The family of Deborah Leslie of Griffith say the discovery of her body in a burned Gary dwelling just three days after she was reported missing brought them both relief and closure.
When they hadn’t heard from her as they normally would, they had feared the worst.
Leslie was an addict struggling with recovery.
In August she celebrated her sobriety at the Indiana Dunes State Park with other successful graduates of a substance abuse program.
By September, she had relapsed.
It was not the first time.
Leslie had been in and out of recovery 10 times over the years. Her addiction started with alcohol and then progressed to opioids and ultimately heroin. Now her family is hopeful sharing her story may help another individual or family in the same situation.
“You can’t say she didn’t try,” her dad David Leslie said Monday. Deborah Leslie had voluntarily committed herself into rehab over and over again, he said. “It was two steps forward, three steps back.”
Deborah Leslie’s remains were discovered Sept. 23 in a burned structure in the 5300 block of W. 8th Ave. She had been missing since Sept. 20, when she was last seen at Motel 6, 3840 19th St., in Hammond.
She was reported missing on a Friday, and her remains were identified the following Monday. The family says if the dwelling had not burned down, her body may not have been found.
“It took less than a day for us to realize something was wrong,” her twin Chrissy Sokol of Griffith said.
David Leslie, his wife Maggie, and their adult children including Sokol, Carole Feist of Hobart, Jessica Leslie of Highland and James Leslie of Griffith gathered at Sokol’s home on Monday to share memories of Deborah and raise awareness about the perils of addiction and the impact on families.
“I’m very grateful for myself. We have always been a close, tight knit family. We’ve always been here for her,” David Leslie said. “If we can just stop one person from using, her death would not have been in vain.”
A toxicology report on blood and tissue samples is currently pending. The Lake County Coroner’s office said it would take a few weeks for the testing to be complete. While the cause of death has not been officially determined, the family expects they will confirm their suspicions — that their loved one died from an overdose.
David Leslie said he believes fentanyl was a contributing factor in her death and that of other unsuspecting addicts.
Dawn Pelc, executive director of HUB Coalition Porter County, said fentanyl is a growing problem in Northwest Indiana and across the country. The drug is often cut into heroin and other drugs, increasing the instances of overdose.
Less than 10 percent of overdoses in Indiana in 2020 had heroin in their systems. While heroin overdoses are down, it remains ranked as the second highest drug threat in the state, she said. Drug overdoses may also be going unreported since Naloxone and Narcan, drugs used to reverse an overdose, are available over the counter, Pelc said.
“The rate of Naloxone events in Porter County increased from 7.4 per 10,000 population to 9.7 per 10,000 population between 2019 and 2020,” Pelc said. The figures represent 2020 data from the State of Indiana.
The family says they would like to know if Deborah tried to save herself, or anybody she may have been with tried to assist her. The toxicology report should reveal whether Naloxone or Narcan was administered. Maggie Leslie said her daughter always carried the overdose reversal medication in her purse. She often also used test strips to test for the presence of fentanyl in the heroin she would use.
Maggie Leslie said this time — when Deborah relapsed — it was different.
She was not filled with the optimism that greeted her daughter’s multiple attempts over the years to get clean. Each time, her daughter would successfully complete the program and remain clean, only to relapse and start the process again.
“It was a roller coaster,” she said.
She fears, this time, her daughter may have just been ready to give up.
Deborah Leslie was open about her addiction, especially with her mother, she said.
Maggie Leslie is a recovering addict herself, who has been sober for 17 years. Her husband is a recovering alcoholic. She said the family knows intimately about the challenges of both addiction and sobriety. They had hoped they could one day help their daughter.
“As you can see in our case, family did everything we believed we could and to have the outcome what it was,” David Leslie said.
David Leslie said there are a lot of misconceptions about who an addict is and where they may live.
His daughter’s experience highlights the fact the disease of addiction crosses all socio-economic lines. He said it is important people realize this is not just a teen problem or one centered in inner cities. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds.
“If you see the signs, try to get involved,” he said.
Feist said she believes her sister was unable to kick her addiction because of the deep pain and trauma that impacted her that she was never able to properly address.
“Connection is the opposite of addiction,” Feist said. Connection is something Deborah Leslie struggled with even though she was an outgoing individual, she said.
Feist remembered her little sister had a goofy side, such as teasing her siblings that they would have dreams about aliens if they ate pizza before bed. She greeted life with a child-like wonderment and, when sober, was a consummate professional in the workplace, Feist said.
She said it is important when dealing with an addicted loved one it is important to not focus solely on the addiction, but to focus on the who the individual is as a person. They are more than the awful things caused by addiction.
“You have to set boundaries for yourself. You can still love, share and care,” Jessica Leslie said.
Deborah Leslie was a good person suffering from the disease of addiction, they said.
Dealing with the reality of addiction would have been easier if she was a bad person, Sokol said, but other women flocked to her in recovery programs because she was so helpful and concerned.
David Leslie said his daughter’s condition often left the family in turmoil when she was in the throes of her addiction.
“It would send tornadoes through the family. We were all really extremely stressed, especially when she was living at the house,” he said, adding everyone in the family would have discussions with her, but ultimately the decision to use or come clean was her own.
“That part was really difficult. Knowing there was nothing we can do. All individuals make their own choices,” he said.
It wasn’t always bad, they said.
“Sometimes she did well. It wasn’t always a struggle,” Sokol said.
The years from 2018 to 2020 were among those good times.
The women of the family had their first girls’ trip Aug. 1 to mark Maggie Leslie’s 60th birthday. Deborah Leslie was clean at the time. It would be the last time the five of them were together.
“Don’t ever turn them away. Don’t ever give up,” Maggie Leslie said. “Every time you talk it could be the last time, especially with heroin.”