The following is the first part of a series on the opioid addiction epidemic, highlighting an 18-year-old Warwick resident who overdosed on fentanyl in February.
Sherri Flaherty didn’t know when it would happen or how she knew, but her motherly intuition told her that drugs would eventually kill her daughter.
“It’s so strange afterwards when you think back about it,” she reflected on Friday, wearing a shirt memorializing her daughter, Shea-Lee Hunold, who passed away due to a fentanyl overdose on Feb. 8. “I just knew she was going to die. I don’t know why, but I knew what she was playing with was going to kill her.”
Flaherty said that, despite growing up in a split household between her and her ex-husband, Shea-Lee lived a normal childhood and displayed a loving, kind heart often. She gave diapers to a friend who got pregnant and couldn’t afford them, she loved animals and dreamt of being a veterinarian.
However, as Flaherty has come to believe and accept, a portion of Shea-Lee’s brain made her especially susceptible to addiction. By the age of 16, she using cigarettes, Percocets, Xanex and other prescription pills. When she ran out of money for the costly drugs, she sought out heroin.
“I believe it is an illness,” she said. “If I took the same drug, I probably would have walked away. But her brain functioned differently. Once she put a drug in her body, she ran with it. Cigarettes, anything, she was over the top with everything.”
After being picked up by the Warwick Police due to being passed out on somebody’s lawn, Flaherty and her ex-husband knew that Shea-Lee needed serious help. However, the programs at Butler Hospital in Providence – an alcohol and drug treatment facility within the Care New England network – proved ineffective, and her destructive behavior continued.
“I’m not knocking Butler but she had been there so many times and it wasn’t helping,” Flaherty said, adding that she felt helpless due to a lack of centers and programs to address adolescent addiction in Rhode Island. “[Besides Butler], there were no detox or addiction programs for her at 16.”
Flaherty said that she used tough love with Shea-Lee, and wouldn’t accept any drug use in her house. As a result, she stayed with her father, who had a more relaxed and lenient approach to trying to deal with her affliction. All the while Shea-Lee was developing a deeper addiction and a seeding inner turmoil of depression.
“I think her shame and guilt is why she wouldn’t come around me, especially me. I could tell when she was using because she’d stay away,” Flaherty said. “She isolated herself and she became very depressed and thought she had no friends and nobody cared about her and I truly believe that was the drugs that took hold of her that made her believe that.”
Flaherty said that Shea-Lee got clean for a three-month period last December, and that they had started to reconcile their relationship. However, the end of her short-lived sobriety also wound up marking the end of her young life.
“She was serious about getting clean,” Flaherty said, reflecting on the relapse that killed her only daughter. “A lot of addicts do that. They pick up what they thought they could use before and that’s why they die and that’s what happened to her. She wanted to party before it was over with, before she got clean.”
Shea-Lee, now 18, had rejoined her friends who convinced her she needed one last “hurrah” before giving up drugs. Early on into the night, her friends took her to Bridgemark, where she was tested and revealed to have had nearly 10 different drugs in her system. She was told she would have to come back the next morning, and she was released back into the custody of those same fellow teenagers.
They picked up heroin – which actually turned out to contain fentanyl – and Shea-Lee overdosed. Responders used Narcan twice, unsuccessful in their attempts to revive her. She passed away around 7:30 p.m. the following evening.
While Flaherty does not think Bridgemark, or anyone else for that matter, is responsible for the choices that Shea-Lee made that ultimately claimed her life, she does think that the system – from educating children to the programs available to addicts – needs to be seriously addressed in order to cease the alarming acceleration of the opioid epidemic.
Flaherty said she was certain that Shea-Lee wouldn’t have allowed the facility to call her mom and dad, especially at the age of 18, but she wondered if there was a service that Bridgemark could call that would send a sober adult to stay with the person and make sure they were safe, could it have made a difference?
“I absolutely think Bridgemark could have stopped that,” Flaherty said. “I’m not blaming them. I just think the system needs to change. I think maybe she should have been released with a sober person, not with her teenage friends who were doing the same things. Somebody that could have sat with her until she was ready to go ... Addicts have a tendency to open up to somebody else who’s not their parents because of the shame and the guilt. I think programs like that need to be in effect.”
While many detox programs do exist in the state, from Bridgemark in Warwick to Phoenix House in Pawtucket and Meadows Edge Recovery Service in North Kingstown, Flaherty thinks that simply detoxing addicts is not addressing the underlying difficulty with addiction – because addiction is not something that can be cured simply by getting the drugs out of the person’s system.
“They need long-term programs, not a 30-day detox,” she said.
Flaherty also thinks that education about addiction needs to start sooner – around 6th and 7th grade – a topic which will be explored in a future piece of this series.
Looking back, Flaherty said that she holds no ill feelings towards herself or her ex-husband or any of the facilities or police officers who potentially could have done something differently to prevent Shea-Lee’s death.
“I feel like no matter what you do, addicts will be addicts,” she said. “There’s people who have tons of money, there’s people like my daughter who are from a split home, there’s normal, not normal, there’s so many different kinds [of victims] – addiction doesn’t have one face.”
Flaherty hopes that by sharing Shea-Lee’s story, she can hopefully bring something positive out of what became a horrible result.
“I hope I help others,” she said. “The more people that speak out, if you save one life, you’re doing something right. That makes me happy, and that makes me remember my daughter. She’s not going to die in vain."