Heroin overdose: Friends and family grieve 25-year-old’s death

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Betsy Gilbertson loved dancing, and a friend describes her as “magical.” Gilbertson died of a heroin overdose March 14.
Photo Brian Wimer Betsy Gilbertson loved dancing, and a friend describes her as “magical.” Gilbertson died of a heroin overdose March 14. Photo Brian Wimer

She was found with a belt around her arm and a syringe in her hand,” says Anne Elise Hudson of her daughter, Elizabeth “Betsy” Gilbertson. “It was pretty instantaneous. She shot up, her heart stopped. Someone found her within minutes, maybe seconds.” CPR could not save her, and on March 14, the Charlottesville resident died of a heroin overdose. She was 25 years old.

“She was an absolutely magical person,” says her close friend, Yasmine Vielle. “She drew people to her in such a way that was remarkable.” Gilbertson brought people out of their shells and got them to look at what was holding them back, says Vielle. “She’s done that to me and I think to everyone. …It’s remarkable that a person can have that type of magic within them.”

Vielle saw her Friday night, March 11, about 14 hours before she heard Gilbertson had overdosed. “And she looked very happy and [was] just dancing,” says Vielle. “She hugged me and kissed me on the face.”

Gilbertson was a lover of music, travel and dance. She sometimes performed as a fire-dancer, spinning a flaming hoop. She sketched pictures incessantly, says her mother. “At one point in 2010 I asked her, ‘What do you want to do?’” Hudson says. “She was 20. And she said, ‘What I want to do is run away and join the circus!’ She was clean for six months. She had goals and aspirations.”

Says Hudson, “What is interesting about heroin addiction is that overdoses are most common in people who have been away from it for a long time and then come back.”

In 2015, Gilbertson was arrested for possession of heroin and sentenced to three months in jail. “She went through withdrawal in jail,” says Hudson. “It was vomiting and shaking and all they could give her was Tylenol. And then she was clean.

“Heroin addiction is terrible. It’s a horrible physical, painful thing.” Despite the difficulty of Gilbertson’s withdrawal, jail was the safest place for her, says Hudson. “She wanted to quit but not badly enough to go into rehab and cut off connections with the people in her life.”

Heroin addiction is enough of a problem that Charlottesville has a methadone clinic. According to Kyle Austin, executive director of the clinic, Addiction Recovery Systems, Virginia’s heroin problem is an epidemic.

“Among our patient population we see various forms of opiate use,” he says. “Everything from heroin addiction to prescription pain medication.” A lot of people who get involved in opiate use do so after one bad medical accident and becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, he says. “Once that happens, if the patient gets hooked, then it becomes much easier for them to get involved in heroin use,” says Austin. “It could happen to anyone.”

Police are unable to provide specifics about heroin use locally, other than that 44 grams of heroin were seized in 2015. Lieutenant Steve Upman with Charlottesville Police says, “Compared to a few years ago, use of heroin and prescription opioids has been on the rise both nationally and in Virginia.”

Friends and family believe the fatal dose was Gilbertson’s first and only relapse into heroin use after months of recovery. She was transported to the University of Virginia hospital and maintained on life support, says her mother. Her body was cooled down and gradually warmed up in an effort to preserve brain function. Her pulse became irregular as her temperature was raised. An MRI indicated that her brain had stopped functioning because of oxygen deprivation. On March 14 she was taken off life support.

“I was going to put an obituary in the Daily Progress,” says Hudson. “I’m her mother. I put in the obituary and they verified that she is truly dead. And I wrote that she died of a heroin overdose and they said that they would not print the cause of death because it is too sensitive.”

Gilbertson’s friend, Corey Croson, doesn’t think she would be ashamed for the world to know about her struggle. “Betsy never treated her addiction like it was some shameful secret and I don’t think she would want anyone else to either,” Croson says. “She owned everything about herself. She recognized it for the problem it was but she didn’t shy away from the reality that it was and [from] its gravity.”

Croson recalls, “She loved art, she loved making art. She loved consuming art. She loved music, she loved travel. She loved making other people smile and bringing them on adventures with her. She was everything that she had wanted to be.”

Gilbertson also loved fashion. “She reinvented her look a ton of different times and she had fun with it every time,” says Croson. “She started off with long blonde hair and pea coats and just New England to the bone and I think I have seen more hairstyles and custom-made clothing and patchwork leather pants than anyone else.”

Adam Steffler, a friend and recovering addict who has been clean for seven years, sympathizes with Gilbertson’s struggle. “The only way to get out of this pain that you’re in is to use again,” Steffler says. “But then you feel so guilty about doing it and it’s this continuous cycle.”

“Everyone seemed to know Betsy,” Steffler says. “Everybody could say, ‘We don’t know anybody else in common but we knew Betsy in common,’ and I think she introduced a lot of people and brought a lot of people together.”

Her distinct looks and outgoing personality won her friends instantly. Gilbertson would often meet new people at a festival or party and find herself leaving on a cross-country road trip with her new friends the next day, according to her local friends. Somehow, she always landed on her feet and made her way home. Smiling and full of new stories.

When her addiction reached its worst point in 2015, her best friend, Catherine Muse, says, “Her skin was bad, she was underweight. It was also her personality. She was just kind of, she was muted. It wasn’t like her old sparkly self. She was being very selfish. And it was really hard to be friends with her at that time.”

But after Gilbertson kicked heroin and was released from jail, Muse reunited with her at a concert. “I saw Betsy in the front row, dancing,” Muse says. “And from the back of the room I saw her dreads and I made a beeline up to her. And she gave me the biggest hug and she had gained about thirty pounds since she’d been in. She looked clean and happy and healthy. She had the biggest smile… It was like we were re-meeting each other. She was old Betsy. She was the way that she used to be.”

Croson says Gilbertson “was glad that she was able to get clean in [jail]. She had all sorts of plans for when she got out and she would work her way through her situation by exercising and giving herself something to do physically. She would create art, even in jail and she’d mail it to me. She agreed that [being in jail] helped and in some cases she needed it.”

Gilbertson got out of jail January 8. “She did want to be clean, but one slip and it killed her,” says Hudson.

Steffler talks about the two times people die. “You know, when your physical body leaves the Earth, and the last time someone says your name or tells a story about you,” says Steffler. “Betsy is going to live for a long, long time. She’s not going to be forgotten by anybody who really knew her.”

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