SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – New data from the Drug Enforcement Agency is painting a clear picture of how the opioid epidemic spread across the U.S. 76 billion pain pills flooded the country over half a decade. While that number is astounding, the crisis has taken a very personal toll on one young Sioux Falls woman.
Alicia and Saundra Salazar had to grow up fast. They lost both of their parents to opioid overdose. Now 22-year-old Alicia is going public with her family’s story in hopes of saving lives.
“Imagine it’s your first day of high school. It’s 2011 and you’re overwhelmed with emotion and you get a call later that day that your 12-year-old sister found your mother not breathing and unresponsive. She overdosed on Oxycontin,” Alicia Salazar said in a video by Steven Pereira-Celis.
Alicia Salazar is telling her story in a video that has now been viewed thousands of times online. Alicia had just entered Lincoln High School when her mom, Crystal, overdosed at age 31.
Crystal’s death was ruled an accident and her cause of death, “multi-drug toxicity.” Crystal had Oxycodone, a muscle relaxant and another narcotic pain reliever in her system.
Both Alicia’s mother and father, Gino, used prescription pain killers.
“Some days they would sleep a lot or be in a daze. They didn’t make sense much of what they were talking about. I knew when I’d seen behavior like that, they most likely had taken their medicine. But I just thought it was normal,” Alicia said.
Alicia was nervous about high school, but her mother had reassured her it would all be okay.
“I was so excited to go home and tell my mom. Because she told me the day before, ‘It’s not going to be as bad as you think it is'” Alica said.
Instead Alicia came home to this:
“There was a bunch of cops and ambulances and I just didn’t know what was going on. Then they told me that, ‘Your mom passed away. She didn’t make it.’ It was just me and my little sister, so I had to take on the role of helping raise her. She was 12 at the time and I was 14. And trying to raise myself as a teenager,” Alicia said.
Just a year later, in 2012, her half-sister, Catrina, died at age 28.
Angela Kennecke: So she overdosed on?
Alicia: Oxycodone. It made me mad that she’s even putting us through that, making us watch her do the same thing again that my mom just did. She was there for my mom’s funeral. She was there to help us through it. And so for her to do that again, I was just angry at the time.
Alicia says she and her younger sister leaned on their father, even though he was often traveling for his job in construction.
“He was really goofy and he was really funny. He did make it easier after we lost my mom and sister. Even though it was hard, he still was there to put a smile on our face and make us laugh, even when we didn’t want to,” Alicia said.
But Gino Salazar was also dealing with bad knees and other pain from years of hard labor.
“There were days again when I’d see the same patterns as in my mom and my sister. And again, I just got angry. One day–actually the say he died–he was talking about my mom as if she was still alive. And he made no sense. And I was angry with him. ‘You’re really going to do this to us?'” Alicia said.
On July 15, 2014, Gino Salazar died of a morphine overdose.
“I moved him and asked him to get up and he wouldn’t . So I just started shaking him and pleading and crying for him to wake up. I went into the other room and told Sondra, ‘We need to call 911. Dad is not breathing and he’s not moving,'” Alicia said.
A few weeks later, Alica began her senior year in high school.
“They’ve missed all the big milestones,” Alicia said.
Milestones like graduation. Alicia’s first stop after getting her diploma was her parents’ graves.
“We finally came out here last year for Mother’s Day and we got flowers and put them in a heart around my mom’s,” Alicia said.
She says she’s learned a lot since her parents’ overdoses about the powerful hold opioids can have on people.
“I wish my parents had more knowledge at the time of what was going to happen and what these pills were. But when they were taking them, I’m sure they were convinced themselves that they weren’t addicting; that they could stop using them at any time and that they just needed them for the pain,” Alicia said.
Alicia says both she and her sister suffer from anxiety and depression in the wake of all the trauma they have experienced. Alicia has found healthy ways to cope.
“Every time I felt down, or had a bad day, going to the gym helped release all the stress I had,” Alicia said.
Now Alicia hopes to educate others, through videos online and by telling her story.
“I could go either one of two ways. I could go down the same path I’ve seen everyone in my life do. Or I can rise above it and do better and prove to not only my parents and my sister, but to myself that I’m going to do what I set my mind to and I’m going to rise above everything that life handed me and I can make it better,” Alicia said.
Alicia now plans to practice public speaking and become a certified personal trainer. She and her sister, who graduated from Lincoln High School in 2017, are moving to Colorado this summer to be closer to relatives.
Find out where to get help if you have a loved one suffering from addiction by going to our Opioid Crisis page. There you will find links to online resources and phone numbers to call for help.