ESPN's Lauren Sisler confronts her parents' fatal overdoses

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ESPN and SEC sideline reporter Lauren Sisler has covered some of college football's biggest stories.
But there was one story the 34-year old kept secret for years. It's the painful story of how she lost both her parents on the same night 16 years ago.

"I think that for so long, I tried to hide from what this was, what happened," Sisler says.
"I felt so ashamed. I felt shackled to that shame for so many years."

Growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, Lauren says, they were middle class and happy. Her dad Butch Sisler was a biomedical engineer at the nearby VA Medical Center and a volunteer youth sports coach. Her mother Leslie took care of Lauren and her big brother Alan.

"Everything seemed normal, I feel like I had a normal life," Sisler remembers. "Anybody on the outside, looking in, loved my family, loved my parents."

But in the late 1990's, when Lauren was about 16, her parents both started seeing a pain management doctor in Roanoke for chronic back pain. Her mother had endured several spinal fusions, and her dad had undergone surgery for lower back pain.

"When they were going to this pain management doctor, it started out with oxycontin," Sisler says. "I do remember they would mail in and get a 90-day supply."

At the time, Sisler says, she would see prescription bottles around the house but didn't think twice about them.

"And then the oxycontin wasn't working," she says. "So, OK, they try something else. That eventually escalated to fentanyl." 

The fentanyl, a timed-release patch, was much more powerful narcotic. The doctor prescribed fentanyl to her mom for better around-the-clock pain control. Lauren says the medication seemed to help her parents.

"Because these were two people who would wake up every morning with a smile on their face, very much functioning people," she says.

But Sisler remembers seeing mood swings when her normally happy mother would suddenly become depressed or upset.

"I later found out it was because she ran out of her medication, and I witnessed that first hand," Sisler says. "She was actually concerned that my father had taken her medication, and there was this real anger about her.   And I'm thinking, 'It's just medication; how bad can it be?'"

She learned the answer a few years later.

On the night of March 24, 2003, when Lauren was in her freshman year at Rutgers University, the phone rang at 3 in the morning. It was her dad, and he sounded distraught.

"I said, 'Dad what's wrong?'  And he said, 'Lauren, your mom died.'  And I said 'What?'"

Sisler says her mother was only 45. Her father told her to pack her things and fly home. He would pick her up at the airport.

"So, I'm frantic. I'm throwing stuff in my bag," she says. "I bang on a friend's door and say, 'I need a ride to the airport, my mom died!'"

I remember getting on that plane, and it seemed like an eternity before it touched down in Virginia.  And, all I wanted to do at that moment was just run and jump into my dad's arms."

But her father wasn't at the airport. Instead, her Uncle Mike had come to meet her.

"I say, 'Uncle Mike, where is my dad,' Sisler says. "And, he says,  'Lauren, I'm sorry, but your dad passed away, too.'  And I think the hardest part is in that moment, I'm in shock, and my world is falling apart. I'm trying to consume this information. My mom dies, a few hours later my dad dies, how does this happen?"

The painful answer would come 90 days later in the toxicology report. For the next 10 years, Sisler says, she couldn't open it up. Butch and Leslie Sisler had overdosed a few hours apart on fentanyl, the drug prescribed to Lauren's mother. And there was more.

"They both had actually orally-consumed the fentanyl," Sisler says. "It comes in a patch form, but they had taken it orally, to try to get that fix or that high they needed."

At 18, her parents were gone.

"There was a lot of anger that ran through me," she says. "A  lot of it was, how did I not know? How did I not understand it? How did I not see this? But the other part of it was, why didn't they tell somebody? Why didn't they seek help?"

For a decade Sisler couldn't talk about that night.

"Because I was in such denial," she says. "I did not want to believe both my parents died from drug overdoses. I could not use the words 'addiction' or 'overdose' in the same sentence, because I was adamant that neither one of my parents could be drug addicts."

But 16 years later,  Lauren is finally making peace with her parents' story, and she's begun telling it publicly.
"There is so much stigma surrounding addiction," she says. "So many people want to brush it under the rug, not me, not my child, not my family. So, nobody wants to talk about it."

She thinks her parents fell victim to that stigma.

"They didn't want to talk about it," Sisler says. "They didn't want people to know. And, what I've got to tell you, is the truth, honestly, set me free."

Sisler in living in Birmingham now, and planning her wedding with her fiancee John Willard. She is building a new life.

No more secrets, no more shame.

To read more about Lauren Sisler's story, visit her website