CAMDEN, N.J. — Sometimes, Bonnie Smith wears her daughter’s socks, the ones all stretched out from her girl’s size 10 feet. At night, the 44-year-old wraps herself with her daughter’s sheets. And every day, she looks at snapshots from happier days, before her daughter fell into addiction.
It’s been four years since 21-year-old Emily Henry died from complications of withdrawal from heroin, four years since Smith fell into a black hole of unanswered questions about her death.
Who lured her back into drug use while she was in an intensive outpatient program, her sixth attempt at recovery? Why didn’t the Florida detox center realize sooner that Henry had stopped breathing, cutting the oxygen supply to her brain?
And how was Smith going to live without her youngest child?
“She’s somebody’s baby. She’s someone’s girl,” Smith told The Courier Post , crying at the memory. “How can you take that so lightly?
“Nobody was able to talk to me or make sense for the first three months. I lost everything. This is the part that really happens — I lost everything.”
Henry’s death was unusual, and the facts surrounding the incident remain a mystery to Smith. It serves as an example that the toll opioids have taken on families is more than reported.
Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a half million people died from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2015.
But death investigations and data collection practices vary across the country, and overdose statistics don’t reflect opioid-involved deaths due to other complaints, including infections and communicable diseases.
And the numbers can’t show the incalculable loss to the families left behind.
“I want the kids to know,” Smith said, wiping away tears. “I’m so afraid for every child I see. I want to hug their mothers and try to tell them … I can’t tell them what to do, because I don’t know how it started or stopped, you know?”
Smith recalled her youngest child as a “bumblebee stuck in a plastic bag,” frantic and busy with energy. Like her older twin sisters before her, Henry graduated from Cherry Hill High School East, letting her proud mother style her hair and makeup for her graduation portraits.
“She was really tall and skinny and when she kissed me, she’d always rest her head on top of mine,” Smith recalled.
The two were close, even after the tough “party girl” started drinking and using Percocets while in her teens. But Henry hid it from her mother until she needed help for her addiction. She was 18 when she took her first trip to rehab, but her troubles didn’t end there.
Once, at about age 19, she crashed a Mercedes-Benz she stole from the driveway of someone’s parents, earning herself a criminal record, a community service sentence and thousands of dollars owed for restitution.
“She thought she was such a badass, I’d give her 50 percent of that,” her mother said. “But the other 50 was an immature little baby who didn’t know anything about the world.”
At some point in her recovery journey, Henry tried Suboxone, a prescription medication used to stave off the symptoms of withdrawal and keep a person from getting high on illicit opioids. Smith believes her daughter traded it for other drugs.
In another program, Henry became a Christian, spending hours on devotionals and writing notes she tucked into a Bible she carried.
The relapses continued. By the time Smith pulled her bone-thin daughter from the streets of Camden and onto a plane bound for Florida, Henry was involved with a pimp and using any substance she could find.
“She had no look, no nothing,” Smith recalled. “There was nothing in there. Everything was drugged away. Drugs took everything.”
Monique Wyche of Gloucester Township, Smith’s best friend and former co-worker, said the young woman left on “bad terms with everybody.”
“I don’t want to speak ill or anything like that, but she pretty much burned all her bridges,” Wyche recalled. By sending Henry to a Florida rehab, Wyche said, “everyone thought this was going to get her together and get her to stop.”
For a time, it did. And then in 2013, Henry arrived high at her day program. Counselors promised not to kick her out of her sober living home if she went to a detox center that day.
Sometime during the night, while under medical supervision, Henry aspirated on vomit, cutting off the oxygen supply to her brain.
By the time nurses realized the problem, it was too late. Henry spent a week suffering seizures while on life support, before Smith made the decision to have her daughter removed from the machines and put on hospice care. The young woman died in Smith’s arms three days later.
When counselors shipped home Henry’s belongings, Smith received stacks of apology letters her daughter never mailed.
Smith wants parents to talk to their children about the devastation addiction can cause. Over the past two years, the Waterford Works artist lost five friends to addiction, too wracked with grief to attend their funerals.
Earlier this year, Smith also became a Christian, finding solace in the thought that she will one day see her daughter in heaven. She has been unable to work since losing her job working with disabled adults, but she is recovering herself from depression.
Today, Smith lives with her longtime boyfriend on a quiet country road with a chicken in the backyard and a puppy they rescued a few months ago. She spends her days catching delicate spider’s webs and their makers to incorporate into paintings she sells. On Sundays, she goes to a little church with congregants who haven’t yet heard her story.
By sharing it, she hopes her daughter’s death prevents another child from picking up drugs.
“I desperately want … her life to have been worth something,” she said.
“This is a war to save our kids,” Smith added. “We can’t sit and hem and haw about what we can and cannot tell our children. You have to tell the truth before the friends at school get to them, and let them know . that things are bad. This is bad.”