Opioid Addiction: A Mother's Story

As we continue to follow the aftermath of the alleged prescription drug ring outed in Reno in late April, we are finding that opioid use tends to have a ripple effect on a community.

For Face the State this week, we spoke to a range of people who are affected by opioid addiction here, from police to families of addicts. But the most powerful picture came from Dani Tillman, a Reno mother who lost her daughter to opioid overdose.

"Dancing was her second love," Tillman explained. "Heroin was her first."

Tillman told Brittany's story, with a photo of her daughter pinned on the wall next to her. Photos of the smiling, pretty girl line the walls of her home, and grace the bulletin board in her office.

Tillman has a lot of photos, and a lot of memories.

"She was just this crazy bundle of energy that just, oh my gosh, she just touched everybody," Tillman said.

But not unlike a lot of gregarious 21-year-olds, Brittany was drawn to the rave scene. Living in Seattle at the time, she started taking drugs.

It's a common story: a pill every now and then from a friend turns into a weekend routine, which turns into a need for a stronger high, which turns into an addiction. Heroin consumes people; changes them. And Brittany wanted to get out.

"She was just this ghost of a person," Tillman said, of the day she picked her daughter up in Washington to bring her home. "She was about 90 pounds and she couldn't stand, and she couldn't focus. And she just kind of collapsed into my arms."

Brittany moved back to Reno to be with her mother in 2011.

"I remember just holding her in my lap, and she was just sobbing and begging me to go let her get high," Tillman said.

Brittany entered a treatment program, and for a time, it worked. But the pull of heroin was too strong. Tillman said Brittany started sneaking out at night, spending time with other addicts. It wasn't long before she started using again.

"I remember looking up at her and screaming at her. I was screaming; I was so frustrated," Tillman said. "I didn't even know what to do, and I said, 'Brittany. This stuff is going to kill you.' She leaned out, way out over that loft, and in her Brittany style she says, 'Oh mother. Quit being so dramatic.'"

That was the last time they spoke. On Mother's Day 2012, there was a knock at the door.

"All I heard was, 'I'm from the coroner's office.' And that was it. She was gone."

Brittany Leman was 22.

But her story doesn't end there. Now, it's continued at Ridge House in Reno, where her mother works to help other people dealing with addiction. Brittany's picture looks over her shoulder the whole time.

"Her memory is what drives me to do what I do," Tillman said. "I can't let her death be in vain."

According to the CDC, the number of deaths involving opioid overdose has more than tripled in the last 15 years. This type of drug is responsible for more deaths nationally than any other type. In Nevada, opioid pills like oxycodone-- or its illegal counterpart, heroin-- are responsible for more than 500 deaths every year. And that number is growing.

To see the full Face the State episode on opioid addiction, tune in or set your DVR for Saturday at 4:30 am, or Sunday at 6:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. After it airs, it will also be posted here.