The Light that Never Goes Out: What’s Next

The Light that Never Goes Out: What’s Next
October 21, 2018 Heather Starbuck

A light that lights 1000 more lights never goes out.

One year ago I stood up in front a room full of people, many of whom I’d never met, and read the letter I’d written Matt nine days after losing him as a eulogy. A eulogy. For my spouse. At 26 years old. A reality that no matter how hard I contemplate, or attempt to make meaning from, simply won’t make sense.

Departing Maine, as I was riding the greyhound bus I made the sinking realization that here I was, with only a backpack, trail debt, going to a new place to live (thanks to some generous friends) clinging to the hope that I could build something out of the ashes of my former life. I was Matt circa 2014 when he moved to a new state carrying nothing but a backpack and a $20 bill. That bus ride, all I could feel was dread. I’d hiked mountains for nearly six months across 2,000 miles but that was almost respite from my painful reality without Matt. Yes, I grieved deeply for him out there, continuously. I cried and screamed, fell to my knees on many occasions but at least immersed deep in woods and mountains, I was close to him, and whether you’ve experienced it or not, the continuity of life after death and the bigger picture of everything.

Holding onto that connection and growth is challenging off trail. Spirituality and discussing the bigger picture isn’t as common, nor believed and accepted, in everyday life as it was on trail where it seems most people were seeking, open minded and trying to expand their awareness. Upon entering ‘civilized’ world, I now have to act ok and get my life back in order. I try and fail at holding back tears on my drives to interviews so as to not smear mascara down my face and neckline. Meanwhile, I’ve started to lie when people ask how I am… I’m supposed to be pulling it together after all 😂. I feel the sting of things once referred to as Heather and Matt shorten to the singular, Heather. I am learning to pretend to be normal when I am anything but and adjust to a world that has moved on when I likely never will.

But when things get dark, I think back to that letter where I promised him I would try to recover. To be more like him, someone who stayed positive, kind and full of life despite all the traumas and adversities he faced. I recently watched a TED talk by comedian Kelley Lynn, who lost her husband four years ago. The TED talk is entitled “when someone you love dies, there is no such thing as moving on”, and addresses the very pains I angsted over upon leaving trail. The reality is, we don’t move on from the pain of a devastating loss. It lives with us, reshapes us, and moves with us through life, perhaps transforming as we grow, but at least from my experience thus far, it is ever present.

She emphasizes that we should seek not to push people to ‘move on’ but rather recognize the lost loved one, ask about them, and let the bereaved feel empowered to continue on their loved one’s legacy even when their person is no longer physically here. In many ways, my circle of family and friends has enabled me to do so, and for that I am beyond grateful. A few months before my hike, I manically came up with this idea to hike or walk across the country to share this story. I couldn’t bear the thought of people not giving credence to Matt’s life and the person he was because of how he died. I wanted people to know how much this man was valued and how deeply loved he was. His addiction did not define him and neither did how he left this world, he had more integrity and empathy than anyone I’ve ever met and was such a gift to all who knew him.

I truly don’t know what sort of impact going public with Matt’s story and doing this somewhat extreme memorial endeavor actually had. But I’ve heard from many who simply feel relief in the recognition. I feel connected to people I’ve never met on a deep, emotional level. This epidemic has affected some of the strongest, most inspiring people I’ve encountered and I look to them daily for motivation to keep getting out of bed when it’s the last thing I want to do. Friends of Matt have told us how his story and our love for him inspires them to stay clean. If we had stayed silent, we would not have made these relationships. Brittany wouldn’t have shared Matt’s story at two public events, Carrie wouldn’t have met Gina, Tristan’s mom and founder of SAD and I wouldn’t have gotten to know the countless wonderful, inspiring advocates, loved ones and people in recovery I’ve met along this journey. I recently saw a trail friend, who summited sporting the purple bandana and it brought me to tears. The depth of support for this project, mission and our Matt humble us and help us continue pressing forward even through the darkest days.

We created the Matt Adams Foundation as part of that idea, knowing that this loss would likely connect to many who’d want to share in our efforts. At the time, I really didn’t have a huge idea of where it would go, it simply existed as part of our hike. Since losing Matt, we have raised close to $7,000 in his name to provide financial assistance for those seeking recovery. A while back, we donated some of that to Narconon, the treatment center Matt went himself and the one which he said many times ‘saved his life’. I’m sad, I’m broken, but I also feel hopeful and proud that through the sorrow and grief we took this immense pain and did something with it.

Many have asked me what our plans are for Matt’s organization and this project now that I’ve completed the trail. Brittany and I talked extensively about this in the 100 mile wilderness. The reality is too many people are still dying for us to simply stop where we are. They say a light will never go out if it lights one thousand more, and so we will continue this work to ensure that Matt’s light never goes out and he continues to touch lives far and wide just as he would have done if he still graced this earth.

Over the coming weeks, we will be transitioning his website from Matt’s Purple Bandana to a more overarching undertaking, the Matt Adams Foundation for Opioid Recovery. I plan to continue writing about people I meet fighting this epidemic and this blog will always remain a part of the project but we hope to continue to grow around it, reaching more people, generating further support and continuing the conversation. A couple, Karen and Stephen Hardy, already accepted the torch and will be hiking the Appalachian Trail next year, raising awareness about opioid recovery and sporting Matt’s bandana as they share more stories. We’ve begun to plan a benefit concert for next year on Matt’s birthday among many other burgeoning ideas.  I’m relocating to Arkansas to be near his family, friends and those closest to this tragedy and this organization that came from the rubble. Matt’s got four warrior ladies, Brittany, Anna, Carrie and myself, who will always love him, represent him and ensure that his essence, vitality and love live as long as we do.

Thank you for supporting us through this first year of pain and growth. Thank you for supporting this project and offering empathy and support for those struggling with addiction and their families. Thank you for believing in us.

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