The ghost in the basement

Bill Williams
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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. Erin

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

Post a Comment to Erin Click here to cancel reply.

This blog aims to provide reliable information as well as healthy dialog about the topics covered. We reserve the right to delete comments for any reason, particularly those that do not relate directly to the contents of this post, are commercial in nature, contain objectionable or inappropriate material, or otherwise violate our Privacy Policy. Promotional URLs will be removed from comments. Comments on this blog do not represent the views of our editors or Harvard University, and have not been checked for accuracy. All comments submitted to this site become the non-exclusive property of Harvard University.