Opioid epidemic claims Pittsfield resident; 'He made a slip and it killed him'

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PITTSFIELD — Bob Smith was on the right track.

He was devoted to his recovery and living in a sober house. He helped newcomers along, and he wanted to be an example for others working on sobriety.

Most importantly, said his brother, Billy Smith, he wanted to see his teenage daughter, Hailey, graduate college and excel in a career of her choosing.

His eyes were on the future, friends and family say.

"He made a slip and it killed him," said Billy, who is in early recovery.

The two brothers were working together to get clean until Bob was found Feb. 10 dead in his room, of an apparent overdose. Though "heroin was his devil," Billy said his brother, who was 45, died from a cocktail of cocaine and fentanyl.

Bob was among the many who continue to struggle with opioid addiction — and one of three people to die of an overdose in Pittsfield since the start of the new year. According to state data, 89 percent of overdose deaths in Massachusetts involve fentanyl.

In the moment, Billy said, his brother likely sought one last rush to remember it by.

"He was doing so good," Billy said, noting several months of sobriety under his belt. "I don't know what happened."

He could tell his brother didn't intend on a full-on relapse — he still had money in his wallet.

"Why?" he asked through tears. "Why did it have to take him?"

Those close to Bob said it's important to remember the man he was beyond his demons.

"He wasn't just an addict," said Wendy Hamilton, a close family friend who said he had the ability to light up a room. "He was Bob."

`A goofball'

He was the "big burly guy who knew all the words to Monster High," a video series for children. On occasion, he mixed ice cream into his bowl of spaghetti. For him, socks and sandals were an all-season affair.

Bob Smith, born Nov. 6, 1973, worked as an electrician. He was really smart, his brother said, and he loved to read nonfiction and sports magazines.

He was a jokester, and a klutz with a rotating carousel of injuries.

A room full of his family and friends recounted a time when they were cutting down an unwanted tree and it toppled on top of Bob.

Bob was trying to clear the way, but also taking time to dance in the path of the falling tree. Longtime friend Tim Hamilton said he kept telling him to move, "and sure enough, I hit him with the tree."

"He was such a goofball," he said, smiling and shaking his head.

He had an infectious laugh, friends and family said, and he lightened the mood of any room he entered.

"He could make cleaning the house fun," Wendy Hamilton said.

She said she is particular about her dishes and wants to be the one to wash them — and Bob knew this — but still, she would walk in on him doing them.

He reveled in the laughter of others, she said, and he loved to help.

"It's just like someone lit a firecracker the minute he walked in the room," she said.

Bob's friends and family laughed remembering how they would find him mowing their lawn barefoot with no shirt on.

Kids loved him, they said, and he was afraid of frogs. He would sit with the young Hamilton girls, they recalled, watching chick flicks alongside them and braiding their hair.

"He was a big kid," Billy said.

Cereal and milk was his favorite food, though he was always ready for some steak and potatoes. He was a big coffee drinker, and his main Dunkin' order was an iced caramel swirl coffee with five creams and four sugars.

At the grocery store, he would hop on a shopping cart and surf through the aisles.

He always put others first, they said.

"He was a good man," his brother said. "He was a caring, loving man. This shouldn't be a mark against him."

The fight of his life

Bob cycled in and out of recovery throughout his adult life, they said.

Billy said Bob's drinking and drug use spiked after the death of their other brother, Mike, who died in a motorcycle crash. Bob took it hard, and after that, "he fought for a while to be clean."

The brothers spent Thanksgiving together at Clinical Stabilization Services, the city's inpatient rehabilitation center. Both brothers agreed that they had grown too old for their lifestyle and the time was nigh to clean up — for their family, for their friends and for themselves.

"We both had both feet in this time," he said.

In the months leading up to his death, Billy said, Bob was a dedicated 12-stepper and was regularly rallying the crew to go to meetings.

"He'd be the one at the houses trying to get everyone to go," his brother said.

In the program, Billy said Bob liked to help out newcomers.

"Bob wanted everybody else to have what he was trying to have — peace, rid of the demons," he said.

Living in the Alternative Living Centers sober house on Maplewood Avenue was good for him, his brother said. "For us, we can't be alone," he said. "Isolation gets to us." For Bob, isolation was synonymous with relapse.

At ALC, men rent rooms in a shared home, surrounded by others fighting the same disease. The housemates come and go freely, giving them a chance to return to work and lead full lives while plugged into a supportive network.

"He wouldn't want to be known for going out like this," said Amanda Hamilton, Tim and Wendy Hamilton's daughter.

For the brothers, who come from a family full of substance use issues, using drugs was a way to mute powerful emotions.

"It was used for every emotion that we had," Billy said. "If I was happy, I'd use. If I was angry, I'd use. If I was sad, I'd use."

Getting clean together also had brought them closer as brothers, Billy said, to the point that they were even sharing clothes. Bob often woke up at 4:30 a.m. to see him off to work, "just to have a little time together with a coffee."

Billy said he would always tell his brother he loved him when they said goodbye, but it wasn't until these past few months that Bob started saying it back.

"Our family's been separated for years," he said. "We didn't have good things growing up. We've never had healthy relationships."

Bob grew up with his grandmother in Hinsdale, while Billy was adopted by a family in Becket. Still, they had the same circle of friends and would spend time together on weekends.

When Billy saw Bob dead in his room, he said he struggled to process it. He couldn't find it in him to make any phone calls, so he sent two text messages: one to his girlfriend, and one to Bob's longtime friend, Tim Hamilton.

"Bob's dead. OD," the text to Hamilton said. Hamilton said it was the worst text he'd ever gotten.

"I wouldn't wish this on anybody," Billy said through tears.

For his part, Billy said, people are worried he'll relapse as he copes with Bob's death. But he said he has no urge to use. Life is so much easier to deal with when sober, he said.

"He would want me to be clean," he said, crying. "Bob would want something positive to come out of this. He wouldn't want to see me go back to it."

In the past, Billy struggled to find a higher power to anchor his recovery. Now, he said, "my higher power's my two brothers."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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