The last five weeks have been a journey to an unknown place for Michelle Riley and me. I first reached out to her in July of 2022 after the passing of Kennidy in May. I followed Michelle's Facebook posts about Kennidy and the changes she hoped to make in our communities in her honor. It resonated in my heart, and I wanted to support her in any way I could.

I was apprehensive about reaching out, but something kept stirring in my heart, convincing me I needed to. So finally, I just shared what was on my heart and offered to help Michelle by sharing Kennidy's story to raise awareness Michelle hoped to raise around mental illness and addiction. Michelle's response made me realize how courageous this mother was. "Cassie, I would love to meet with you and publish her story," Michelle responded. "We have to focus on getting it (drugs) out of our community. Thank you so much for reaching out. Maybe we can get together in a few weeks. I would love that Cassie."

It was Nov. 29, though, when we joined hands and began our walk. It was only six months after Kennidy's passing, but Michelle was ready to start sharing their story. But it wasn't an easy task. 

"I still have terrible anxiety, and I think that's why I can't talk about what happened to Kennidy," Michelle said. "Texting you now, my heart is racing, I'm shaking and feel like I can vomit. But I can't continue running. I have to get some kind of justice for Kennidy. I have to face my fears."
From the beginning, it was easy to pick up on Michelle's focus - awareness around mental illness and addiction. 
"I need to make awareness a priority," Michelle continued. "I need to talk about the dangers of the pressed pills and fentanyl. I need to talk about mental health...I have to do something Cassie, and I need your help."

And our journey began. Michelle shared from her heart the tragedy of losing her daughter Kennidy at just 23 years of age to a drug overdose after a long-fought mental illness. She often felt like she hadn't given me enough or wasn't sure what to focus on and sometimes found answering questions on the spot hard. I think about some weeks she struggled, and I knew she worried about letting me down. Michelle didn't realize how much she said that was relevant, important, and brave, even when she thought she hadn't. Because she shared her heart in open transparency, others could relate and understand. 

It was her transparency and raw emotion that struck me with each interaction. One night in particular, Michelle sent me a text that resonated with me on so many levels, but especially as a mother.

"What matters most is that this is making a direct impact on the stigma that surrounds addiction. Kennidy is making it a little easier for others to ask for help and know they are not alone. I struggled many times over the years and so desperately just wanted to ask for help. Looking back, I was so worried about the stigma, although I knew the signs were clear. What's sad is that I believe it's just as hard to be someone on the other end which makes it a priority to be the life preserver for the family they see drowning. How do you approach a family that you see struggling? And if you do, what resources will you offer them. Will you follow up? Will you make it a priority to see that family through? I don't have the answer but I feel like we all just need to be more aware of the signs and not give up on anyone. 
“It may take years before we discover or perfect a solid plan that truly works but as long as we are trying, that is what matters most. All I ever truly wanted was someone to help us fix things. I felt so lost for so long. We still have a lot of work to do, and life isn't perfect, but losing Kennidy has changed everything. I realize we were never alone in the fight against addiction and I no longer feel lost. Addiction is right here. It's all around us, and fighting the stigma will be a priority for my family for the rest of our life. Stigma keeps a vicious cycle going. And how did the cycle start to begin with? I won't keep you any longer. Maybe I will explain more another day. But I will say I don't think anyone wants to be an addict. Good night Cassie. I have to try to get some sleep. I will touch base." 

Michelle still has many questions unanswered; regardless, she started the conversation. The conversation, admittedly, no one wants to have. Yet a desperately needed conversation to end the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. It will take more than the Riley family fighting this battle that I believe will save many lives if won. It will take each community member to realize there is no "us and them" in this battle; it's just us. 
In closing, I want to express my deep gratitude to the Riley family for entrusting me with their daughter's story. Michelle always told me if talking about Kennidy would save a person's life or impact someone, it was worth it. Little did she know she would impact not only me but an entire community. Michelle brought us one step closer to a solution.

In loving memory of Kennidy Riley