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Jul 24, 2018 10:58 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

A Life Lived And Lost In The Waves Of Opioid Use

Kirstin, “Auntie Gaga” and godson Desmond at lunch in the summer of 2017.
Jul 24, 2018 10:58 AM

When Kirstin Elizabeth Zabel was born in December 1986, her parents, Donald and Claudia, brought her home to Cartwright Road on Shelter Island. Thirty-one years later, she was buried in the cemetery at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. When friends and family describe how Kirstin lived, they speak of how she protected the people she loved, of her artistic flair and her enjoyment of classical music. She loved horses, dogs and cats, cooking, travel and Shelter Island.

But Kirstin had only three decades to live a whole life, because in her teens she learned to love drugs as well.

People die from drug use everywhere, even in idyllic, close-knit communities like Shelter Island. Suffolk County had 342 opioid deaths in 2016. The total for 2017, which is not yet finalized, is expected to be more than 400—the highest opioid overdose death rate of any county in New York, according to data from the State Department of Health.

From 2013 to 2017, there were 26 opioid overdoses on Shelter Island, and seven Narcan saves, according to Police Chief Jim Read. When Chief Read and Detective Sergeant Jack Thilberg talk about Shelter Island’s opioid problem, it’s clear that this kind of policing in a place with a year-round population of 2,300 is intimate and personal.

Chief Read confirmed that the deaths of two Shelter Islanders in the first part of 2018 have had an impact on the community, especially coming after years in which there was one or none.

Kirstin died in Falmouth, Massachusetts, but her struggle with opioid use also played out on Shelter Island, where she, like the other islanders who battle the disease, was well-known to local first responders.

Lost In The Waves

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies three waves of opioid deaths in the United States, and Kirstin’s life was lived and lost in the pull of those waves.

The first came in the 1990s, as a sharp increase in legal prescriptions for painkillers put highly addictive drugs in the medicine cabinets of many Americans. Kirstin was one of the teenagers who got her hands on somebody else’s prescription.

The second wave, in 2010, saw deaths from heroin use spike among middle-class white Americans—and Kirstin was among those who developed an opioid use disorder during this period.

The third wave began in 2013, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a deadly substance often combined with heroin to make it more potent and addictive.

When Kirstin died in April 2018, numerous attempts to revive her with Narcan failed, an indication that it was likely fentanyl that ended her life.

An American Girlhood

When Kirstin was 3, the family moved from Shelter Island to Massachusetts, where her brothers Blaize and Elliott were born. The Zabels and the other kids on Carriage Shop Road in East Falmouth ran in a pack that called itself the “Carriage Shop Kids.” Their friendships became lifelong bonds.

Leanne Amorim met Kirstin in fifth grade. “We’d sit around and talk and color on this special bench and call it ‘color fun time.’ She moved back and forth from New York and Falmouth, but we remained connected,” Leanne said. “It was a friendship meant to be.”

When Stephanie McNicol moved to Carriage Shop Road before ninth grade, she and Kirstin became friends immediately. “The first night we met, I ended up sleeping over,” she said. “We stayed up, and Claudia said she could hear us laughing all night, which was good, because she said hadn’t heard Kirstin laugh for a while.”

After Kirstin’s parents split up—her parents divorced when she was 10—she began to spend summers on Shelter Island with her father, Donald, and was in and out of the Shelter Island School. She had been diagnosed with depression and was struggling in school despite her intelligence and artistic gifts. By 16, she stopped going to school and instead got her GED.

Kirstin’s first waitress job was at Pat and Steve’s, a popular Shelter Island diner owned by Pat and Steve Lenox. Pat remembers Kirstin as a talented artist as well as a good waitress.

“She drew on everything—the checks, the back of the menus—and she had real talent,” Ms. Lenox said.

When Kirstin called Ms. Lenox to ask for the weekend off so she and her brother Elliott could audition for “American Idol,” Ms. Lenox couldn’t grant the request, since she was already short-handed. Kirstin and Elliott went anyway. “She believed in it so much,” Elliott Zabel said. “We were all ready to win, and everyone knew why we were there.”

But Kirstin lost her nerve at the last minute—and lost her waitress job as well, although Ms. Lenox later rehired her.

Chaos Comes

Over the years, Kirstin worked at many Shelter Island restaurants, including 18 Bay, the Pridwin and Gardiners Bay Country Club. Her ability to make and save money gave her independence and the freedom to travel to Florida, California, Australia and Fiji. At the time she died, she was planning her next trip, to Europe.

Kirstin was godmother to Leanne’s 4-year-old son, Desmond, who called her “Auntie Gaga” because Kirstin loved Lady Gaga. Kirstin doted on Desmond. “I think if she had found the right person, she would have loved having her own child,” Leanne said. “She’d tell me that she met someone and hung out, but she was very nervous about being with someone.”

Kirstin’s increasingly chaotic life made health insurance and consistent medical attention impossible. In the last few years of her life, she was in the grip of a serious addiction, having lost the ability to support herself, to work and to travel. Her life was unraveling, and she was afraid of dying from an overdose, since she had come close many times.

According to Kirstin’s mother, Claudia Hendricks, two stints in a state-run rehab center in Massachusetts—one involuntary and one voluntary—didn’t help Kirstin get better.

“They didn’t do anything with her other than not give her drugs,” Ms. Hendricks said. “They were focused on her illness and not on her mental state, and bipolar disorder runs in my family.”

Kirstin had been close to her father, Donald, and when a heart attack left him brain damaged and living in a nursing home, she felt she’d lost him—another blow she had to endure. Donald Zabel died in April 2017.

Reaching Out

For much of the summer of 2017, Kirstin was jailed on drug-related charges from an incident in Sag Harbor and could not post the $4,000 bail. Ms. Hendricks said this period was a kind of relief, since at least she knew that while her daughter was behind bars, she was less likely to die from another overdose.

In what turned out to be her last days, Kirstin lived with her mother in Falmouth. They had a chance to talk. “With daughters, you go through a lot,” Ms. Hendricks said. “In the end, I did get to hear her tell me she loved me.”

On the day she died, Kirstin, who used to make hot dog roll-ups for Leanne when they were kids, texted her friend that she had made steak au poivre for dinner. A little while later, Ms. Hendricks found Kirstin, dying from an overdose. Kirstin died after repeated attempts by paramedics to save her with Narcan.

Two weeks ago, on the three-month anniversary of her death, a group of Kirstin’s family and friends got together on Shelter Island to visit her grave and remember her. As they drove past Camp Quinipet, someone spotted a large Slip ’n’ Slide stretched out on the hilly front lawn of the day camp.

“We all laughed, because we knew if Kirstin were with us, she would have been on that Slip ’n’ Slide in a second,” Leanne said.

Ms. Hendricks agreed. “She could make anything into an adventure.”

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Thank you for covering Kristin's story. I grieve for her and all the young men and women, including my son James, who are losing their lives from opioids. Lock up the dealers. Most importantly,treat dual diagnoses --mental illness and addiction--together. If not, we will continue to push a rock up a mountain to solve this crisis.
By AndreaGurvitz (5), on Jul 26, 18 8:57 AM