Editor's note: Gary Fusz lost his oldest daughter, Alexis M. Fusz, whom he nicknamed Lex, on Dec. 11. Lex, 25, a native of Bartlett, died of a heroin overdose, having relapsed after nearly six months off drugs. In his letter to his daughter, he seeks to build awareness of the particular deadliness of heroin and to emphasize the importance of emotionally supporting those struggling to get sober.
It seems like just yesterday when I secured Lex in her car seat and brought her home from the hospital. I was a proud father for the first time, but with it came an incredible responsibility. I now have to protect her for the rest of her life. I fast-forwarded in my mind to her growing up, dance lessons, boyfriends, college, walking her down the aisle at her wedding. I relaxed for a moment and thought, "Let's focus on one day at a time."
I watched her grow up so quickly, like any daughter. She was always happy, enjoying soccer, dance, playing dress up, swimming or riding horses. She loved riding horses and she worked hard at it to become a great rider. When she competed I would always tell her, "Just have fun." I would tell her to smile and then I would see that smile that was so contagious. Her smile and laugh would always fill any room; it was hard not to love Lex.
Between ages 14 and 18, Lex became rebellious at times. She had difficulties at times coping with stress; she was very caring and emotional. For some reason, we always had a connection. Maybe I was the calm in the storm. She could always talk to me, and I would always listen to her. Lex always had a lot of friends.
Unfortunately, Lex's life changed forever at age 21 with the wrong boyfriend and group of friends, and she made the wrong choice and tried heroin. I knew nothing about heroin at the time but can say now in all certainty it destroys families, friendships, and takes everything in its path in a downward spiral like a tornado. It hurts every person and everything in its path. The person you love is there but will do anything to get the drug: steal, lie, whatever he or she has to do, without remorse.
For four years, Lex was in and out of our family, sometimes just coming back for two to four weeks and then suddenly disappearing for months. Not knowing where your daughter is or where she is living is the most painful. Most of the time Lex would show up close to her birthday at the end of November and then leave after the holidays. I thought about my daughter every day and every night when I put the phone on my nightstand I was in fear of receiving that call that no parent ever wants to receive.
Lex went into rehab numerous times in Chicago and the suburbs. She would tell me that in the city drug dealers would stand outside the fence and throw bags of heroin at the recovering addicts as they took breaks to get fresh air and sit at picnic tables.
Lex knew all the areas of the suburbs and city where she said it was easy to get the drug within seconds of exiting the expressways. Lex would tell me how she had overdosed and even flatlined in the emergency room. She would always tell me that hospitals would detox her or release her from the hospital after a couple hours. I could not understand this, but I have been told that alcohol addiction is more dangerous to the addict than heroin is to heroin addicts. I disagree and feel that both are high-risk and serious illnesses and heroin addicts might even be at higher risk of death. It's an epidemic that is sweeping across our country and might wipe out an entire generation of our children.
I sat with Lex and counselors at various rehab centers. The counselors all told me with Lex present that she had to hit rock bottom and make the choice to change her behaviors. I and everyone else can want her to recover, but it's all up to her. I learned from the counselors it is an illness and it would be a lifelong battle for Lex. Lex would tell me it was her battle, but I always told her I and her family would be there if she needed us. We would never give up on her. She needed that assurance from me and others so she did not feel alone.
When Lex was recovering she would tell me about others she knew who had died. I asked her if that scared her and she would say, "Yes, but the drug is so strong." She would tell me that I could never understand how she and others feel unless I was an addict. She told me there are no words to really explain it. She would talk about triggers and that all addicts had certain triggers. She talked about taking one day at a time. I would always tell her that her family would always be there if she needed anyone to talk with at any time. Lex attended meetings on a regular basis.
Lex disappeared again in January 2016, and I received a call in June. She said, "I am in rehab but this time I am going to change my life." I told her that I and her family believed in her. She was allowed to talk to me two times a week and then have family visiting time on the weekend for one hour.
She was there for four weeks and then went to independent living with other women. This time seemed very different from other times. She was really motivated. She applied for and received a job within three to four weeks. We would talk every morning at 9:30, 2 in the afternoon and every night. We would go to breakfast with her sisters. As we talked, it always felt as if she was moving forward and getting back to the Lex we lost four years before. I would congratulate her as I did before for each week, month and months of sobriety. Each call ended in how proud I was of her and that I loved her.
Lex and I would talk for hours, and she would always tell me there needs to be more awareness of heroin even at high school or before. Heroin was cheap and available in the city and suburbs. She told me someday she would like to help others who struggled just like her; I told her she could do anything she wanted in life. She had her whole life ahead and she could help create so much awareness and help families. She had wisdom well beyond her 25 years of age. She had grown into a beautiful woman.
On Dec. 8, just a little after Lex's 25th birthday, we talked at about 9:30 in the morning. We ended the call like all others: I told her I loved her, I was very proud of her and to take one day at a time. She told me she loved me as well. She was 5½ months sober. I never heard from her in the afternoon. I thought she was just busy at work. I received a call later from her sister asking me if I had talked to Lex. I told her yes, but only in the morning. She told me Lex was supposed to come and decorate the Christmas tree with her and her other sister. We both tried calling and texting but received no replies. We had no idea where she might have gone, but we were afraid.
I received a call later, in the early morning of Dec. 9, from police saying that my daughter was in critical condition and telling me to get to the hospital as soon as possible.
When we arrived at the hospital, she was in an ICU bed and she looked like Sleeping Beauty. Doctors told us we needed to prepare for the worst. She had little brain activity, and they didn't know how long she was without oxygen. Doctors told us that unfortunately they have seen this way too often with death rates from heroin soaring 400 percent in the past several years just in the area. Dealers are cutting heroin with other drugs that are 100 times stronger than morphine to make it cheaper and cheaper. Doctors and the police refer to this mixture as DEATH.
As Lex lay there motionless, connected to the machines, no movement in her eyes, I said to her, fathers are always supposed to protect their little girls and I was sorry I could not protect her. I thought about what Lex had told me so many times before: If anything ever happened to her, it was not my fault or anyone else's fault; she loved me, her mother, sisters and family.
I do think I understand more about addiction through the eyes of my daughter. She needed the support of Narcotics Anonymous meetings, friends, family and others. As hard as it is to be close to recovering addicts, we need to embrace them and connect and never forget who they were and are now. The more connections and support, the more likely they can beat the addiction in the long run. Support them emotionally and love them dearly.
I promised Lex that I would spread awareness and I will not ever break that promise.
Lex died Dec 11, 2016.
To families everywhere, don't give up hope on your children, talk to them and share this story, tell them you love them. You never know the last time you will hear their voices. I still look down at my phone at 9:30, 2 and every night waiting for that call from Lex that will never come.
I love you, Lex,