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Losing Alex: The story behind one heroin death

I tell stories for a living, and know that each is more than its headline. But Alexandra Blitman's feels different:

I met her when we were kids, and we graduated from middle and high school together. We weren't close, but we were friendly. Alex was friendly with everyone, though — a bright, free spirit whose genuine enthusiasm for life drew all of us to her, the straight arrows and the skaters and the jocks and everyone in between.

She died March 7, days after overdosing on heroin. She was 38.

Nine hundred Philadelphians died of overdoses in 2016; amid a city and national opioid epidemic, the trend line this year is higher.

The crisis touches nearly everyone.

A light around her

Alex had a master's degree and an army of friends. She worked as a therapist; she owned a house. She might inspire you to join her in a dance party while waiting for the El, and she might show up for dinner at your house with nine strangers she collected on the way.

Alex was special from the beginning, a dark-haired little girl with a light around her, said Lucille Blitman, her mother.

"She was so vivacious, outgoing, gregarious," said Lucille. "She was so excitable."

Alex's parents split up when she and her younger brother, Steven, were tiny. Alex went through a dark period, Lucille said, when Lucille and the children lived with a "controlling, destructive" man. But Alex was smart, active in the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. She always had friends, kids who came to the house. Lucille would make them clean. Alex would make them laugh.

"She never made you feel like you couldn't be exactly who you were," said Rita Hertzog, her best friend since seventh grade.

"She poured her love onto everybody else," said Sarah Rotella, another close friend from way back.

Alex loved the beach and the mountains. She was forever dancing, listening to and talking about music — everything from trance to Tori Amos, classical to Alicia Keys.

"You'd be walking through the mall and she'd see someone and say, 'He looks like a really interesting character. I want to meet him,' " Sarah said. And she did.

Alex was an original — quirky and complicated, restless and gifted. Her parents didn't give her a middle name at birth, but Alex declared one for herself, Victoria. She liked the way it sounded, cool and feminine. She started spelling her own name Alecks, just to be original.

When Jessica Cusumano was stressed about finals at West Chester University, Alex pulled her onto their front lawn, played music, and started dancing. She lifted moods without effort.

"She was always the life of the party and smiling," said Jessica, another friend from middle and high school who absorbed Alex into her family. "She was rarely in a bad mood."

At the luncheon after her funeral, people trooped to a microphone, compelled to share their Alex stories: the boy who walked home with her from middle school — being with Alex was the best part of his day, he said. The neighbor who felt low until he sat with Alex on the back steps, talking about life. The woman she met at a low point, getting high in Kensington — even then, Alex managed to look out for others, said Karla Smith-Regula, now clean six months and missing Alex like crazy.

"We'd be walking down the street and I'd say, 'Watch that bum,' and she'd be like, 'That's my homie!' " Karla said.

'She could heal others'

After we graduated from Northeast in 1996, Alex attended Manor College, where she earned an associate's degree in early childhood education. She moved on to West Chester University, where she collected a diploma, also in education. She worked as a counselor, then went back to school, earning a master's degree in psychology from Holy Family University.

She worked as a therapist with women and children in crisis, kids who were being raised amid abuse and addiction. It was hard work, emotionally taxing, and Alex often internalized it.

"She could heal others — that was her gift," said Rita. "People would open up to her, felt safe with her. She was great with kids, because she knew what she needed as a kid."

She met Marc Macrini in 2006, when they were both working at Woodstock Family Shelter at 20th and Norris. Alex was a therapist; Marc ran food services. She dubbed him "Chef," a nickname that stuck. They struck up a friendship that lasted for the rest of her life; she introduced him to her family, always made sure he was OK.

"Alex always gave people direction, the purpose they needed," Chef said. "I used to think she was the moth to the flame, but now I know — she was the flame, and we were drawn to her."

But she never managed to heal what was broken inside of her.

Starting to slip

Alex dabbled in pot and alcohol in high school and college, but Lucille didn't worry too much, she said. Kids did that, she thought. But even after college, when Alex's friends were marrying off and having children, Alex was still partying.

"Any time there was anything going on, she always said yes," her friend Jessica said. "She liked to experience life, and experience people. I guess that can be a good thing and a bad thing."

The line of what was acceptable for Alex kept moving — prescription drugs, cocaine. She bought a house, sold it. She called off a wedding to her longtime boyfriend. She moved to California in 2010.

Things started to slip more. Alex found temporary work in California, but nothing steady, nothing at the income she needed to make a solid life. She started using crack. By 2013, she was back in Philadelphia. Alex knew she needed help. She went in and out of recovery.

Then, heroin became readily available.

"That's when bad went to worse, the worst pits of hell," Rita said.

I was yearbook editor back in high school, and I remember I couldn't find a picture of Alex or Rita alone — they were so close. But around the time of Alex's return from California, the two had a falling-out. Rita had a child, a career, firm boundaries. She tried to hold Alex accountable, and Alex struggled. Alex's family and Rita tried to intervene, which infuriated Alex.

Alex reached out to Rita in 2015, calling out of the blue. They spent hours talking in a coffee shop. Alex was in recovery, and wanted to make amends. She had been clean for 62 days. She promised to stay in touch, and then she was gone.

There were periods of sobriety, but they were short. When she wasn't using, she'd reach out to Rita.

"She never called me for money," Rita said. "She only called me when she was well."

When she wasn't, she was different. She lied, stole.

"She was very selfish when she was using," her mother said. "But that wasn't her."

Still, there were glimmers of who she always had been. Alex came to have a deep faith in her mid-20s, and she never lost it. She volunteered for Feast of Justice, a Northeast Philadelphia nonprofit food pantry and resource for families.

The sober periods became briefer. It was torture for her family, for everyone who loved her. She was jailed. Alex and her boyfriend, a friend from the neighborhood, used together. They got arrested for robbery. In early 2016, he killed himself in prison.

Everyone worried. How would Alex handle it?

"This is a vicious, vicious disease," said Karla, the friend she met in Kensington. "If you don't share about it, every feeling that you're having, it will take you down."

Alex and her cousin Denice Keys grew up as close as sisters. Denice still can't believe the path that Alex's life took, and its tragic end.

"Don't act like your children are immune to this horrible disease," Denice said. "This can happen to anyone. She had everything in front of her."

The final spiral

Her boyfriend's loss seemed to be the last straw. Alex spiraled down. There was a last burst of hope in late February. Alex was clean for a few weeks, had a job interview, was going to be the godmother of a new niece, if she could stay sober.

She couldn't. Alex sneaked out of the recovery house she was living in, and it was the end. She overdosed on a Sunday. By that Tuesday, she was gone.

Alex's family donated both of her kidneys. They were a perfect match; Alex saved two lives, in a gesture that seems fitting.

Kristen A. Graham is an Inquirer staff