Almost two years ago, a woman called the NHPR newsroom to share the kind of story we, unfortunately, were all too familiar with. It was the story of her husband, Daniel Couzins, who had recently died of a fentanyl overdose at the age of 31.
Jennifer Couzins told me about her husband’s struggle with depression and anxiety, his inability to find the mental healthcare he needed to feel comfortable in his own skin.
Click here to listen to the episode of Reveal in which Jack's story about Jennifer appears.
She described how at some point – to her total shock – he skipped right past the traditional “gateway drugs” and started snorting heroin.
Simply put, heroin made him feel better.
I write this knowing that it sounds cold, but here goes…as a journalist covering the opioid epidemic, there was nothing very remarkable about Dan’s story.
It sounded like all the headlines you have no doubt seen, recounting the lives of people who died too young of an opioid overdose. Daniel’s death happened in May, 2015 – just as fentanyl was driving a massive spike in overdose deaths in New Hampshire and around the country.
But then Jennifer told me something extraordinary, something that I knew would allow me to tell this particular story in a way no one had really heard before.
Jennifer did not learn this until after Daniel had died, but her husband had kept a diary. And it was not just any diary. It was a video diary documenting the last month of his life.
Listen to Jack Rodolico and Jennifer Couzins talk about this story with Morning Edition's Rick Ganley:
In the videos, Daniel was typically high on heroin. He often reflected on his depression and anxiety, and how heroin helped push his mental health struggles into the background.
He also clearly demonstrated his denial about his addiction.
“I’m not an addict,” he says in one video. Two weeks later he was dead.
When Jennifer and I first spoke in December of 2015, neither of us knew what Daniel had to say in those videos. They were still locked up in his phone, which was being held by the Portsmouth Police Department.
But Jen planned to watch them all. She felt it was the best hope she had of understanding why Daniel made the choices that ended his life and left her a widow.
Crucially, Jennifer had also done many things I as a reporter would have done myself: she collected documentation about Daniel’s death, including the police and coroner’s reports and the audio recording of the 911 call she made when she found Daniel’s body.
As a radio reporter, I want my microphone to be as close to the center of the action as possible. Emotional moments bring listeners into the lives of the story’s central characters.
So I asked Jennifer to do something a little different. I gave her my personal recording kit and asked her to record her reactions as she watched Daniel’s videos.
My goal was to create a story using only two voices: Jennifer’s and Daniel’s. I wanted to interweave Daniel’s video diary with Jennifer’s audio diary in order to bring listeners right into the middle of a marriage in its most intimate and difficult moments.
Listen to an excerpt of Jennifer's story as featured on NHPR's All Things Considered:
It’s not that I wanted to be a voyeur through Jennifer and Daniel’s struggles; it was more that this was an opportunity to take listeners past the headlines about yet another overdose death and into the world of someone in the moments before the overdose happened.
What I hear in this story is two people on two diverging trajectories. Daniel and Jennifer were still in love, but addiction was destroying their marriage.
You can hear Daniel on a downward spiral as the tapes get closer to the day he died: May 22, 2015.
At the same time, I hear Jennifer desperately grasping to save Daniel, but ultimately building a fierce strength and resilience as she watches him drift away toward an inevitable overdose.
While producing this piece, I must have listened to every part of it 50 times or more. But certain things still kick me in the gut me when I hear them now.
I understand how difficult it is to save a person’s life once they begin abusing fentanyl, a drug 50 times stronger than heroin.
And I see that once a person is dead and gone from an overdose, how brave the family left behind must be when seeking an answer to this question: Why?
Listen to the full story by Jack Rodolico as featured on Reveal:
Audio will be posted shortly
This story by former NHPR Reporter Jack Rodolico is part of Too Many Pills, a project of Reveal, the public radio program and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with the The Washington Post and 60 Minutes.
Click here to listen to the program and subscribe to the Reveal podcast.
The full Reveal program will air on NHPR on Sunday, October 22 at 4 p.m., and Saturday, October 28 at 10 p.m.