ELKHART, Ind. (AP) — Picture boards plastered with photos of a smiling Melissa Axsom lined Billings Funeral Home's walls last month, illuminating her charismatic personality throughout her life. She always, her sisters explained, found a way to get into photos.

Melissa was a caring and protective daughter, sister and mother who's personality was contagious and could always make someone laugh.

That's what her family and friends want to remember about her.

What they'd like to push aside is the 36-year-old's 20-year battle with an opioid addiction. She was more than that, said Jennifer Knowles, Melissa's sister. She may have lost her battle on July 28 when she was found dead of a suspected overdose, but her addiction didn't define her.

"She deserved better than to become another opioid statistic," Melissa's family wrote in her obituary that appeared in The Tribune.

They chose to use her obituary as an opportunity, they said, a chance to share Melissa's story, putting a face to the opioid epidemic and letting others fighting addiction know they are not alone. and as a way to raise awareness about what they say is a lack of resources for the addicted, as well as obstacles that hindered them in getting Melissa help.

Thinking back over Melissa's decades-long addiction, Jennifer said, she wishes there was more that could have been done. Family members were desperate to reach Melissa, she said, but they felt helpless.

Now, the family tries to cling to the notion that they did everything they could, but addiction is tough, Sarah Howland, Melissa's other sister, said.

"Melissa's family will never understand why she is gone," her obituary read. "Although one day they may accept it, they will never understand the depths of her addiction and why their love couldn't save her."

Melissa's addiction began when she was 16, her family said. She was prescribed an opioid pain killer after getting her wisdom teeth out. Not long after, she came down with mono and was prescribed Darvocet for pain, a mild opioid that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled off the U.S. market in 2010 for health risks.

"I remember shortly after," Jennifer said, "you could tell she had a pleasure from taking the pills. At that point, we knew nothing about the potency of them."

Within a year, Melissa dropped out of high school.

Ashlee Harrison was 14 when she met Melissa, who was then 18, through mutual friends. They became quick friends, Ashlee said, and remained best friends over the years, even though their lives took different paths.

Melissa associated with a crowd of known drug users, Ashlee said. and Ashlee herself experimented when she was young, but quickly stopped when she had her son when she was 17.

"I was able to take myself out of the situation," Ashlee said. "She never was."

Although the family isn't sure where Melissa was getting the prescription opioids, Jennifer said, she suspects Melissa was using pills for about five years before they became too expensive and too difficult to get, pushing the young woman to the streets to find them and to harder drugs like heroin.

Melissa was always very secretive about where she was getting her drugs, Ashlee said, so it's hard to tell how quickly the addiction escalated.

Ashlee and Melissa's family both found out at different points in Melissa's life that she had used heroin.

"I knew she had an addiction, but I never thought it would get that far," Ashlee said.

And for the next 10-plus years, Melissa sought treatment from time to time, Jennifer said, including at a private, residential recovery program and at an inpatient program in a local hospital where she was introduced to Suboxone, a prescription medicine that can be used to treat opioid dependence. Health officials also warn it can be abused just like any other opioid, which is what Melissa's family said she did.

It's the same thing that happened when Melissa started receiving methadone from an outpatient clinic in South Bend. She became "obsessed" with her dosages, Carlene Smith, Melissa's mother, said. So much so that Melissa wouldn't go on family vacations for fear of not getting her dosage.

And in Melissa's mind everything was fine because these treatments were prescribed by doctors, so she was thought she was getting help, family members said.

"Nothing ever progressed into something better, it fueled into something worse," Jennifer said. "These pills never helped her see the light at the end of the tunnel. They drew her deeper in."

The family also faced roadblocks in getting Melissa into treatment centers, they say. Melissa was an adult, so her mother could not force her into treatment.

"The only thing that can pull you out is yourself," Sarah said. "I can't tell you how many times I wrestled with the fact that I just wanted to hug her and take all her pain away. In the end only one person can bring you out of that."

About five years ago, the family arranged for Melissa to go to a rehab facility. During that time, Melissa was gone, but Carlene said she's not sure if she was actually at the facility. When she would call, staff members said they couldn't legally provide any information.

Treatment centers, especially long-term inpatient ones equipped to work with someone so far into addiction like Melissa, were also hard to come by, Carlene said. and even if there was a program available, it was a struggle to afford it. Melissa couldn't keep a job long enough to get insurance and the family, as much as they wanted to help, couldn't always pull together the money to pay for treatment.

There is a drought in the community for places to go, Jennifer said. That's something the family is hoping Melissa's story can help change. There needs to be more places, especially inpatient centers, where addicts can go for long periods of times.

"These people need help," Sarah said, "and there's not a lot of help out there for them and the help out there is not affordable."

It was a Saturday morning when Carlene found Melissa. The night before, they ate Bruno's pizza, one of Melissa's favorites. The next day, Carlene walked into Melissa's room to find her on the floor.

"When I saw her I knew she was gone," Carlene said. "I reached down to touch her and she was cold."

Even though Melissa's family watched her fight an addiction for 20 years, they were never prepared to lose her.

"You will never process that like you think you will, even after 20 years of a hard addiction," Jennifer said.

Especially because about a month before her death, Melissa's family had hope, something they hadn't had for a while. For the past year, Melissa had been in jail. It was the result of a theft she committed that was driven by her addiction.

For that time, she was sober and her family got back the Melissa they knew.

"I haven't seen her look that good in so many years," Sarah said. "The smile was back on her face. She looked like she had hope again."

On Facebook, Melissa posted about being more than 400 days sober and how she was going to get her life on track for her daughter Olivia Axsom and in memory of Nathan, her fiancee who she had found dead of an overdose about a year prior.

But it was Olivia who could tell her mother was once again under the influence, so she told her aunts. It was the Thursday before Melissa died that Jennifer and Sarah confronted their sister.

"I wanted my last words to her to be 'I love you,' and they weren't," Jennifer said. "They weren't even close."

The family now looks to Olivia to remember Melissa's beautiful smile and kind heart. At only 14, watching her mother's addiction escalate made Olivia grow up quickly.

"I understood things from a young age because I had to," Olivia said. "It was my mother and I was close to her. It's not something you can't look away from. It was close to me so I had to understand it."

But despite her addiction, Melissa was a great mother and a best friend, Olivia said.

"She was more than what people are taught to view a heroin addict," Jennifer said. "She was special to all of us. She was still a good person."

That's why Melissa's family is using her story. To show there are faces behind addiction and to give support to others affected. Because as a family they were made to think having someone struggling with addiction was something to be ashamed of, Jennifer said, and not something to speak out about.

"As a family of an addict we could have used support," Sarah said. "We want families to know they are not alone and we feel their pain."

Already since Melissa's death, the family said others have reached out to them with similar stories. Stories of families feeling hopeless as a loved one fights with addiction. Although they look back wishing they could have done more for Melissa, they now look forward, determined to do more for others.

"We weren't able to help Melissa, but we want to continue to fight for Melissa," Carlene said. "Even if we could help one person. Melissa is the drive for us to do that."

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Source: South Bend Tribune

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com