

SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1 (800) 622-4357

Your Recovery Solutions – Las Cruces Helpline: (575) 395-6953

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to New Mexico State University, the NMSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Kokopelli, or any other organization, committee, group or individual.

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