By Liz Navratil
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Michelle Schwartzmier hopes her brutally honest and painful obituary for her daughter Casey, may shed additional light on addiction, which contributes to thousands of deaths each year. Michelle says, “There are so many of them, it literally is wiping out a generation.”
A short while before Casey Schwartzmier died, she had a frank conversation with her mother.
She’d been on Facebook and saw an obituary that had gone viral. It was for a man whose family, rather than writing that he died “suddenly,” told everyone about his battles with addiction. Casey, who had struggled with her own drug addiction for years, told her mom that if she ever died of an overdose, she wanted the same thing.
“Tell them. Tell them my story. Maybe it would help somebody who’s struggling,” Casey said.
And then, in what her mom said was typical Casey fashion, she cracked a joke and began talking about her upcoming trip to California, where she was excited to check into a rehab facility and get help for her addiction.
“She didn’t plan on dying,” her mother, Michelle Schwartzmier, said last week. “She didn’t want to die. She just said, ‘That is what I would want.'”
On Jan. 10, Casey overdosed, likely on heroin, inside the Ross home where she was staying with her mother, father, Richard Schwartzmier, and younger brother, Eric. The 20-year-old remained in Allegheny General Hospital for five days. Doctors and nurses, many of whom knew her mother, who works there as a radiology technician, came in and out, trying to help Casey as the overdose strained her heart and lungs. There were times when she surprised them, giving them hopes of a possible recovery. But that didn’t happen.
Casey was declared brain-dead Jan. 15. The family donated her organs. Her liver went to someone in Pittsburgh. Her kidneys went to someone from out of town.
And her mother set out to write her obituary, the story of a “feisty and outspoken” woman who “would do anything for anyone and always lit up the room with her smile and sense of humor even while struggling with her demons.”
She hoped the obituary, rare for its candor, might shed additional light on addiction, which contributes to thousands of deaths each year. “There are so many of them, it literally is wiping out a generation,” Michelle said.
The obituary spoke of Casey’s love for animals and for her family. It spoke of her dreams of one day having children and a career (perhaps, her mother later said, as a counselor). But it also mentioned her addiction and her plans to head to rehab.
“I tried my best,” Michelle said. “I tried my best, and I hope I honored her wishes.”
In the days since the obituary was posted online, Michelle said she’s heard from families of other addicts. One person even expressed a desire to get treatment after reading Casey’s story.
“If one person does it, then all this is worth it,” Michelle said. “I hope this is a good thing.”
Michelle knew early on that her daughter would be outspoken. When Casey was about 2 years old, Michelle put her in a timeout.
She left the room and carried the baby monitor with her.
A short while later, she heard Casey talking: “You think you’re gonna put me in timeout? Who do you think you are, putting me in timeout? Well, I’m just gonna sit here and like it, because it’s fine.”
Michelle laughed. “I knew right there. I said, ‘She’s not a quiet one.'”
Casey’s honesty became one of her trademarks. She was quick to bounce into a room with a joke, the kind that people either loved or hated. She bragged often about her little brother, Eric, his grade-point average and his skill at baseball.
She enjoyed cheerleading and earned a black belt in tae kwan do. She was also a competitive dancer.
“These are things, unfortunately, when you fall into addiction, that go away,” Michelle said.
Casey had been to rehab facilities multiple times. Once, she managed to stay clean for six months. But when things got difficult, when a friend died, for example, it was tempting to return to drugs. In a moment of desperation, there was a run-in with police, a retail theft case that she was resolving before she died.
Michelle isn’t quite sure when or how Casey’s addiction began. She knows it was a few years ago and thinks that it might have started with pills, some sort of teenage experimentation.
“It’s the type of thing that tears you up, wondering how did this start. And I don’t think we’ll ever really have the answer,” Michelle said.
Most of Casey’s efforts lately had been focused on simply trying to make it through the day while she prepared for rehab.
“She wasn’t getting high anymore. She was just trying not to be sick,” Michelle said. “She was trying just to get through till she could get to that next step of getting away from it completely.”
There was a lot of hope in the weeks before Casey died.
Shortly before Christmas, Casey and her mother began working to get her into a rehabilitation facility in California. She was scheduled to go in early January. She wanted to be in Ross to spend the holidays with her family.
“She knew that being in Pittsburgh in the same situation was not good for her, and she was sad to leave her family and leave everybody behind, and it was the bravest move in the world, though, for her to pick up and go,” Michelle said.
It was also a little scary. “Every day that she wasn’t in recovery, anything could happen. Anything could happen, and I knew that,” Michelle said.
The two had a mother-daughter day, just as they had when Casey was a small girl. They went out for lunch and got their nails done. They liked to sing in the car together, often country, although Casey sometimes broke into rap. Casey often Snapchatted parts of it, trying to embarrass her mother. It worked. Now, they’re some of Michelle’s favorite videos.
Christmas came, and Casey wrote her mother a letter. She talked about how much she would miss them while she was in rehab but also how much she looked forward to the idea of tackling her addiction. She said she wanted the family to be proud of her. “I already was,” Michelle said.
They found a facility and were prepared to send her out Jan. 2. Casey packed her bags, stuffed them full. She wasn’t planning to come back anytime soon.
Just as Casey was preparing to leave, they got a call. Their insurance had changed with the New Year, and the arrangements they had made weren’t going to work anymore. Casey and Michelle began working to find a new facility. They found one that worked with their insurance, but it didn’t have any open beds. They were negotiating with another when she overdosed.
“A plane ticket was all we were working on,” Michelle said. “The goal was to get her on the plane within 24 hours.”
Her bags are still in the house, unopened.
“I’m not brave enough to go through it right now, the suitcase,” Michelle said. “It’s still sitting there packed, and it’s probably going to stay like that a while.”