By Tristan's sister, Stephanie
Tristan Lee Thompson
Thomasville, North Carolina
As Tristan’s birthday rapidly approaches, Tristan would be turning 20 this year. I can only imagine the plans we would be making since our littlest sister is finally 18! Even though we are approaching 2 years that she has been gone, it feels unreal at times. I know I will never be able to put into words the way your heart aches for your siblings. Heroin took away my sister, my friend, sibling trips around the world, being a bridesmaid at her wedding, seeing her become a mother and just the opportunity to make more memories with my sister.
At age 16, my sister, Tristan Thompson came home from a party one night drunk and possibly under the influence of drugs. Our mother suspected drugs because Tristan and her friend were always sniffling and had red noses. Tristan later admitted to our family that her friend had crushed up prescription pain medication and put it in marijuana, the first time she used opiates. It was not until our bank contacted us that our suspicions about Tristan’s progressive drug use were confirmed. Tristan had depleted her entire life savings, using that money to pay for more pills.
After that, my mother and father attempted to remove Tristan from all influences by taking her to live in the country. This lasted about 45 minutes before Tristan took off down the road on foot. She was then brought back by the Davidson County Sheriff, who informed us of the options available for Tristan. We were told: “Tristan could be committed or she could become emancipated and do her own thing.” The Sheriff also informed us that the ages from 16 to 18 years old is a “gray area;" meaning that due to Tristan’s age, the manpower could not be exhausted to bring her home again and that she would be labeled as a habitual runaway. Our family tried everything but were told she was too young for the treatment programs our family could afford, and too old for our family to monitor her medical conditions or speak with professionals regarding Tristan and her care. All of this information was given in front of my sister Tristan.
Our family decided that the best option for Tristan was to have her committed to Lexington Hospital. She stayed there for about a week. The staff told our family that due to Tristan only being 16 years old, they could not find an inpatient facility to accommodate her. At the end Tristan’s stay, the hospital’s psychiatrist informed us that her system was substance-free and discharged her. They stated if she chose to use again it would be by choice, something we all know is not true as relapse is a common part of recovery. Recovery is a lifelong battle.
After being discharged from the hospital, Tristan was referred to an outpatient therapy center rather than a treatment facility, which would have been more appropriate to accommodate her needs. She participated in outpatient therapy for some time. However, this outpatient center had a strict policy that if any participants missed two individual therapy appointments, they then must attend a mandatory decisions class. It is common for individuals in recovery to miss appointments from time to time and having to attend this class was the reason Tristan stopped returning to therapy. Tristan eventually left our mother’s home and would stay with various people.
Tristan’s high school’s social worker contacted our mother to set up a meeting to discuss the recent events. This meeting did not go well. Tristan was hostile and believed everyone was against her. Our family tried tough love, being lenient, and going through various hospital and legal systems, but nothing worked. Tristan reported to several family members that she "was not worried about the Thomasville police department pulling her over” even though she did not have insurance, an active tag or even a valid license.
On Tristan’s 18th birthday she quit hiding her drug use, and at this point her drug of choice had escalated to heroin, since it was cheaper and more readily available. When she showed up to her party late, she was already under the influence and had marks all over her arms and legs. After this, I asked Tristan to come live with me. While she was living with me, Tristan cried to me multiple times, begging for the pain to stop. She talked about how no one understood her uncontrollable desire to use.
When she was living with me she wrote this journal entry:
Your poison that once ran [rampant] through my veins will now haunt me for the rest of my life. I always told myself “Oh, I’ll never do that… I’m smarter than that.” Until, I tried it. With each drug I tried it only made doing another one easier. Addiction takes a hold of you and before you even realize it you’ve lost everything. You’ve lost your complete identity and your will to live is gone. Everything feels pointless. Then after you take away the drugs, you’re left to face reality. My body physically hurts. I feel sick to my stomach all the time and could literally break down and cry at the slightest thing. Reality is pretty shitty!
Things unfortunately began to escalate about a month after living in my home. We eventually had Tristan admitted to the hospital again by a magistrate around 9pm. The Thomasville Police Department did not get her until 11pm, even though the magistrate authorized Tristan to be picked up while we were in his chambers. When Tristan arrived at the hospital, we were not allowed to see her and we couldn't even speak with her doctor. My mother and Tristan’s father sat in the hospital until 3:30am, when they asked to speak with a doctor again. The staff told them that there was only one psychiatrist for Davidson County, and that they did not have any idea when the psychiatrist would be there. Our mother returned to the hospital at 7:00am and was informed that Tristan was discharged earlier that morning. The staff wouldn't tell her when or by whom she was released. It was later revealed that the owner of the restaurant Tristan worked at picked her up. The hospital had previously reassured us that they would talk to our family about Tristan, but even when Tristan admitted to using heroin the hospital staff failed to discuss anything with us, the people who had her committed.
Tristan was in and out of my mother’s home for the remainder of her life. Well-meaning people and other users would continue to allow her to stay with them when she would get tired of my mom’s only rule of being home by midnight. Tristan had several good days after this including graduating high school, showing up for my wedding photos, going to our little sister's softball game, attending our grandparents' anniversary party and a day with her dad. Tristan wanted desperately to beat her addiction.
On August 4, 2016, the worst day of my life and my entire family's, Tristan died of a heroin overdose at age 18. Our mother found Tristan in our guest house. Our mother and little sister were told by the 911 operator to do CPR on Tristan’s lifeless body until paramedics arrived on the scene. This is something no loved one should ever have to see or do. That same day our mother was informed by an EMT that Tristan had overdosed and been revived at Walmart just a few days after being discharged from the last hospital stay. Our parents had not been informed because she had just turned 18 that month.
Tristan’s Celebration of Life service was held at our childhood church and this was the only time I have ever seen both the parking lots so full. People were parking down the street to attend because she was so loved.
Our family feels like we hit a brick wall everywhere we turned. I would like to see more prevention programs and inpatient facilities for teens 13 to 18 years old. Tristan's father would like to see change in how these opioids are manufactured so they cannot be crushed for improper use. My mother would like to see this “gray area” regarding age be addressed. At minimum, it should not be advertised in front of adolescents because from the day Tristan found out the police would not bring her home again, she was in and out of the home. My family agrees that any mental health diagnosis, especially a substance use disorder, should allow for the family members to be able to take guardianship over the individual struggling with an addiction. Data shows this is a brain disease and individuals are not able to make healthy decisions.
Since Tristan passed, the Davidson County Clerk of Superior Court created an initiative called the Clerk’s Commission on Opiate Abuse. After this first meeting and sharing Tristan’s story, my family has been very active in transforming the guest house where Tristan died into a safe place to help those struggling with drug addiction. We decided to name it “Tristan’s Haven” established September 2016.
Tristan’s Haven is located in Thomasville, NC. There we host a weekly support group for those in active addiction and recovery, called “Our Recovery Story” and a monthly support group for those who have lost a loved one, called “Our Purple Angels.” Tristan’s Haven helps navigate and secure treatment, as well as provides education to families and friends of those struggling. Tristan’s Haven provides emergency housing, up to a three-day stay for individuals who are actively seeking treatment. Tristan’s Haven also provides speaking opportunities that include education and testimonies. We have been blessed to share Tristan’s story at various events, churches and recently our local high school. Tristan’s Haven has housed and sent to treatment 55 people. Tristan’s life and death continues to save people and make a difference in our community.
Even though Tristan died from a drug overdose, drugs did not define who she was. There was much more to my sister than her addiction. Tristan was such a spirited, opinionated, smart, beautiful, creative and caring young woman. She is deeply missed. We found out after her death she purchased meals for the homeless at her work. Even in the darkness of her addiction, Tristan never lost her compassion. Tristan led the kind of life where she said “I can’t believe I did that” instead of “I wish I did that”. Tristan continues to teach me lessons like to live a life I’m proud of and if I find I’m not, it’s okay to start over again. Even though I am a social worker and never had anything against those struggling with addiction, Tristan taught me true humility. Tristan taught me to take photos, treasure memories and tell your family how much you love them now.