In January 2014, Elise Schiller’s youngest child, thirty-three-year-old Giana Natali, died of a heroin overdose while a resident in a treatment program in Boulder County, Colorado. Even if Your Heart Would Listen is about Giana’s life, which was full of accomplishments, and her mental illness, addiction, and death. Using excerpts from the journals, planners, and letters Giana left behind, as well as evidence from her medical records, Schiller dissects her daughter’s treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) at the five residential and several outpatient programs in eastern Pennsylvania where she tried to recover, taking a close look at the lack of continuity and solid medical foundations in the American substance-use treatment system even as she explores the deeply personal experience of her own loss.
Poignant and timely, Even if Your Heart Would Listen is a meditation on a family’s grief, an intimate portrayal of a mother-daughter bond that endures, and an examination of how our nation is failing in its struggle with the opioid epidemic.
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About the Author
Elise Schiller has been writing fiction and actively participating in writing groups since adolescence. After a thirty-year career in education and family services in Philadelphia, she retired to write full time. She is currently working on a fiction series about Philadelphia; SparkPress will be publishing the first book in the series.
Schiller sits on the advisory board of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), and she has served on the Philadelphia Mayor’s Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic. When not writing, reading, or volunteering, she enjoys visiting museums and historical sites, often with one of her seven grandchildren or various nieces and nephews in tow.
Read an Excerpt
Your First Day: January 21, 1980.
Your due date was Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t remember who was playing. I do remember sitting on the sofa with Dad, not very interested in the game, waiting. Waiting for you. You know, back then we didn’t have ultrasound photos. We didn’t have the tests that reveal abnormalities or gender. I wonder now if there was a little nugget inside you, something that would burst into heartache later. I didn’t know whom I was waiting for.
I can’t remember what the other kids were doing, but I’m sure I was up and down from that sofa numerous times. I remember how enormous I was, and how low I was carrying you. I had gained over forty pounds and wasn’t very comfortable. One of Dad’s friends stopped by with some cute young girl he was dating. I just remember she was thin, and I was not happy to see her.
At three in the morning, I woke with mild contractions. We timed them and called the hospital, and they said to get in there. But it was the middle of the night, and I didn’t want to leave the other kids alone. Around six, we called Dad’s parents, and they said they’d come by eight. Then the contractions were stronger, and we decided that we’d better go. So we woke your brother up and told him to hold down the fort until Nannie and Pop-Pop got there. I put out cereal and milk. Dad finally remembered a camera, and the first picture is of me pacing while I’m talking to your siblings on the phone. Not pacing far, because I was speak- ing from a landline.
I remember absolutely nothing about the labor and delivery except that I was vomiting, as usual, and didn’t feel the need for any anesthesia. Dad took pictures, which I have seen, of course, but have not looked at since you died. Can’t look at them, don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at them.
And then by noon, there you were, completely well and beautiful, with a shock of black hair that stood up like a porcupine’s quills. I think Dad was a bit surprised by another girl. I was happy and felt great. An hour or so after you were born, I was taking a shower. You were cozy in a bassinet by my bed, a real sleepyhead. I had to wake you up to nurse.
I wanted to get home. I didn’t want to be separated from the other kids. Maybe that was a sign, a bad sign. Maybe I should have been content to have a few days just with you.
Your Last Day: January 3, 2014.
It was already January 4 in Philadelphia, not that long after midnight. That Christmas, I had put a cathedral bells ringtone on my phone. It blasted me awake. As soon as I saw a Colorado number I didn’t recognize, I was afraid.
It was The Rose House therapist. There must have been a greeting, but I don’t recall it. “Giana died tonight.” That was what he said.
I replied, loudly I think, “What are you saying?”
“Giana died tonight,” he repeated.
I was not fully able to comprehend. Auntie Dina was in the next bedroom, sleeping. I rushed in and shoved the phone at her. “He says Giana’s dead, he says Giana’s dead.” I have no memory of the minutes that she spoke to him, only a vague recollection of her writing things down. I think I was standing in the middle of the bedroom, rocking from side to side.
We had been warned. I knew, at least intellectually, that there was a risk. There had been endless talk and worksheets in rehab about relapse. Your psychiatrist once told you while I was there that the average life of a heroin user is five years from the start of regular use. But I never really thought that you would die, or maybe I couldn’t think it. Everything else seemed possiblethat you would remain sick, that you would never be able to have a relationship that actually sustained you, that you would lose the career you loved, that you would be sad for the rest of your life. But die? No. Does any parent accept a child’s death before the fact, and even then . . . ?
I remember very little about that night or the day after. I called Dad. He was in Florida with his girlfriend and said he was going to start driving right then, in the middle of the night. I called your sister in Colorado who had spent the day with you, that very day. She kept telling me no, it wasn’t right, wasn’t possible. I said I would get on a plane and go to Colorado, but she said no. I tried to call the other kids, but I don’t think I got through right away. I can’t remember. My friend James came. I wanted us all to lie down together, with Jade, your dog. Somehow sitting up was impossible. But I kept getting up and going into the bathroom because I was vomiting. I didn’t sleep at all.
The next day, your aunts and uncles and a few friends were here. There was a lot of food, but I don’t think I ate any. My mouth was dry from the rush of anxiety and adrenaline, and I kept gulping water. Dina answered my phone; people had started to call, but I couldn’t talk to them. I don’t think I cried a lot, but I might be wrong. Celeste and your brother came, like lost sheep. I remember your sister-in-law lurching into my arms, sobbing, and I was crying immediately, as if she had given me permission to let go. I remember seeing Dad through the high windows of the door. As soon as he saw me, he broke down, saying that he had been determined not to.
I stared at the tennis on the TV, stuck to James’s side. My brother gave me medication, and sometime that night I went to sleep.©