The ghost in the basement

Bill Williams

Guest Contributor

Follow me on Twitter @BillEduTheater

We are fortunate to have a country home in the Catskills where we can escape city life. An eight-year-old neighbor often crosses our meadow or bikes over to stop by for a visit. While I’d like to think I’m the featured attraction, his visits are not just to see me; of much greater interest is our basement with its shelves of toys and games. Particularly appealing to this lad is the sports equipment: hockey sticks, goalie pads, a goal to shoot on, baseball mitts, a batting helmet, a catcher’s mask, soccer balls, and more. Name the sport and it is most likely we have equipment for it, even in different sizes.

I’ve given my young friend a few items: retaping a hockey stick that’s the right size for him, a pair of batting gloves, a cracked bat from a Bat Day at Yankee Stadium. He knows these were things that belonged to my son. Visits have been frequent, offering a chance to go to the basement so we could play some more floor hockey, or perhaps do a review of our inventory again, maybe hoping to catch me in a generous frame of mind. Downstairs amongst the gloves and balls and pads, waiting to be discovered, was The Question. “Where is your son, where is William?”

Knowing that sooner or later The Question that would come up, I had a conversation with his parents. Who explains William’s permanent absence to the young fellow? What is age-appropriate detail? Is there a better time for the discussion?

The Answer is, sadly, that William died from an accidental heroin overdose. At the time my wife and I became aware that William was using heroin, he was 22. He was already seeing a psychotherapist. Over the next two years we added an addiction psychiatrist, outpatient treatment, treatment with Suboxone, inpatient detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, outpatient detox, treatment with Vivitrol, more outpatient treatment, another inpatient treatment, more outpatient treatment, a revolving door of well over a dozen trips to and from the emergency rooms of at least four different hospitals, an attempt to work with another addiction psychiatrist, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and a home life fraught with tension, despair, sometimes hope during intermittent periods of sobriety, and always filled with the apprehension of misfortune.

That apprehension became fact when William accidentally overdosed shortly before his 24th birthday. Just four days prior he had gone to a hospital to ask to be admitted to inpatient detox. His insurance company denied the request as “not medically necessary.” Six weeks of comatose and/or heavily medicated hospitalization followed before the ultimate realization that William was consigned to a persistent vegetative state.

When we decided to permanently remove him from a respirator we attempted organ donation. Organ donation in William’s condition required an expedient demise within a tight one-hour time frame once removed from the respirator. William continued on and survived for another 21 hours before breathing his last in our arms. Ultimately, we made an anatomical donation of his body to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Once, William was young, curious, engaging, and adventuresome, much like our eight-year-old neighbor. I continue to question, puzzle, and agonize over the path that takes a boy from building with Legos, playing catch, bocce on our lawn, snow forts, an entertaining sense of humor, late night talks, fierce and courageous loyalty to friends, right-on-the-money analysis of people, situations, and numbers, a flash of the pads for a save, and the sweetness, strength, inspiration, and love that was William… to a death certificate that reads death due to “complications of acute heroin intoxication.”

One thing I do know. When my young neighbor asks about William, I have to answer him openly and honestly. There’s more of William to share than some old hockey sticks and baseball bats. William’s story, like that of so many others, has to come out of the basement so that it can be the cautionary tale every growing boy should hear.

Bill Williams Blog


  1. Joni Misso, Birmingham, Alabama

    Bill, I know it is not easy to write about the lost of your dear son. It has been two years since my son, Mathew, died of an overdose. My life for many years was spent similar to yours, addiction specialists, shrinks, treatment facilities, and much talking, begging and crying. I truly think my son wanted to be finished with this dragon named Heroin. I think he really meant it when told me he could quit. But heroin gets a hold on a person that most of us simply can’t understand. The desire is always there. Medication helps, but the desire is always there. I am so sorry you have lost your son. My hope is that you can focus on the wonderful times, and that you can remember he would have chosen to be
    heroin free if he could.

    • Bill Williams

      Thank you for your kind and generous reply Joni. I am saddened to learn your story. Another of the too many stories. But not just “any other” to you. William also wanted to be rid of his addiction. Four days before he overdosed for the last time he went to a New York hospital to ask to be admitted for inpatient treatment. His insurance company denied his request as “not medically necessary.”

      If you Google my name and New York Times you’ll come across two Op-Ed pieces by me. One of them speaks directly to why we need to speak openly about the disease of addiction.

      We won’t be able to save our children until we overcome the stigma. We won’t be able to save our children until politicians exercise the willpower to create understanding and compassionate practice around this epidemic.

  2. Mary Kay Eisert-Wlodarczyk

    Bill, Thank you for sharing and all you do to try and help others to understand that addiction can affect anyone. Too many of us know this path and I appreciate all you do.

    • Bill Williams

      Thank you for your generous response Mary Kay. Those of us who have been on this path have an obligation to help others and to serve in the memory of those we’ve lost. It isn’t always easy, but it is the only way I know to shed the stigma of this awful disease.

  3. Michael

    Thank you for sharing your story. Our “William” is/was named Ethan and he passed away at the end of May from an accidental overdose at the age of 26. Some days the pain is so great that we don’t know what we are going to do, but no matter what we continue to share our story. God bless you and your family…

  4. Julie

    I don’t know William but I know a boy like William, captain of his college baseball team, a young employed graduate, in and out of treatment- with an accidental overdose at 24. My William, like yours, was a role model to the young for his passion and talent in sports and loved by many for his sense of humor and kindness. He is missed everyday.

    THANK YOU for sharing your story. This needs to be a discussion with all the young boys –and girls out there, and with the insurance companies. Kuso’s to Harvard and Bowdoin for sharing.

    • Bill Williams

      Thank you Julie. If you Google my name and New York Times you’ll come across two Op-Ed pieces by me. One of them speaks directly to why we need to speak openly about the disease of addiction.

      • Julie

        Thank you, Bill. I will do it.
        I sent this blog post to Jordan’s dad and to the College where Jordan was so prominent.
        These are such heartbreaking losses –We need to share with our young people and institute better policies for prevention and treatment.
        Thank you for speaking out. with love, Julie

  5. Marge and John Winter

    Marge and I recall William running around the lawn on the Beech Mountain Cabin during our group visit commemorated carved on the tree fungus still on the shelf behind the corner wood stove in the cabin.

    If your diligent efforts contribute to one life saved William will not have died in vain.

  6. Selina M.

    My son’s history appears to parallel William’s. Every day I know how lucky we are that we don’t know the end of his story. Carrying on William’s story may save my son’s life as you have inspired me with hope and focus to keep carrying on. Thank you for sharing.

    • Bill Williams

      Don’t ever give up, no matter how dark things may seem. Let me know if you need any help finding good resources. You don’t have to solve this problem alone. Check out CRAFT.

  7. Tammy Gibson

    Thank you for sharing your son with us. The love, hope, grief, pain, and purpose are all clear in your beautifully written words.
    Tammy Gibson
    United For Recovery

    • Bill Williams

      Thank you Tammy. It means a lot to hear from people like you who clearly understand what we’ve been through and how we continue to cope.

  8. Mary

    Beautifully written. Heartfelt and true. May you continue to get the strength to everyday show how normal addicts are. They are our children, our loved ones . Prayers for you and your wife.

  9. Monica

    Thank you so very much for this beautiful and honest expression of family love, undaunted commitment, and unfathomable grief. Your words provide courage and comfort. Addiction is a powerful adversary, however in the end, the beautiful childhood memories and bright legacy of William’s true spirit is what will last, and your generosity in sharing it is an inspiration.

    • Bill Williams

      Thanks you for your generous response Monica. If you Google my name and New York Times you’ll find two Op-Ed pieces of mine that may interest you as well. Our battle is ongoing.

  10. Arline W. Bechtoldt-Apgar

    Thank you, Bill, for sharing this.

    I know what a joy he was to all of you, most particularly to his grand-mother. One of my favorite memories is of a little boy just beginning to talk and enjoying a kiddie pool on her front lawn. When I asked his name, he poked one chubby little finger into his tummy and replied,
    “I Yum’. He will always live in my heart as ‘Yum”.

    At appropriate times I would like to share your words with folks I feel would benefit from them.

    My love to you all, Arline

    • Bill Williams


      Feel free to share anything I’ve written any time you like. I appreciate your ongoing support. – Bill

    • Anne noonan

      A terrible shame , and loss for family and community
      I am an Australian doctor working in this area which is also a developing scourge here
      We have injection rooms and there are attempts to bring it into main stream and decriminalise and regard it as a public health issue like alcohol and excess analgesia
      However there is a need for community education
      The public tends to stigmatise illegal drug use and not look at costs of legal substances

  11. Jodi

    Thank you so much for sharing your son’s story. We will read this with our sons. My heart is with you and your family.

    • Bill Williams

      Thank you Jodi. If you Google my name and New York Times you’ll find two Op-Ed pieces of mine that you and your sons might appreciate.

  12. Erin

    Thank you so much for your courage in writing this. ❤️

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