On a chilly, misty night at the end of April, Aaron and Dean Burnett broke into their brother’s house in Wyandotte. Dean lifted Aaron to a back window that, mercifully, had been left unlocked. Aaron raised the sash, pulled out the screen, climbed in and landed on Austin’s bed.
They’d spent the better part of the day trying to reach 25-year-old Austin, the charismatic but troubled youngest sibling in their blended family. He hadn’t shown up for his nephew’s pandemic-style birthday party — to drive by, yell good wishes and drop off a gift — that he had seemed excited about attending. He wasn’t returning phone calls or text messages. He wasn’t answering his door, which was weird because his truck was in the driveway and the screen door was locked from the inside which meant he should be home. It was going on 11 p.m.
“Austin! Where are you?” Aaron called into the darkness. “I’m coming in!”
A mother speaks out about her son’s overdose
Kelly Opp talks about the death of her son, Austin Burnett, who died of an overdose in April.
Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press
Using his cellphone as a flashlight, Aaron caught a glimpse of Austin’s low-cut black Chuck Taylors. He wore those shoes everywhere except work and being Austin’s boss, Aaron knew his kid brother wasn’t on a job site; the company, like most construction-related businesses, was shut down because of the coronavirus. Oh, did Aaron have a bad feeling. “Please don’t let this be happening. Please don’t let this be happening,” he said as he moved toward the living room of the small house.
That’s where he found Austin — on the couch, barefoot, wearing black gym shorts and a gray T-shirt, head tilted back, mouth open. Beside him: a needle. Aaron turned on the ceiling light and touched the side of Austin’s neck. It was cold.
“He’s f—— dead,” Aaron yelled to Dean.
“Yeah, right,” Dean said incredulously.
“Call the police!” Aaron yelled. He figured Austin had been dead a couple hours, maybe more; gravity had already caused blood to pool in his legs and feet, making them purple and blotchy. He stroked Austin’s hair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry things went down this way. I hope you’re not suffering anymore. I’m sorry we weren’t there.”
Only later, when he was back at his own Wyandotte home with his wife and two young daughters did the events of the evening begin to register with 35-year-old Aaron. Austin had become one of a record number of people to die from drug overdoses during the coronavirus pandemic, casualties of an epidemic — the stubborn opioid epidemic —that has managed to become even more virulent during this terrifying, god-awful pandemic.
Why, he wondered. Why had it come to this? As far as he or anyone else in the family knew, Austin was maintaining his recovery from heroin addiction. Aaron made it his job to keep him safe and on track. Forty-year-old Dean, who lives nearby in Lincoln Park, kept an eye on Austin, too. Their sister, Kristin Burnett, who lived in Royal Oak, spoke frequently with Austin. And Austin’s mother called and texted regularly. But it wasn’t enough.
Something with incredible strength pushed Austin back to drugs.
In time, the family would figure out what.
But for now, all Aaron could do was cry.
The coronavirus conspiracy
Drug use has increased since the coronavirus began its rampage.
That’s the thing about drugs — when you’re at your lowest, your most vulnerable, drugs are there, beckoning with their seductive promise and seemingly magical powers to make you feel better, so, so much better, until you don’t feel anything at all.
Across the nation, more than 13% of adults surveyed in a federal study said they have started or increased their use of drugs or alcohol to cope with stress and anxiety created by the pandemic — though the numbers are certainly much higher. People tend to underreport their use of drugs and alcohol.
Recovering addicts like Austin are especially vulnerable to the lure of drugs — drugs are familiar, a coping mechanism of choice in tough times. And that, said Dr. Paul Christo, a pain medication specialist at Johns Hopkins University who studies the opioid epidemic, “has led to relapses.”
While there is no reliable tracking of relapses in real time, judges, counselors and others who work with addicts report seeing an increase in the number of people returning to drugs.
Greg Clifton, a district court judge in Lincoln Park whose docket includes a great number of alcohol- and drug-related cases, Austin’s included, says the relapse rate of defendants and probationers in his court is up by as much as 50% from pre-coronavirus levels.
Even people established in their sobriety — including a peer counselor for Clifton’s treatment court whose job is to help others get and stay sober — are relapsing. The peer counselor, a recovering heroin addict who had two years clean, began abusing opioid pain medication early in the pandemic, buying it from street dealers, losing himself in the fuzzy glow it created. (“I didn’t want to think about the COVID,” he said.) He stopped himself before making the transition to heroin. He was lucky.
People who relapse are especially prone to overdose. Sobriety reduces their tolerance for drugs. Using the same amount of heroin — or anything else — they used before quitting overwhelms their bodies; they simply can’t handle it.
Now, the number of overdoses is skyrocketing everywhere. In Michigan, the most recent information available shows emergency medical services’ use of naloxone — an opioid overdose antidote widely known by its brand name, Narcan — was up 28.8% the first six months of the pandemic, from March to September, according to the University of Michigan System on Opioid Overdose Surveillance. It was up 14% in Wayne County; 38% in Oakland County; 46% in Macomb County. Bay County — which includes Bay City, Essexville and Pinconning — experienced the biggest increase in the state at 445%.
The number of deaths from overdoses has increased, too, threatening to eclipse the record number — 71,000 — recorded last year. According to the American Medical Association, they’ve jumped in 40 states. In Michigan, they shot up 15% between March and September, compared with the same time last year.
The ultra deadly opioid fentanyl — 50 times more potent than heroin — or one of its even more powerful analogs, is responsible for the majority of these deaths. It’s cut into heroin or cocaine or pressed into pills often unbeknownst to those looking for a high.
“Folks never know what they’re getting,” says Dr. Lewei Lin, a University of Michigan addiction psychiatrist.
Fentanyl is what police believe is responsible for highly publicized overdoses that occurred in affluent Grosse Pointe Woods in July.
Fentanyl is what two brothers from Rochester Hills — who overdosed and died, along with a female friend, in an Auburn Hills hotel room in July — ingested. Scenes from a candlelight vigil held in their honor and attended by a couple hundred young people made the television news. A graveside memorial service, also attended by many people, was streamed on social media.
Fentanyl is what killed Austin, whose death, like those of most who die from drugs, didn’t make headlines or gain a spot on the nightly news. He died the way he lived: alone, surrounded by secrets he kept from those who loved him most.
When spirals end tragically
Kelly Opp, Austin’s mother, was at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and just getting into bed when her phone buzzed. She looked at the caller ID, saw it was her ex-husband, Austin’s father, and ignored the call. It was April 28. She’d had a wonderful, busy day buying flowers for planting; she expected Austin home in May, probably around the time of his birthday, and wanted the place to look beautiful for his arrival. Anything she and his father had to talk about could wait until morning, when she was rested.
A minute or so later, a text: Call me. Emergency. Austin.
“What’s the emergency,” Kelly asked, irritated. But all she heard on the other end of the line were her ex-husband’s sobs.
“You’re scaring me,” Kelly said.
“Austin’s dead,” her ex blurted.
Kelly, 56, hadn’t wanted Austin to move to Michigan. She wanted him home in Albuquerque where she could take care of him, her boy. A shade over 6 feet tall, handsome as-all-get-out when he was sober and had a few pounds on him to replace the gaunt, hollow look that comes with addiction, Austin was, in some ways, still a big kid.
He liked to have fun. Nieces and nephews swarmed him at family gatherings and he was happy to play along, joining their wacky dances, making funny noises, wrestling on the floor and sitting at the kids’ table for holiday dinner. Until his girlfriend died from an overdose, he’d helped take care of her kids. He considered them his family, his responsibility and was beside himself with sadness when they moved out of state after their mother’s death so they could to live with their father. Austin wanted to be a father himself some day. Sooner, he told his friends, would be better.
Austin took a special interest in the vulnerable — kids, old people, people with special needs, people who maybe didn’t feel so good about themselves. He propped them up. He kept an ex-girlfriend, a recovering alcoholic, from relapsing, taking her to dinner, buying her flowers, doing whatever he could to distract her from giving in to her craving.
When he overheard one of the guys at rehab trashing himself for gaining weight, Austin told the man he looked perfect the way he was and anyone who didn’t see that didn’t deserve to be with him. “I was floored,” the man said. But that was Austin, sensitive, protective, always trying to bolster the underdog. Did he know he was one, too?
Kelly sometimes wondered if her divorce from his father had set Austin on a journey down the wrong path, with the wrong crowd. Dean Burnett Sr. had been married before; Aaron, Dean Jr. and Kristin are his children from that marriage. Kelly was married before, too, and had a daughter, Meagan Rose. Together, she and Dean Sr. had Austin. They split up in 2010, when Austin was 15, going on 16. He took it hard. He was angry with his father. He was angry with his mother. He was a high school athlete, but by senior year, his interest in sports vanished. He lost interest in school and started skipping; his grades fell. He lost interest in most things, except for parties. He loved parties and he loved what came with them: alcohol, even though it almost always left him depressed, and marijuana.
Kelly wasn’t a fan of the kids he ran with; she thought they took advantage of him, always borrowing money and, at least to her knowledge, never paying it back. But Austin didn’t seem to mind. Maybe he just wanted to be helpful. Maybe he felt guilty he had things his friends did not. Maybe he gave and gave so he’d be assured of having a steady group of people around him; he never liked being alone. All his sister Meagan, who is 29 and lives in Tijeras, New Mexico, knows is that Austin “could never say no to anyone.”
After high school, Austin’s life became even messier. He joined the Marine Corps reserves, where he stayed two years before being discharged after testing positive for marijuana. He witnessed a shooting at a party — police called it drug-related — and was shattered when the victim, a disc jockey, died. “It affected him in a PTSD sort of way,” Kelly said. He had nightmares, he drank heavily, he used drugs, though he refused to tell Kelly what type.
Austin found jobs — bartender, disc jockey — but none of them amounted to much of anything. He worked at a center that teaches music and art to adults with developmental disabilities. He loved the job and loved the clients but was fired for getting high off cans of aerosol cleaner, the type used on computer keyboards, during lunch breaks. (“I remember watching and thinking, ‘Why can’t you make better choices,'” Meagan said. “It seems like he just always sabotaged himself no matter what it was.” ) He totaled cars. His mother thought he was a bad driver; she learned later he crashed because he was nodding off from being high. He got kicked out of apartments for violating lease agreements; he let too many people move in with him. “He’d have 10 people living there,” Kelly said.
Austin was a disaster and looked like one, too — skinny and ragged. When Kelly confronted him yet again, he told her he was using methamphetamine. She lectured, cried, hugged him and tried to explain that he was putting himself in danger. “You’re walking a very slippery slope,” she told him. “You deserve better than this.”
In the summer of 2018, Austin collapsed at Kelly’s front door. He admitted he was hooked on heroin and had been using nonstop for days.
“I need help,” he said.
Heartbreak and isolation conspire
Like so many people, Kelly associated heroin with people who live under bridges or sleep in cars. The nation’s opioid epidemic was happening somewhere else not, she thought, in her own family. No way could her beautiful, caring son be a junkie.
She pulled herself together, readied a room for Austin and went about the business of helping him detox. She cleaned up the vomit and diarrhea that accompany withdrawal. She tried to get him to drink Gatorade so he wouldn’t get dehydrated, tried to coax him to eat. Slowly, he regained his strength. After three weeks, he looked good. He was eating well, swimming in the backyard pool and he was gloriously sober. But he didn’t stay that way for long. Within a couple of weeks, he was back to his regular routine: more huffing, more heroin, more everything.
Austin realized that if he wanted to quit for good, he’d need to get away from Albuquerque where everything reminded him of his dead girlfriend, the woman with the kids he adored, and finding heroin to help him forget was just too easy. He was with her when she died, he told friends. Some believe she died in his arms. Others said he was asleep and woke up after she was dead. Either way, they all knew he hated himself for not being able to bring her back.
In April 2019, Austin decided to move to metro Detroit. He got a job working for Aaron, who owns a plumbing business; Dean works there, too. Austin got an apartment, part of a house split into separate units, in Wyandotte. When it was time for him to get into his rickety, banged up truck and begin the long drive north, Kelly cried and hugged him so hard he had to wrestle himself from her arms. He told his mother not to worry. Aaron, who had dealt with an addict on his wife’s side of the family, told Kelly the same thing: “I promise you, I will take care of him,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen. … I’m going to watch him. … I know what to look for.”
Almost immediately, there was trouble.
Austin never had any money. He got paid on Friday but would be broke on Monday, skimping by ordering off the dollar menu when he and his brothers went to lunch or hitting up Dean for a loan.
“Here’s $20,” Dean would say
“Don’t tell Aaron,” Austin begged, knowing that Aaron would realize right away he was spending everything he made on drugs. Dean, he figured, was more naïve. The next day, Austin would be out of money again and the whole routine would start over.
Austin showed up at Dean’s kids’ sporting events reeking of pot. He was drinking, too, something 31-year-old Kristin — who’d thought he was already well into recovery from drugs and alcohol — was surprised to learn. He spent the night at her house and drank at least a full bottle of liquor while she slept. She woke up because she heard him crying.
Austin got busted for shoplifting $13 worth of art supplies from a Meijer store in Lincoln Park.
Police pulled him over for running through a stop sign — and discovered he had a small amount of crack and a pipe with him.
He nodded off while driving and ran his car up on a curb. After Wyandotte police spotted three cans of aerosol keyboard cleaner on the floor near his feet, Austin admitted he’d been huffing while driving. He also told the police he had a needle in his car’s console and that he’d gotten high the previous day. He said he worked for Uber and was on his way home after dropping off a fare.
He ended up on probation, which included regular drug testing.
Worn down by Austin’s drug use and the constant crises it caused, Aaron issued an ultimatum: “You have two options,” he said. “Either put yourself into rehab or pack your shit and go home.”
Austin detoxed and chose rehab, where he spent almost a month before emerging committed to sobriety at the end of September 2019.
He attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly; they were part of what kept him well. “People like us, we have to go to meetings, even if it’s not a requirement, just for us to stay sane,” said Mark Sergent, Austin’s friend from rehab, the guy who had been upset about gaining weight.
Austin worked with his brothers from morning to evening. He showed up showered and on time. They were impressed with his progress and happy for him.
He went to the gym, sometimes with Mark, and talked about becoming a competitive boxer. (That’s the last place they saw each other — at a gym in Southgate. “Quarantine happened after that, so we kind of lost touch,” Mark said.)
The routine left him with little time alone and little time to get into trouble.
“He was very focused. He was very driven,” remembered Mark , who is 38 and lives in Lincoln Park. “They tell you in sobriety, ‘Stick with the winners and you won’t have to deal with the sadness of relapse.’ … I thought he was going to be one of the winners.”
But as the coronavirus shutdown loomed, Austin grew worried. The drug tests he took as part of his probation, the drug tests that held him accountable to his sobriety, were suspended around the second week in March because testing labs closed; they didn’t start up again until after Memorial Day. The NA and AA groups he attended switched from in-person gatherings to Zoom meetings — even now, seven months in to this pandemic, the majority are still virtual. Austin, as do most members of the support groups, preferred the interaction of in-person meetings; online meetings are too easy to tune out, online meetings are too easy to fake, online meetings are too lonely.
“Look, this is going to be hard,” he told his brothers. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Aaron and Dean told him to attend online meetings and to call if he needed help. Even though they wouldn’t see him at work every day because of the lockdown, they promised to stay in touch and to do whatever he needed to help him make it through the quarantine.
They also told him to think carefully before spending any money. He would have a lot of it — being laid off meant unemployment benefits plus an extra $600 a week in federal pandemic relief — and that worried his brothers because Austin wasn’t especially good with money. They told him to use what he received to pay down his court costs and pay back Aaron for getting him a new truck.
Feeling sorry Austin was stuck alone at his house, his mother and stepfather flew him to Albuquerque to spend a couple weeks quarantining with them, Meagan and her young kids, and other family members.
They had a grand time, eating together, planning Meagan’s wedding for which Austin planned to return in May, going on drives, swimming in the pool.
As uncomfortable as he sometimes was with himself, Austin knew how to wear a happy face. He was the life of the party, a role he relished. He looked good, he looked healthy, he looked like an adult, not a scrawny drugged up kid who caused so much heartache for the family. He ate hearty meals, something he never did when he was using drugs. He drank pop, no alcohol — at least not that anyone saw. He meditated in the mornings and read his AA and NA materials. Even Meagan, who had become so disgusted with his previous behavior that she didn’t keep up much of a relationship with him, was impressed. “Wow,” she thought, “there’s such a difference.”
When Austin left for Michigan on April 15 to quarantine for two weeks before going back to work, Kelly was confident he was going to be fine. He was building a future for himself. He wasn’t just staying clean, he’d beaten his addiction.
For the first time since he was 16, Kelly wasn’t worried about Austin.
Final rest, and forgiveness
Weeping, Kelly ran the length of the Dearborn funeral home viewing room to Austin’s casket. She hugged him and kissed his forehead and his cheeks until his face was smudged with her apricot color lipstick. She marveled at how handsome he looked in the new camel-colored linen suit he was supposed to wear to his sister’s wedding. She cradled his head in her arms. She wanted him to know she was there, to somehow feel her presence.
“I forgive you,” she told him. “It’s OK. I know you didn’t mean it. I love you unconditionally. I totally forgive you.”
She asked her husband and Meagan, who flew to Michigan with her to retrieve Austin’s body, to forgive him, too. And they did. “I don’t want my son floating around wherever he’s going to be, feeling nothing but shame and guilt and horror for what he’s done,” Kelly explained, though she never offered full absolution to herself.
She thought about the last time she spoke with Austin on the phone — Sunday, April 26, two days before he died. She thought about how his speech was slow and dreamy, as if he’d just woken up, though he said he hadn’t. “I don’t want to monopolize your whole Sunday morning,” Kelly said. Austin told her he was going to mow the lawn.
It didn’t occur until long after he was dead that he must have been high during their conversation. She hated that she’d been so naive, so trusting, but that’s what love does, it makes you trust where you probably shouldn’t. And she loved her boy so much.
If only she’d seen his face, if only she’d insisted on a video call, she would have known something was wrong. She always thought his complexion looked gray when he was on drugs.
But she didn’t see him.
No one in the family saw him.
The only person Austin spent any significant time with in the days before his death was an ex-girlfriend he’d met in AA.
‘Stay with me’
Austin was drunk and crying when he called 20-year-old Brittni Stetzinger.
He told her he’d wasted his life and that he was depressed and that he’d done some bad things.
“He judged himself a lot for the things he did when he was using,” Brittni said. “He saw himself as this really shitty guy. I would tell him that he was a great guy, that he wasn’t this big piece of shit that he thought he was. He would never listen to me.”
She told him he needed to stop drinking.
He told her he wanted to move to New Mexico with her.
Brittni swears Austin never asked her to get high with him. But that’s what she did. For several days, they stayed at Austin’s apartment and drank Corona beer — sometimes he drank Scotch, too — and smoked weed.
Brittni was worried when she left to return to her own house on April 27. She knew Austin wasn’t going to be satisfied with alcohol and pot for much longer. She knew he was going to want something stronger and that something would almost certainly mean heroin.
Don’t do it, she said.
Stay with me, he begged.
But she left anyway.
They talked later that evening — after she crashed her car because she was high on methadone she’d bought on the street.
The next thing she knew, Aaron was on the phone, telling her Austin was dead.
Near his body, police found foil wrappers — addicts often melt drugs on them — with traces of residue. They found a syringe. And caps from beer bottles. Taped to a kitchen cupboard, they found a piece of notebook paper with “good quotes” written across the top in pencil:
“Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.” — JC Watts, NFL player & U.S. Congressman
“Some of us are timid. We think we have something to lose. So we don’t try for the next hill.” — Maya Angelo (sic).
Meagan was surprised when she arrived at her brother’s place. She saw books and pamphlets on sobriety, she saw a bathroom with towels and curtains that matched, she saw a bedroom with a nice bedspread, she saw food in his fridge — things he’d never had at any of this other apartments. It made her sad to see the life he’d finally built for himself because in the end, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough to keep him alive. She took a pillow off his bed when she left, her mother took one, too.
Pandemic proves fatal
It took time and talking and tears but eventually, the family came to realize that while Austin died from drugs, it was the pandemic that killed him.
It took away everything he needed to stay sober. It took away his AA and NA meetings and the drug tests that monitored his sobriety, sobriety that — despite an admitted relapse on beer and tequila over Christmas in New Mexico — he seemed to want.
It took away everything that kept him busy, though it gave him more money in unemployment benefits than he’d ever made working, which meant more money to spend on drugs and alcohol. “It’s kind of a no-brainer what (addicts are) going to do,” Aaron said.
Once he returned from New Mexico, the coronavirus kept Austin isolated — away from his brothers, away from most people, except for Brittni. She never told anyone he was lost and heading back to heroin, though she wishes she had. “I didn’t think he was going to die,” she said. (She added that she is sober now.) , adding tha
Out of sight, with no one watching, no one to prove him wrong, it was easier than ever for Austin to lie.
That’s just what addicts do, they lie about everything — where they are, what they’re doing, why they have no money, whether they’re clean. They lie to themselves, too. Which is what Austin did when he made himself think shooting heroin, which turned out to be fentanyl, would be a good idea.
“It was the perfect storm,” Kelly said, one fueled by the incredible power of drug addiction and the unrelenting ability of the coronavirus pandemic to turn worlds upside down. “But,” she said, “I’ve come to terms with what happened.”
It doesn’t mean she misses Austin any less. She’s installed a digital picture frame in the living room and runs photos of him on a continuous loop. (“I think there’s a couple hundred of them on there now,” she said.) She keeps a pill bottle that contains a chunk of Austin’s hair — she cut it when he was at the funeral home — on the mantle of the fireplace in her bedroom. It’s next to his cologne, Eternity by Calvin Klein, and near two photos — one of him at Kelly’s wedding to her husband and one of him wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
Sometimes Kelly wears Austin’s thick black robe around the house.
Sometimes she dreams about him, not the nightmares she used to have, the nightmares where it’d be late at night and she’d be out searching for him, calling his name, trying to save him.
In the dreams she has now, he comes to her and puts his arm around her and tells her that he’s happy. And for a few seconds, Kelly feels good. Then she hugs Austin’s pillow, the one she took from his apartment, and cries.