Updated: Aug 11
By Zachary's sister, Katie
Bridgewater, New Jersey
April 20, 1989- January 28,2014
My name is Katie, Zachary's older sister. If you had asked me three years ago if I would be here telling this story I would have said, “No way.” But here is my reality: two years and seven months ago, at the age of 28, I stood between my parents as we said our last goodbyes to my baby brother.
I was four years old when Zachary was born on April 20, 1989. I hated sharing the spotlight with him - as all older siblings would. Growing up, Zach wanted to be just like me. He always wanted to hang out with me and my friends and, of course, we used this opportunity to dress him up in old dance costumes.
Zach grew up in the ice rink - he started skating at four and never stopped. When we were older, I became his biggest fan. I'd go to Zach’s hockey games and cheer him on. To me, he was always the best. Zach had a way about him, always smiling and laughing. He was always quiet and shy at first but once he was comfortable he would open up. When Zach went to college, he started to dabble with prescription pills. I don't really know when it got as bad as it did, but it got bad. Zach did a great job hiding his addiction from the world. Eventually, it became clear that he had a problem, and that it was out of control. That is when the cycle of detox and enrollment in treatment centers began. This vicious cycle would take place every couple of months; Zach would be sober for some time, relapse, then start the cycle all over again.
Our relationship was very rocky during the three years prior to his death. I could read Zach like a book and he knew that. When Zach would use he would stay as far away from me as possible and, when he was sober, it was like learning to love a new person. I couldn't stand being around him when he was using - he was nasty and argumentative. I would have done anything in my power to take this burden away from Zach, but he was the only one who had the power to change and overcome his struggles. And he tried. He tried so hard.
My brother touched many lives with his strength, determination, courage, and compassion. Zach was an amazing chef, and was able to make anyone laugh. He loved his friends more than anything else and would do anything for them. Everyone wanted the same thing for Zach: they wanted him to be happy and sober, but most of all they wanted Zach to stay alive. Zach was a free spirit and wasn't afraid to be who he was. He loved going to shows with his friends, and supporting their bands. He would even make them continue to jam when everyone else was done. Zach would dance this dorky silly dance, smile, and enjoy life. He never seemed to worry about what the next day would bring.
But things are not always as they seem. Zach was ashamed of his addiction; he kept it very private and vary rarely would ask for help - he wanted to keep his closest friends out of that part of his life.
The days following Zach's passing were a blur. The viewing seemed to last for hours. There were endless hugs, stories, and tears. I remember at one point looking up and wondering how Zach felt so alone when he was so loved by so many people. The funeral was gut-wrenching. I still don't know how I made it through. I was numb. Standing there watching my parents say goodbye to their baby boy, watching Zach's friends carry him out of the church, still brings tears and gives me goosebumps.
It will be three years on January 28, 2017, and the pain doesn't seem to ever go away. All of us - me, my parents, and Zach’s friends are still learning to live this "new normal” life, a life without Zach. I still have moments where I pick up the phone to call or text him. Some days I get so angry I just have to scream. I mean, how could this have happened to him? To us? Why my brother? To this day it doesn't make sense. But that's the thing about addiction: it doesn't make sense.
I think about my little brother everyday and I miss him more and more. Nothing in my life will ever be the same. I wouldn't want anyone to ever experience this heartache, this type of loss, or this pain. I feel compelled to share my story in hope that it will help others.
On that cold Tuesday, we lost a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a best friend. I will never get to go to a New York Ranger game like we always talked about, or a Dave Matthews concert. So many things we had always talked about, that now I will experience by myself for the both of us. I wish I had made more time for Zach. I wish we hadn't just talked about doing these things, but actually did them and experienced them together.
I'm so thankful for all the times we shared and all of the memories we made as kids and as adults. I will treasure them always. They are frozen in time in my mind. Images of Zach at happier times in the way I want to remember him. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I couldn't agree more.
In the two years and seven months since I lost my brother, I have learned to live each day as if it were my last.I am now worrying less and experiencing more. I've lost a lot of friends but gained better ones - ones that are patient with me and understand that some days I just want to lay in bed all day. I'm doing things how Zach would have wanted, and I know he is always with me in spirit.
Addiction is a disease. It eats away at it’s victims and they are never able to live a day without craving a substance. Of course with the label of addiction, comes the stigma. Many people would say, “Addicts are junkies, low-lifes, thieves. Why waste tax money to help someone who doesn't want to be saved?" Well, this sentiment is untrue and here's why: those who are struggling with addiction are the average person next door. It can be your child's best friend, the soccer mom, your neighbor. Addiction does not discriminate. As a nation, this epidemic is spreading like wildfire with no end in sight. It's taking more and more lives everyday. It is stealing loved ones from every demographic and socioeconomic level. As a nation we need to educate more, be more open and accepting, and remove the stigma.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please don't shut them out. Help them to get the help they need, so we can slowly put out this wildfire.