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What I've learned about opioid addiction 3 years after my brother's death

My little brother's "recreational" drug use led to an accidental overdose that killed him. But the tragedy that took his life was preventable.

This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that drug overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period for the first time.

Dani Schaffer lost her little brother, Scott Anthony Molinari, to an accidental opioid overdose in 2018. The California lifestyle blogger recently teamed up with NFL player Darren Waller of the Las Vegas Raiders, who has been open about his past struggle with addiction, as well as several other organizations for a public service campaign called Reverse the Silence, which raises awareness of overdose risks and combats the stigma associated with opioid use. This is her story.

Nov. 7 is my least favorite day of the year.

Earlier this month, I mourned the loss of my 33-year-old brother, Scott, who died after an accidental opioid overdose on Nov. 7, 2018. Scott’s friends loved him for his kind heart and larger-than-life personality. My kids loved him for his gentle demeanor and his cool and casual “Uncle Scotty” vibe. I loved him for making me a sister.

Dani Schaffer, Scott Anthony Molinari
Dani Schaffer with her little brother, Scott Anthony Molinari, who died of an accidental opioid overdose in 2018.Courtesy Dani Schaffer

Aside from being a wife and mom, the role of big sister — or “sissy,” as my baby brother called me — was one of my most important roles to date. Growing up, I always dreamed of having siblings, and it wasn’t until I was 11 years old that my wish was granted, in the form of a sweet baby brother. I couldn’t wait to be the best sister to him and someday perhaps the best aunt to his kids. Our mother was an addict and an alcoholic. After a tumultuous upbringing, I wanted nothing more than to protect Scott from some of the things I experienced as a child.

Scott had a lot of friends growing up. During his college years at Arizona State University, his network only grew stronger. Craving the laid-back and beachy vibe, Scott later moved to Hermosa Beach in California, where he worked as a bartender. He was the life of the party. I was thrilled for him. He was living his best life, and he was only a short drive from our family in San Diego. What I didn’t know was that amid Scott’s happy-go-lucky demeanor, he was battling his own internal challenges with what he considered “recreational” drug use, a slippery slope that ultimately led him to an accidental overdose that ended his life.

Dani Schaffer, Scott Molinari, opioid abuse
Schaffer's brother was "Uncle Scotty" to her children. Courtesy Dani Schaffer

I will never forget the moment I got the call. Or, rather, the message sent via Instagram DM that read, “You need to call me. This is Scott’s roommate.” From that very second, I knew I’d never see my brother again. I had just gotten the dreaded message every parent, sibling, or loved one fears.

From that very second, I knew I'd never see my brother again.​​

Scott had two roommates — one was a teacher and the other was an accountant. With opposite schedules, they would sometimes go days without seeing one another. In this case, it was three days before they decided to bust open his locked bedroom door after noticing a load of his laundry in the wash and his cellphone lying on the living room sofa without a charge for several days in a row.

My brother was dead for three days before anyone even knew. This is one of the most heart-wrenching facts I’ve never shared, until now.

Dani Schaffer
Schaffer loved being a big sister and had hoped to one day be an aunt to her brother's future children. Courtesy Dani Schaffer

The tragedy that took Scott’s life was preventable. I’ll never get over his death, but today it fuels my motivation to educate and empower others who suspect a loved one might be going down a similar path.

What I’ve learned

It doesn't get easier

The grief comes and goes in waves. And because I felt more like a parent to Scott at times, I feel I’m grieving like a parent who’s lost a child.

Overdoses are much more common than people may think — and they rose during the pandemic

Between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S., a 29% increase from the previous year, according to the CDC. More than 75% of those involved an opioid.

Overdosing can happen to anyone

They can happen even if someone is taking opioids prescribed by their doctor.

We must talk about it

I can’t help but wonder if Scott would still be alive today had we engaged in more frequent conversations about his drug use. In many ways, Scott’s friends were also his family, and they, too, have voiced the need for more open conversation to lessen the stigma associated with drug use and addiction.

What I want others to know

Opioid addiction is deadly, but it can be overcome with resources.

Since Scott’s death, I’ve learned about a life-saving nasal spray called naloxone, a medication designed to immediately help reverse an opioid overdose. It can block and reverse the effects of opioids such as heroin, morphine and oxycodone, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Naloxone is available to keep on hand and comes in the form of a nasal spray and injectable solution.

People are so quick to say, "Well, they shouldn't have been doing drugs." That's not the answer. So many fake prescription drugs are laced with fentanyl these days.

I now know that anyone taking a prescription opioid or living with an opioid use disorder or dependence should also have an at-home safety plan in place. This includes locking opioids in a cabinet, away from children, having naloxone on hand and knowing how to recognize an overdose.

Now, more than ever before, I am on a mission to reverse the silence. Talking about this is hard, but it’s important — and it could save lives. Accidental overdoses don’t discriminate. They’re a risk for anyone taking opioids, with or without a prescription. It could happen to anyone. It happened to my brother, Scott.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or substance abuse, please call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or text TALK to 741741.