by Darla M. Grese
Sister Surrendered is currently on tour with Enchanted Book Promotions. The tour stops here today for an excerpt. Please be sure to visit the other tour stops as well.
When you’re a twin, loneliness is somewhat unfamiliar because you’ve always had each other. So when a twin passes, the other is left unprepared. Our loyalty was steadfast and our devotion to one another, solid. Our love was unconditional no matter what the circumstances. I’m so grateful every day for the memories of the joy and laughter that we shared together. I know the bond that Kelli and I shared is impossible for anyone to replace.
This memoir has become something so much more than initially intended. It’s become a documented journey barely scratching the surface of the love between two sisters. And surprisingly, it’s also become an outlet for me to speak candidly and honestly about my struggles with the cause of Kelli’s death. This is a love story turned tragedy. An exposure of one of the greatest healthcare failures killing Veterans and civilians, and a cry for help to remedy the fiasco.
I’ve stressed about who I would mention in this book, nervous that I would hurt someone’s feelings by not mentioning their names. But I’ve realized that it’s impossible to do. Kelli had so many great friends, some I’ve never even met.
I need each person to know who has taken the time to reach out to me in whatever capacity that if it weren’t for your heartfelt show of support and love, I don’t know that I would be able to muster the energy to even get up each day. Kelli, we did it.
Kelli again became depressed, withdrawn, aggressive, and sometimes paranoid. Living with her became nearly impossible. Thomas had to stop letting her work at his tackle shop which tore him up, too. Her skin became yellowish, the whites of her eyes almost golden. It was heartbreaking.
This time I drove to the VA with Maureen in tow and stormed into the Chief of Staff’s office. Maureen tried stopping me as I ambushed my way in but she couldn’t. The secretary informed me that I needed an appointment but I insisted otherwise. The Chief overheard our conversation and agreed to meet with me. I tossed a bag of empty pill bottles in front of him and educated him on what was happening. I made him aware that his doctors were, from my view, killing my sister. He assured me that he was going to call a meeting with Kelli’s team of doctors, which per her records I’ve reviewed, he did do. Our meeting however was not documented though, and the dispensing of pills continued. One hundred and twenty Valium and sixty Klonopin were dispensed in just one day!
I was forced to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I sold our house, a house that we had loved. It was our home. I just couldn’t bear to watch her die in it. In front of me, us anymore. I felt helpless. I remember standing in the kitchen for the last time, alone. It was empty with only the memories I would carry for us. I couldn’t reach her. I didn’t want it this way. I wanted my Kel back. I stared into the space recollecting the good times; Kelli on top of the refrigerator patiently waiting for the first wayward passerby to cross in front of her. She would leap off and jokingly scare the daylights out of them. I could smell the eggs and bacon that we’d fry up on Sunday mornings before game time. I could taste the Navy black coffee that we’d sit around and drink as we plotted out our day. I missed her, I missed you. Do you know how much? Do you Kelli? Locking our home for the last time hurt. It was utter anguish.
I moved to an apartment in Virginia Beach while Kelli to Newport News. We were now living about thirty minutes away from each other. A distance that felt much further. Fortunately, Kelli had a roommate that would keep me updated daily. Unfortunately, Kelli was sliding. Even though she and I weren’t living under the same roof anymore, I was constantly plugged into what was going on. My mind constantly occupied with simultaneous worry and hope. It was pure torture.
I noticed over time that Kelli was going to the VA rather frequently. More and more as time passed. And shortly thereafter, white plastic bags full of pill bottles were being sent to the house in startling quantities. Kelli was also changing, becoming more withdrawn, reticent, and appearing extremely depressed. And as more pills arrived, the worst things became. Even getting the attention of her friend and supervisor Thomas who knew Kelli incredibly well. She was often calling in sick to work, sleeping excessively, becoming irritable, and spent little time grooming herself. She even started staying in rundown hotels. Sometimes for several nights in a row which was really distressing and scary. I tried to reach her but it would just turn into a rambling argument. Kelli even turned aggressive at times, going nose to nose with me screaming like we were two strangers. I felt like I was living in a nightmare. I had never experienced anything like this with Kelli. Even her daily functions crumbled. I remember vividly at one point during breakfast when her face just dropped directly into her cereal bowl. After this had gone on for several months, I deliberately approached Kelli with a more stern demeanor.
She was sitting in the kitchen. Her spirit gone and her eyes empty. We both cried as I begged her to get help. She admitted that she was addicted to the pills that the VA was dispensing, specifically Klonopin and Ativan. Thinking back to that morning nearly sixteen years later, it still drives a sharp pain deep into my chest. A stifling heartache. That was just the beginning of a nightmare that I would never wish on anyone. My twin sister, my pillar of strength, my idol of certainty, my other half, was changed forever. I know you were in there. Behind that curtain of intoxication. I know you Kelli.
I convinced Kelli to check into the hospital to detox from the pills. I even drove her to the VA where she was admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit. Saying goodbye to her as two heavy doors slammed in between us is a memory that would forever haunt me. A wall that should have never been. I sat in the parking lot of the hospital and sobbed, not being able to convince myself to drive away. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t in the cards. I was the one who was supposed to fold under pressure and collapse, not Kelli. I wasn’t strong enough for this, not this, not Kelli.
Once home, I immediately went into detective mode scouring through Kelli’s bedroom. I found bottles of pills from the VA hidden everywhere. There were bottles in socks, clothes, pockets, a Kleenex box, and stuffed under her mattress. Kelli hid them in places that most would never think to look. But I was her twin and knew her best. I left nothing unturned, no corner and/or crevice unexamined. My goal was to ensure that when Kelli returned home, the house would be poison free. By the time I finished tearing up her room, I accumulated a mountain of bottles. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was no wonder why Kelli couldn’t hold her head up. My friend Maureen, there with me, was dumbfounded. While we sat there in awe of what we were seeing, the phone rang. I shot up quickly because I knew that it was Kelli. And I was right, it was her, crying and hardly able to speak. I cried as well while attempting to comfort her. Making certain that she knew that everything would be okay. She begged me to come the following day for visiting hours and of course I said yes. The thought of her sitting in that locked unit made me cringe. I hated it. Every f-ing second of it. I hardly slept that night. Constantly thinking and wondering about Kelli and how she was doing. I counted down the minutes until I could go to her, just sit with her. My Kelli. I couldn’t help but think back to our childhood, boot camp, and every other aspect of our lives together, good, challenging, hard, rewarding, enduring. Enduring. Kelli, damn it, you had it, you had the secret, you loved life and it loved you back, ughhhh! I wondered how an individual like Kelli who was so strong, brave, determined, and solid could fall from grace so rapidly.
By Taylor Tryst
With the current issues at VA hospitals everywhere, Sister Surrendered by Darla M. Grese, blows the lid off the epidemic of over-prescribing by VA doctors, and their blatant disregard for lifesaving information provided by the families of veterans with addictions, data the VA has chosen to ignore on a universal level. These veterans should be encouraged to undergo revised and cutting edge treatment for drug abuse and or addiction, and required to abstain from using these types of medications in the future, but instead have their addictions fed by said doctors until their lives are ended either by suicide or an accidental drug overdose. In my mind, that makes the VA as a whole, worse than any drug dealer on the street.
Ms. Grese is an inspiration to the families of veterans who have been lost in this manner, and in full disclosure, I too lost my sister in 2010 to an accidental overdose of prescription medication given to her by the VA. I believe Ms. Grese to be extremely brave in coming forward with her twin sister Kelli’s story, with her story. Losing a sister, especially a twin, is a life-altering event. The loss and injustice grow daily, the heartbreak, unbearable at times.
I was in tears after reading Kelli’s own words in the final pages of the book, and I believe that Ms. Grese has gone through hell and back to bring Kelli's story out into the open. Kelli’s words leap from the page and hit right in the heart. Ms. Grese is a whistle-blower of sorts. However, will anyone listen? Ms. Grese has brought forth a story that affects the lives and deaths of real veterans today and sadly, probably tomorrow. I believe there is still time to save other veterans, and to keep other families from suffering, that the VA can be held accountable for this grave injustice. Please, share Sister Surrendered with your friends, family and loved ones. It might just save a veteran’s life.
Job well done, Ms. Grese.
About the Author
Darla M. Grese is a twin sister who lost her better half to side effects from prescribed medication. As a U.S. Navy Veteran, she is an advocate of Veteran X and Veteran Hope programs that address mental illness, PTSD, and unintentional addiction issues. Both programs are sponsored by the Veteran Affairs Medical Center and focus on Veteran recovery and independence. She raises money for Team Kelli and annually participates in the Out of the Darkness Walk at Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach. While continuing to bring awareness to this cause, being a loving parent is her favorite passion and the main focus of her life.
Darla’s love for the arts has been expressed as a talented actress with appearances in The F.B.I. Files, The New Detectives, Diagnosis Unknown, Wicked Attraction, Discovery Channel’s The Haunting, and the movie Atlantis Down. She currently works full time as a respiratory therapist at a trauma center in Norfolk, Virginia.