Rachel Lepage’s eyes lit up as she reminisced about memories with her son: doing homework together, helping him customize his Nikes, watching him prepare dinner for her — an elaborate meal with shrimp and pork and beef.
Radlee Daigle, who would have celebrated his birthday March 24, died July 5 from an accidental drug overdose. He was 14 years old.
“A lot of people think [having a child who overdoses on drugs] can’t happen to them,” Lepage said. “They think if they do everything right with their kids that it can’t happen, and it’s just not true.”
Radlee was a natural athlete who excelled in a wide variety of sports, from basketball and football to baseball and golf. For hours, he would study basketball techniques and skills, training and playing from morning to night, his family said.
“I swear he could’ve been in the NBA,” said LouLou Daigle, Radlee’s 18-year-old sister. “On the last day [he was alive], he was sitting there talking to me about [basketball] — how he knew all these moves and he had been practicing, and he really knew what he was talking about.”
Radlee was finishing his eighth grade year at Milagro Middle School after transferring out of St. Michael’s when he overdosed, mistaking fentanyl tablets for oxycodone. He had planned to attend Santa Fe High School in the fall as a freshman and continue to pursue his athletic excellence.
Lepage said her loss was met with sensationalized news coverage of her son’s death. She said her family was inaccurately represented as a low-income family struggling with drug abuse, which misled other parents and the public into believing any other type of family setting would protect them from the opioid crisis and its fatal consequences. Children who come from stable, middle-class families are just as at risk to drug exposure, she said.
She stressed over and over again: “This could happen to anybody.”
Lepage said Radlee’s death serves as an example of how innocent adolescent experimentation can lead to “trapping,” a term used to describe a lifestyle of selling and consuming drugs — drugs more dangerous than many kids realize.
Online influences only exacerbate the problem, she added: “It’s a deadly cocktail — social media and the chemical world.”
She and her daughter agreed there is a fine, but critical, line that divides those who artistically express their fight against substance abuse, addiction, depression and the failure of a racist and socioeconomically discriminatory system from those who glorify and appropriate the culture in order to harness its power. Lepage said Radlee was exposed to both sides, taking influence in positive and negative ways.
“It’s the saddest thing in my life, frankly, that he felt part of that [perceived lifestyle],” Lepage said, recalling her son throwing gang signs he’d seen on social media, completely unaware what the gestures meant. “A lot of kids do, and it’s an illusion.”
This lifestyle coveted by teenagers can become lethal when combined with the opioid crisis in America and the naiveté of teenagers, Daigle said. She added that many teenagers and kids lack perspective to see the consequences of substance use.
“They don’t think they could take this pill and overdose and die,” she said. “They think, like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna take this pill, feel cool, feel great, wake up and go to school the next day, and my parents will have no idea this is what I’m doing.’ ”
Although there is no one surefire way to prevent teen substance abuse, there is a dire need for young people to educate themselves about the drugs they’re using and the risks, Daigle said.
“Kids really need to know how to identify,” she said. “If they’re gonna be doing pills and having fun and [expletive] around, they at least need to know how to identify some fake [expletive].”
It seems teens are learning: The misuse of Vicodin and OxyContin is at an all-time low, with 2.3 percent of high school seniors having abused Vicodin and 1.7 percent having misused OxyContin in 2019. In comparison, 10.5 percent of 12th graders had used Vicodin and 5.5 percent had used OxyContin in 2005, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
Lepage said she is using her son’s death as a way to help educate teens. She plans to speak at various schools and youth-focused organizations about the dangers of prescription pills, their deadly counterfeits and the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis.
She also hopes to teach other parents that if they have experienced a similar tragedy, it’s OK to mourn — so long as you look ahead.
“You have to feel what you’re feeling,” she said. “[It] doesn’t mean sink into a pit of doom forever, because that would dishonor his life, but sometimes when I’m down, I’m down and it has to be OK.”
Approaching her son’s 15th birthday next week, Lepage said, she hopes to encourage families to spend more quality time with their children and never take their lives for granted.
“Be more present for life, for your kids,” she said. “Try to be kind and gentle. … Anything can happen to anybody, and you never think it’s you, so live as if it was.”
Gabriel Biadora is a senior at St. Michael’s High School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.