Lauren Sisler Opens Up About Her Parents' Addiction

The popular sports broadcaster was in denial about her family's secret — her parents were addicted to prescription pain medication.

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- Posted on May 9, 2019

Sports broadcaster Lauren Sisler

Sometimes people approach me and ask, “Don’t I know you?” If they’re sports fans, they probably do. In addition to covering sports for AL.com, I’m a sports broadcaster for ESPN and SEC Network. Here in football-crazy Alabama, I get recognized a lot.

The attention is flattering. But it’s also ironic. For a long time, even after I became a presence on TV, I worked very hard to keep myself hidden.

No one knew the real me. Not my coworkers. Not my teammates and mentors during my competitive gymnastics days. Not my closest friends and family members. Not even me.

What was the secret I worked so hard to hide?

My mom and dad were drug addicts. They were wonderful, supportive parents, people of abiding faith and love. But from the time I was a teenager, both were hooked on prescription pain medicine. I was in college when they died, hours apart, from drug overdoses. By that point, they were barely functioning. Their finances were so chaotic, everything they owned was auctioned off to pay bills after they died. My older brother managed to bid on a few keepsakes from our childhood.

That’s what really happened. Here’s the version I told everyone else, including myself: Mom and Dad were normal people who took medication for some chronic pain issues. Their lethargy, financial woes and explosions of anger when pills ran low were just everyday family problems.

“Mom had respiratory failure,” I said after they died. “Dad had heart failure. It was such tragic bad luck they died on the same day.”

It wasn’t bad luck. Mom died after ingesting an entire patch of fentanyl. Dad found Mom dead, ingested his own fentanyl patch, then collapsed and hit his head on the kitchen counter.

 

My aunt Linda, my mom’s sister, who had often bailed out my parents financially and learned the extent of their drug problem after they died, tried to tell me the truth. I refused to listen. I left the room or talked right over her.

As a child, I was either unaware or too naive to acknowledge the truth. As I got older, shame replaced ignorance. The shame grew so intense, I concocted a separate reality in which my parents’ drug use was normal. How could they be drug addicts if they lived in a nice house and Dad had a job?

The lie worked for years—until suddenly it didn’t. After Mom and Dad died, I reached a breaking point.

I found release in the last place I expected. There’s a reason Jesus says, “The truth shall set you free.” When at last I admitted the truth, I found a freedom I desperately needed.

Looking back, I can trace the start of my family’s problems to the year we moved from Roanoke to rural Giles County in Virginia, where Dad, a Navy veteran, inherited some land. Dad had grown up in the country, and he wanted my brother, Allen, and me to have the same upbringing.

It was a beautiful area, and the house Mom and Dad built was lovely. But Dad’s commute to his biomedical engineering job at the VA medical center more than doubled. Mom’s social life, much of it centered on our old church, shrank to mostly family, especially ferrying Allen and me to sports practices.

Soon after the move, Mom was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and had multiple surgeries. Feeling isolated and daunted by her condition, she and Dad both fell into depression. Dad had had his own back surgery.

Many people prescribed postoperative pain medication take it when they need it, then stop. Not Mom and Dad. By the time I was in high school, our house was constantly getting shipments— paid for by Dad’s excellent insurance—of 90-day supplies of pills, opioid lollipops and fentanyl patches.

I don’t know who exactly was prescribing all of this medication, maybe the pain management specialist Mom and Dad saw after their surgeries.

For a while, my parents kept up a façade, attending sports competitions for Allen and me, saying good-night prayers with us, keeping tabs on our homework. Gradually, as the drugs’ grip tightened, things fell apart. By senior year, there were shouting matches over who took whose medication.

I’d heard about people getting hooked on prescription pain medicine. Of course such a thing would never happen in my family. Junkies living under highway bridges had a drug problem, not my middle-class parents in their beautiful house with Dad’s respectable job. Addiction was shameful. Scary. Nothing to do with my stable, normal world.

I went to Rutgers University on a gymnastics scholarship. My first Thanksgiving home, Dad collapsed on the living room floor, his face blue. Allen, home from the Navy, tried to revive him. Paramedics took Dad to the hospital.

“Your father had a bad reaction to some medicine,” Mom said at the hospital. She looked at me, as if waiting for me to challenge that explanation. After a moment’s hesitation, I asked, “And he’ll be okay?” Mom nodded.

It was an unconscious decision to go along with Mom’s story. Some part of me must have known it wasn’t the whole truth. But after years of lying to myself, how could I blow things up now?

“How’s your dad?” friends asked.

“Still in the hospital,” I said. “The doctors say he needs further evaluation.”

I also covered up for Mom, who abused not only pain pills but the antidepressants she was prescribed.

My parents’ death certificates both listed “accidental overdose” as the cause of death. “Accidental” meant it wasn’t their fault, right? I convinced myself I wasn’t really lying when I told people they’d died of respiratory failure and heart failure.

But I could forestall reality only so long. Aunt Linda grew alarmed when she realized I hadn’t acknowledged the truth about my parents’ addictions. Several times she tried to explain everything. Sometimes I fought back.

“Mom and Dad were not drug addicts,” I’d insist. “They took medication for pain and had an accident. What are you trying to do, shame our family?”

One day at Rutgers, I hurt my leg at gymnastics practice. Somehow in my mind, the pain from the injury became bound up with my pain over Mom’s and Dad’s death. I said nothing to my coaches about it, even after the pain got so intense I began limping around campus.

My coaches noticed and forced me to see a doctor. “Lauren, you’ve been practicing on a partially broken femur,” he said. “If you’d kept going, you could have broken the bone clean through. That’s a very difficult injury to heal from.”

Here at last was a reality I could not conjure away. Unable to compete, I became depressed. I was prescribed medication for both pain and depression. I was scared to try either one.

When I was back home, Aunt Linda saw my struggle. She sat me down and said, “You can’t do this anymore, Lauren. You have to acknowledge the truth about your parents.”

She told me everything from the beginning. When she finished, I felt an instinctive impulse to deny or run away. Then a new feeling came over me. A sensation of light and space. A glimpse of freedom I didn’t even know I needed.

“Lauren,” Aunt Linda said gently. “You can’t run away from the truth. You can’t control what people think about your parents. What you can control is how you choose to remember them. Do you really think your Mom and Dad are honored by lies? By your denial?”

Aunt Linda’s question haunted me. What had all my lies achieved so far? They sure hadn’t kept Mom and Dad alive. They’d nearly cost me my place on the gymnastics team. The assumption behind the lies was that Mom’s and Dad’s addictions were shameful.

What if that assumption was wrong?

I dug into the truth. I read the postmortem toxicology reports. I peppered Aunt Linda and anyone else who might know what happened with questions. I reevaluated everything.

The story that emerged made perfect, heartbreaking sense. Mom and Dad were wonderful, supportive parents, just as I’d always insisted—except they were ensnared by powerfully addictive medicines and lost control of their lives.

That was a terrible fate. But it was not shameful. It did not mean our family was tainted. It just meant the drugs were potent and Mom and Dad were vulnerable and didn’t find effective treatment in time.

I tried telling a friend the truth. To my great relief, she didn’t judge me. Gradually I opened up to more people. I grew so comfortable with my family’s story, I felt prepared to tell anyone.

I graduated from Rutgers and became a sports journalist. As my career took off, I filmed a segment about my parents for a feature on addiction. I was nervous about making the truth widely public. But I’d already told so many people, it was just one more incremental step.

Today I go out of my way to tell my family’s story. The circumstances of my parents’ deaths are on my bio page on the ESPN website. I tell the story at public speaking events and whenever it seems appropriate on the air.

Addiction is a disease of denial. It thrives in the shadows and in isolation. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Mom and Dad had admitted the truth early on and sought treatment. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had admitted the truth earlier. I’ll never know.

What I do know is that the God I pray to is the God who listened when Mom and Dad said those good-night prayers with me. A God of love and not shame. A God of truth.

Read more: Overcoming Denial in Coping with Addiction

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