DISCLAIMER: This podcast sheds light on many very hard issues. It should be known that there are stories of drug use, accidental overdose, and death, and it can be difficult for listeners to hear. Discretion is advised.

“I realized that approaching her with anger, approaching her with disappointment, and just anything that would make her feel extra guilt was just not the way to go because she would then just fight back at me or just lie to me. If I wanted to get any sort of truth from her or any sort of real human interaction, I had to literally meet her where she was. And if she was actively using, I had to meet her with this super open mind, calm, cool approach because, you’ve got to remember, she’s on drugs, so she’s cool, she’s happy, she’s chill, you know? I have to be that way too.”

Benji Block: On June 13, 2019, Nicole Woodruff got the call that she had been dreading for years. Her sister Amanda had suffered a fatal overdose. Amanda had become addicted to heroin as a young woman and, for five years Nicole and her family struggled to help as Amanda cycled through the process of getting clean, starting to recover, falling back into using. Saving My Sister is a memoir about navigating addiction told through a sister’s love, sharing the fear, hope, disappointment, stress, frustration, and ultimate loss that all too often finally ends the cycle, leaving families wondering; what else they could have done or whether they did enough. 

If you’ve experienced addiction firsthand or you love someone who has, Saving My Sister is a poignant reminder that addiction affects not just individuals but families, that you’re only human, that we’re all going to need help, and that you are not alone. Here’s my conversation with Nicole Woodruff.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Benji Block and today, I am joined by Nicole Woodruff. She has just come out with a book titled Saving My Sister: How I Created Meaning from Addiction and Loss. Nicole, we’re glad to have you here with us today.

Nicole Woodruff: Hi, glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Tackling The Process

Benji Block: A heavy topic that we’re going to be chatting about today but it’s an important one and this book, Saving My Sister, it alludes to again, even just in the title, creating meaning from addiction and loss, some of where we’re headed. Before we get there and really talk on the book itself, let’s talk about you, Nicole, give us a little bit of context around you and what you’re up to in the world these days. What kind of led to the writing of this?

Nicole Woodruff: Yeah, so I’m located in Tampa, Florida. I moved here right around the time, it’s all in the book when my sister passed. I had intention of writing the book, honestly from when she was still alive. We talked about it, I’ve always kind of my whole life, even when I was younger, talked about, “Oh, I want to write a book one day.”

Never thought it would be about this type of topic at all but when my sister was sober, we had like kind of bounced the idea around of what it would look like to write a book from the perspective of a family member — and also including the perspective of the person with addiction — and just to see how the same events unfold and what my thoughts were and what her thoughts were going through the same events, right?

Then obviously when she passed, you know, that wasn’t going to be possible anymore but I just felt super inclined to continue that and to honor what we had talked about and find a way to make it happen and I feel like I was able to do that. I’m not a professional writer, this is the first time I’ve ever wrote a book. I’m an occupational therapist and I treat clients here locally in Tampa, focusing on the pelvic floor, public health, and pain management.

Honestly trained in several different techniques to help treat pain naturally and my sister’s story was definitely an inspiration to pursue that part in my career. I also teach yoga at a couple of different studios in the area. So kind of a lot going on but that’s — the book is definitely separate from what I do in my career but I can tie it in, in some ways, and that it definitely helps put a different perspective on what I do professionally in helping other people.

Benji Block: Yeah, I believe it and you mentioned there, just wanting to honor both that conversation that you guys had about it would be interesting to write the book but then you’re obviously doing it at large to tell her story.

Is this a — because of all the dates and the length of time where there was a battle of addiction. I mean, I have to imagine this was a bit difficult to put together and then you bring in the emotion and grieving and this entire process. So what does it look like to work on a book in a time of loss?

Nicole Woodruff: Honestly, I think every part of the process was different for me, you know? Initially writing it brought up a lot and was challenging in some ways. You know, some days I would sit down to write and maybe I’d get a page done and I’d have to shut my computer because it was too much for me that day or I couldn’t tell that story that day. Some days I find that maybe I would drag my feet because I wasn’t ready to tell the next part of the story, especially as I got closer to the end of her story, the end of her life and recalling specific conversations that we had and specific details that were just so close to home.

But I think the part that was hardest was the editing because after I wrote it, I’m like, “Okay, got it done, I got it all out there” but anybody who writes a book will quickly learn that there’s so much more involved than that and there’s so many rounds of editing and each time I went through editing, I realized, “Oh, I told that story but maybe I didn’t tell it like I was in the story” you know? I was telling it from outside of the story and then I had to put myself back in those moments and make myself relive it again to put the reader in a perspective where they could really feel my emotion.

So honestly, it was hard but at the same time, I’m really glad I did it and I’m really glad I did it when I did it because if I had waited too much longer, I don’t know if I would have been able to recall the same type of emotion and the same details of exactly how I was feeling.

Benji Block: It’s interesting the perspective that it gives you and the depth and it’s almost like you’re — it’s like therapy.

Nicole Woodruff: Right and I think each round of editing, I was able to process something different. Anger, frustration, resentment, you know, sadness, all these different feelings, each part of the story brought about. It was just a lot each time but I always left then feeling better and I really do feel like it helped me process this trauma in a way I never would have been able to, without writing the book.

Benji Block: Let me ask you kind of one more behind-the-scenes question because as you’re working on this, you’re wanting to honor your sister but I’m also imagining that you’re thinking of people that need this book or that you hope will read it. So who are you writing for and who do you hope kind of pick this book up?

Nicole Woodruff: So initially, I think I wrote it for people like me, right? So somebody who has maybe lost somebody to addiction or are currently struggling with somebody who is in active addiction, family members, loved ones, siblings. But as I kind of, I don’t want to say soft-launched the book, you know, but had friends and colleagues read it, advanced copies, I’m learning that this kind of book is really meant for anyone and it’s kind of an epiphany I’ve had over the last week and it really kind of brings me just somewhat validation for writing it because this is just my story and the stuff I’ve learned along the way.

But I’m realizing that in those details, I’m able to add a lot of knowledge to people that don’t know much about addiction and that’s the feedback I’m getting is, “I had no idea that this is what you went through” or “I had no idea that this is what families go through” and so, really, I think anybody can benefit from this book because addiction is just so prevalent throughout our world, throughout our society and people just don’t really understand until they can kind of live through it.

You know, not everyone’s going to live through it the way I did. So by sharing this story and allowing people to really feel everything that I felt and walk in my shoes with me as I wrote this book, they’re able to really get that perspective and have a way better understanding of what people with addiction go through and their family members and I think that that’s really important because my goal here was to destigmatize the way we talk about addiction and I really think sharing stories like this, giving people this kind of lens, this inside view helps to do that, that’s one of the first steps.

Benji Block: It really is the first step, it humanizes the entire process and all that you guys went through and so let’s dive into some of the story here. Tell me a bit about Amanda, just growing up before addiction. Who is Amanda to you, Nicole?

Nicole Woodruff: Yeah, and this is one thing I thought maybe I could have elaborated on more in the book itself but it’s just so hard when there’s so many details, right? But Amanda, growing up, we were five years apart so we didn’t have this super close childhood where we spend all this time together and we were best friends but she was always the older sister I looked up to, right?

She was the popular girl in high school, she had a ton of friends, she was really charismatic and funny and just always like the life of the party. She made people laugh, she had a good time, she had a beautiful smile, like she just brought up the best in the people around her. 

You know, I have memories from being like, when she was in eighth grade and I was in third grade and she always had all these people at the house and always had these sleepovers and all these friends and I was just always like, thinking, “Wow, I wish I could be as cool as my older sister, my bigger sister”, you know?

And that’s kind of how I looked up to her for a long time until you know, eventually, when I got to the point where I was out of high school, you know, she just was kind of stuck in her ways for a while and even when she was starting to take pills at the beginning, I didn’t really understand the extent of it so I still looked at her very highly until she got pregnant with her son and then things kind of just went downhill from there. That was when kind of when we understood that things weren’t going so well. 

But Amanda, as a person, through addiction or not, she was always just so caring for other people and that was hard for her when she was in the throes of addiction because she always wanted to help out everybody, including all those friends that she used with and anybody and everybody. 

She just wanted to always go above and beyond for those people in our lives, even when she didn’t have the necessary resources to be able to do so. So she had just a really caring heart, she was a nurturing person and a great friend, honestly. If I could say, anybody that knew her from prior to her addiction, they looked back and they just have such fond memories of the time they shared with her. 

All of her friends from high school and early college and it’s just — it’s really a shame just how drugs can change a person but deep down even despite that, she really was always a good person and even throughout all the years of using, she never crossed my family in a way of stealing or things that were really, really dramatic, in a sense of our betrayal. You know, there’s lies and things involved, it was never — she was a good person deep down, always.

The Start of Amanda’s Addiction

Benji Block: Yeah. That’s what’s so hard about some of this too is like, as it’s happening, you’re seeing that person, you know who she was before and to walk through this with someone and to be in the throes of it, you can still see that person in there but it’s like, harder and harder to get at them, right?

So, let’s bring it into January 27, 2014. That is when Amanda first tries heroin. What’s the lead-up to that? You mentioned pills there, but what’s sort of the gateway into these harder and harder drugs?

Nicole Woodruff: Yeah, so she was on and off prescription pain killers for many years. Admitted to her addiction in 2008 when she gave birth to her son and was in and out of treatment, and outpatient counseling. I never really knew the extent of it. At that point, I was in college and she lived at home with my dad and she, you know, kind of had it under control but didn’t. She would go back and forth, relapse, not hide it, that’s kind of what a lot of addicts do especially at the beginning.

Then, eventually, she got on Suboxone for you know, the opioid cravings and she took that for many, many years. I wrote about it in the book a little bit. I didn’t love when she was on that because she seemed like she was out of it to me, so I don’t know if she was on too much. My stance has changed on Suboxone since going through everything with my sister and I now know how important those medications are. 

But at the time, I didn’t quite understand it but eventually, she was off that and it was just lots of oxycodone and pills for many, many years until eventually, I guess, you know, she didn’t really have a job for a long time on and off through those years, she was a stay-at-home mom for a while. Drugs become — especially prescription pills, they become too expensive and I think finally, she got to the point where she decided to cross that threshold and she tried heroin and the moment that happened, that was when everything changed. There was no going back.

Benji Block: The way that I’m imagining this — and you can fill in the holes for me but — she tries heroin for the first time and actually just a couple of days later, begins her first 28 days stay in rehab and so, there’s this timeframe afterwards where she’s like, “Okay, how do I get away from this?” and I wonder just looking back, if you can put yourself in your shoes, knowing what had happened then, did you have a warped perception of drug addiction?

How does this change like, how you’re thinking about her from, “Okay, it was pills before, you know, and maybe she was out of it some of the times when I was encountering her, she was battling it in different ways but now, it’s like, it’s heroin, you know?” That’s definitely a different step in a new direction, it’s very serious and what does that do for you?

Nicole Woodruff: I mean for me, it kind of put me into like, panic mode, you know? She always told me she would never use heroin. In all the years of taking pills, on and off, doing Suboxone, she said she would never use heroin and I believed her. She said, it was dirty, she wouldn’t touch it. She had no intention of ever crossing that path, you know, going into heroin.

So when she did, I was like, “Oh man, she’s in a bad place” and this was a time when you know, I didn’t know too many people that had done heroin. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what to do so I kind of just went into panic mode, okay? We got to help her. I had a friend whose brother had been in rehab for that maybe like a year or so prior. 

So I knew what her family had done and so I kind of just said, “Let’s just get her into rehab right away, let’s just not mess around. If she’ll agree to go, we’ll do that from the very beginning and then hopefully, you know, she’ll get the help she needs after that and she’ll be okay.” But, unfortunately, as we know that’s not how the story goes here but that was my initial thought. It was like, “This is a big deal and this changes everything.” 

Benji Block: So it becomes a bit of a cycle of sorts that you can go into some detail on here where it’s like a relapse, a rehab, some sort of attempt to get out of it but then getting back into it, which I think when you don’t have someone close to you that’s addicted you don’t realize how much of the story is. Okay, they are trying to get clean or they are clean right now but they could relapse at any moment. 

How did your family experience that sort of pressure as you are looking at your sister going like, “How do we deal with this?” where it could be addiction, it could be she’s doing great but she could relapse. I mean, that has to weigh pretty heavily on you mentally. 

Nicole Woodruff: It’s just hard to really know. You know, when she’s in — eventually she got to like the sober living programs, when she was in those types of programs, you know she is sober. You know she’s clean because she has to be in order to live in that house. So eventually it took her until she was in her third rehab to finally agree to go to somewhere like that, to stay clean for an extended period of time, which for her was months. 

She never really made it past a year but before that, you know, when you just kind of trust with blind faith that they’re doing what they say they’re doing, it is really hard to believe that because you know, there’s no way to tell — and I mean, except for the signs and like I say throughout the book, like my mom always wanted to believe my sister but I always could pick up on the warning signs and as soon as I kind of saw those, pick those out, I knew that we were not — 

Benji Block: It’s kind of too late too at that point, right? If you are seeing the warning signs like this probably means it’s already happened. 

Nicole Woodruff: Absolutely, most yeah, the majority of the time but eventually, you just kind of have to release control because you can’t do it for them. 

Benji Block: Yes, I want to talk about that in a little bit because we have to talk about how we can help but also not take ownership of their decisions. So it is an interesting balancing act. Talk to me a little bit more about the recovery house situation because I actually had a quote that I pulled here where you said, “Looking back now, I should have pushed harder for her to go to a recovery house after rehab. I didn’t understand how important that transition out of treatment is for long-term success and sobriety.” 

So it’s basically just that house becomes a place where you have to be clean for a longer period of time and you think that would have added a lot of value if you have gone to that or had her go to that earlier. 

Nicole Woodruff: Oh absolutely. I mean, her first rehab stay she relapsed the day she got home. The second one, I don’t know exactly the timeline but very soon after probably within a day or so or a week, the third one she finally went there and yet it’s just such a difference because there is accountability there that you don’t have when you just go home and you’re expected to do this outpatient counseling. 

Amanda took outpatient counseling like she could care less if she gets kicked out of that. She does not care and until she was in trouble with the law of any sort, she had no really accountability to stay clean. So what? She fails a drug test, they just kick her out of counseling. She’s done with treatment, she doesn’t care. So when it comes to the sober living, either she’s paying for herself to stay there or we’re paying for her to be there. 

She knows that’s where she’s living, there is nowhere else for her to go because we have gotten rid of her apartment and she has to pass weekly drug tests. She has to go to so many meetings, she had to be involved in a recovery program, she has to get a job, and then there’s other people there that are doing the exact same thing as hers. So there’s community there and there’s support in that. 

So yeah, it was a huge step. We had no idea the first few times around, we think, “Oh she’s going to rehab for 30 days and then she’s going to get it, she’s going to get it” but no, that’s just not how it works at all. 

Benji Block: It’s just interesting too because 30 days does sound like a long time if you are completely new to walking through something like this and in reality it’s just not and it’s not long enough time to really be monitored. So there is so much there, it brings up a lot of questions for me on initial response and you talk about that kind of your gut-level response is to be like, “What the hell are you doing?” to go into action mode.

You want to almost shake them out of the decision making and the story gets crazier and crazier as Amanda meets Shannon. She actually meets her in rehab and so there is just a lot to this story and kids are involved. So how do you start to realize and this is a you-question but that your approach really matters greatly because I imagined at first that’s just anger, frustration like get out of this, stop making these decisions and then you bring this up in the book that over time you’re going, “Okay, I have to change my tactics.” 

Nicole Woodruff: That can really brought up — you just actually used, hearing you say that brings out emotion in me because I did. I realized that approaching her with anger, approaching her with disappointment and just anything that would make her feel extra guilt was just not the way to go because – 

Benji Block: Yeah, it’s so hard not to. 

Nicole Woodruff: Right because she would then just fight back at me or just lie to me. If I wanted to get any sort of truth from her or any sort of real human interaction, I had to literally meet her where she was and if she was actively using, I had to meet her with the super open-mind, cool, calm approach because you got to remember, she’s on drugs so she’s cool, she’s happy, she’s chill, you know? 

I have to be that way too. I have to say, “Listen Amanda, I am not upset with you but I know that you are not doing well. You know, I haven’t heard from you in a while. You know, mom told me you might have seemed to be out of it” or whatever I say, “How can I help? If there is anything that I can do, please let me know,” trying to be really open-minded and just let her know that there’s no judgment. 

As soon as I changed my approach with that, this was years later, she would actually be honest with me and say, “You know, you’re right. I did relapse. I am using” and she would tell me the truth because part of it was she knew that I knew. I am not stupid, she can’t really lie to me and think that I am going to fall for it but at the same time, if I had just been angry with her, she just wouldn’t even have answered me or she just would have fought back with me or just lied and blew me off. 

So having this judgment-free approach to relapse is just I think one of the biggest things that I learned when dealing with somebody that you love with addiction. Because if you don’t want them to fall deeper into that hole, that’s all I was trying to do was just basically put my hand out and say, “Hey, I am here if you need me. I can’t make you do it but I’m here and I am happy to help if you’ll let me.” That was the best way that I could do that. 

Humanizing the Struggle of Addiction

Benji Block: I think where this goes for me is what role do we play as loved ones of someone who’s addicted and then what role does the addict have to play and then I think getting to a space where you were presenting yourself as judgment-free even though you are probably dealing with all sorts of internal turmoil of like “How do I” you want to again, you want to make decisions for them but you can’t. 

So you get to a place of being judgment-free. What are other ways that you’ve realized like, “This is how I need to be as a loved one and then this is what Amanda needs to take care of herself and she’s going to have to decide.” 

Nicole Woodruff: I think as a loved one, educating yourself is really important because if you don’t understand addiction and you don’t understand what’s going on in their brains, I mean you can never truly understand because you are not living their life, you are not in their shoes, you’ve never done heroin, right? Hopefully. You won’t understand. If you can understand at least that cycle behind addiction and know that there’s so much shame involved on their end. 

So if you come at them with that approach of causing more shame, they’re going to shut down. They are not going to be open, they are not going to be receptive. You can’t tough love somebody into getting help. It doesn’t really work. I mean, granted for some people maybe it does but in my experience, that’s not how it worked with my sister. And granted I guess I can say that my approach didn’t end up working in the long run either because she did overdose and pass away but she was receptive to help many times when I was open and calm and nurturing with her and tried to meet her at her level. 

So that is the best advice I could give as a loved one and what I learned. It’s very hard to do. You have to literally get in touch with your own emotions and try not to put them on display in front of this person. So in a way, you are almost lying to them but you are doing it in a way because you are just putting your anger on pause. You are putting whatever emotion you need to un-pause so that you don’t cause their shame cycle to spiral even more, so that’s what I had to learn. 

Benji Block: I think there is a hope that you have. You sort of touched on this in your answer that they will take responsibility. It ends up being a daily choice because that’s going back to our conversation from earlier where at any time relapse can happen and so it’s not just like a one-time choice for an addict like, “Okay, I am never going to do heroin again” it’s every day they’re going to now live with this battle. 

So I think that that is the other component to this is you’d be walking alongside someone who’s always going to have that temptation and always going to have something that they’re dealing with under the surface. I think of the writing on, I believe it was March to December of 2018 was her longest stretch of sobriety and you mentioned how she was addicted to pain killers for six years before heroin. 

So that’s ten years already at this point that there is this addiction and stuff going on and that’s one of the pieces to this that again, I would love to highlight here because I think we don’t realize how long of a battle something like this is, extensive sobriety but also then relapse and it ends up being just six months later in June of 2019 when she passed. I want to as we start to bring this conversation home, I want to talk about a moment actually that you had with Chris. 

Christopher, her son, at the memorial service. You are looking at photos, he shows you his cremation necklace and he’s 11 at this point and so in my head, it’s just triggering all these things of since he’s born, his mom has basically been addicted. I wonder how you think of that moment with Christopher. I wonder how you see him and just see her in him. Talk to me about that relationship and that moment. 

Nicole Woodruff: It’s really tough and honestly writing the book, that’s been one of the toughest things for me is thinking about how he will feel about all of this and understanding this was his mother. I’m still not quite sure exactly how much he knows or understands even at 14 now, you know? 

So it’s really hard and all I was trying to do for him that day was just be there and love him the best that I can, which is all I tried to do from the moment we had to take him in 2014 and just love him the best we can and just remind him always that his mom loved him and loves him so much because she did and so often, you know, that was her number one. Always she said that her disease became too much. 

As much maybe he doesn’t understand now, I know he will one day and I hope at least that this book will at least shed some light on just the struggle that she really did have and it wasn’t anything he did. 

Benji Block: I think it’s one of those things we all feel, the emotion that’s there and I think there is a loss of words because it is really hard to express what we feel internally. So I commend you for the hard work of putting this story on paper. I know we’ve only talked on a couple of moments. I mean, this book is full of story and I want to leave that to the reader to really dive in because it’s years of back and forth and processing. 

But you have done a great job of honoring your sister’s story, sharing that and I think it’s going to be a huge benefit to families that are walking through similar situations and also like you mentioned off the top, for those that just need to humanize and understand more of what people are going through, this does a great job of taking some of the preconceived notions and just actually putting it into story and helping humanize it. 

So as we wrap up here Nicole, tell me what you hope the main takeaway is from this book. When someone finishes reading it, what do you hope that they feel and what do you hope they walk away with? 

Nicole Woodruff: I just hope that they can see the human side of addiction and know the struggle that is put into overcoming it. It is just not cut and dry, that there is no clear answer to really solving this one. It is not a disease where one treatment will work for everyone, right? There is no black and white but just understanding that these stories are important. My sister’s story matters, you know? 

If she just passes away, she’s another girl who overdosed on heroin, right? Lost her life but if I can bring life to her story even after she’s gone, I think that can really change the narrative and just the way that we talk about it and understanding that it is a disease and it doesn’t always pick and choose. There is lots of factors that go into play with how it affects people, right? But it is just – it really does play a big toll on the families that are involved. 

At the end of the day, you know, the title of the book is, Saving My Sister, right? But to a fellow family member, you can do everything you can to be there and walk beside them. You can’t save them, you know they really do have to save themselves and unfortunately, in my case, it didn’t happen that way. There are many stories out there for people that do recover. They just want to humanize addiction. I know that is a long answer to your question. 

Benji Block: No, it’s a good answer and this definitely does that job. So thank you for spending the time and on the podcast and on this book. For those that are listening to this and maybe they want to reach out, is there a way that people can do that, stay connected to you besides the book? 

Nicole Woodruff: Yeah, I mean I’m on Instagram. It’s Nicole D. Woodruff, D, Davis, my middle name. My website is nicolewoodruff.com, so they are always welcome to reach out either way there. 

Benji Block: Thanks, Nicole. The book is again titled, Saving My Sister: How I Created Meaning from Addiction and Loss. It’s available on Amazon. We encourage all of our listeners to go pick it up, read it. It’s quite the story and it will do the job of humanizing addiction and I am excited for people to pick this up. We need more books like this even though it’s not necessarily the happy ending obviously but it’s the necessary conversations. So Nicole, thank you for being here and being with us on Author Hour today. 

Nicole Woodruff: Yes, thank you so much, Benji. I really appreciate you taking the time.