Arlington opioid graphic by Brynn O'ConnorPART THREE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES
 YourArlington spent the past 10 months speaking with police officials, health employees and residents about drug abuse. This four-part series explores how the town of Arlington seeks to combat the opioid crisis through the help of federal government funding, town programs and policies – and a community that cares.

 “I’m sorry, Ms. Wall. We did everything we could.” Brenden (left) and Anthony Wall, in 2013. / Photos courtesy Elizabeth Wall

Those are words no parent wants to hear.

At 11 on a December night in 2022, Arlington resident Elizabeth Wall got the telephone call informing her that her 27-year-old son, Brenden, had died from a cocaine overdose. The drug had been laced with fentanyl, a super-potent opioid.

This was now the second call informing her that one of her sons had died from a drug overdose.

Wall sat down at a picnic table beside Spy Pond on a chilly October afternoon in 2023 — almost a year since the single mother of four had lost her two oldest sons within the span of less than four months.

With her, she brought photos of her sons, Anthony and Brenden. Scattered on the table also were family pictures of the boys; newborn photo shoots, Christmas cards with Santa, snapshots of the brothers dressed up as characters from their favorite book series, Harry Potter.

She also brought their funeral cards and photos of each of their urns; blue to match Anthony’s eyes, green in honor of Brenden’s favorite color. 

“I force myself to talk about it, because I know it's going to help someone out there."
 -- Elizabeth Wall

Anthony was found in his Somerville apartment at age 30, declared dead because of a methamphetamine overdose on Aug. 26, Wall said. Brenden was found less than four months later, Dec. 18, in a park in Jamaica Plain, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. His toxicology report later detailed that the cause of death was due to the combined effect of fentanyl, cocaine and ethanol poisoning.

According to federal data presented at the American Society of Addiction Medicine conference in April, while deaths related to synthetic opioids increased between 2022 and 2023 by 5.7 percent nationally, deaths relating to methamphetamine increased at an even faster rate, by 6.4 percent. Cocaine-related overdose rose a striking 12.2 percent

Wall chose to tell her story to YourArlington over the past year, as she has told it elsewhere before, and as she plans to keep on doing. She believes that it is worth revealing her family's double tragedy in order to encourage knowledge, understanding, compassion and prevention. It's too late for Anthony and for Brenden, but — or so she hopes — not for other mothers' children.

“I force myself to talk about it, because I know it's going to help someone out there,” Wall said. “If I can be uncomfortable for five minutes to help another person not go through what I’m going through, it’s worth it,” Wall said.

 Elizabeth Wall, 49, is a single mother of four children; Anthony, Brenden, Dara and Corbin. She moved to Arlington in 2009 with the hope to raise her family in a welcoming and inclusive community. Wall already had devoted much of her life to giving back to others. She has worked in residential homes for disabled individuals and spent years devoting much of her free time to volunteer groups. Wall prioritized teaching her children the importance of empathy and uplifting others.

“I let my children choose what they want to believe, but I said you have to love and respect and care for others. That’s a must,” Wall said. “We need to share and show compassion. It enriches people’s lives.”

On Aug. 31, 2023, Arlington’s Department of Health and Human Services hosted a vigil at Calvary Church for International Overdose Awareness Day. The town’s recovery coach, Tommy Caccavaro, stood before the crowd to share his recovery story. Shortly after, Wall walked up to speak.

“My heat sank into my gut as soon as the phone rang."

 “I like to think that my purpose is to help other people, and that’s why I’m here.”

Wall, like other members of the Arlington Outreach Initiative, believes that those who turn to drug use are deserving of guidance rather than condemnation. She says that there are lessons to be learned from the losses she’s experienced, which can help reduce the stigma surrounding drug abuse.

“When you lose your own, it’s a different story,” she said. “We shouldn’t judge. We should all help one another.”

Wall learned of her son’s deaths in the same way – via a telephone call. She remembers only bits and pieces of each of these days. The vague memories are not a product of blocking out the memories intentionally but rather from blacking out with shock and grief in the moment, she explained. 

She recalls that she received the first call at around 3 that August afternoon in 2022. “My heart sank into my gut as soon as the phone rang,” she said. 

On the other line, a voice announced they were with the Somerville Police Department. 

“‘Don’t tell me. I know what you’re going to say.’” 

At that moment, Wall panicked as she never had before. 

"What am I going to do?" She shouted into the phone repeatedly until the person said that they were sending members of the Arlington Police Department to her house so she that would not be alone. 

“I’ve gone through a lot of grief before, but the grief of [losing] a child is a whole different thing.”

As she waited for the APD to arrive, Wall recalled that she somehow got herself to turn on her meditation music. Then, she sat on the floor and began to rock back and forth. She remembers her cat, usually averse to lap-sitting, crawling up against her.

Anthony (left) and Brenden Wall with Santa, in 1996. Anthony Wall was born Sept. 11, 1992, Elizabeth’s first-born. At 9, Anthony was diagnosed with the now-outdated term Asperger’s syndrome.

In 2013, the diagnosis was retired in the fifth edition of the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5) and folded into the diagnosis of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) . 

“When he was younger, he had a lot of difficulty dealing with his emotions . . . they were expressed differently,” Wall explained about Anthony’s behavior as a child. “He wasn’t the usual socialite . . . Too many people, crowds bothered him and scared him."

“[Anthony] was a strong person, but he didn’t want to be known as somebody with issues . . . He just wanted to be treated as someone who was trying to do the best they could.” 

By the time the Wall family moved to town, Anthony was 16 years old. Wall recalled that his behavior had gotten aggressive and she decided that he needed to live in a more appropriate setting. After a year of searching, Wall said she was able to get her son enrolled with a nearby residential house specializing in mental-health services. Wall was always pleased with what the town had to offer for her oldest son in terms of services and believes he was given everything she could possibly push for. 

“He got therapy, group therapy, he went to the schools in Arlington, he came home on the weekends when he was in a good space. If he needed something, he got it.”

When Brenden reached age 16, Wall connected with the same services to find a safe and suitable place for him to live as well. Brenden had a drinking problem throughout high school, and his behavior, too, had gotten aggressive. Eventually, Wall was able to connect with a nearby family friend who took Brenden in so he could still be close to family.

“I still had two younger kids to worry about. I was trying to manage the older boys and try to protect the younger two,” Wall said.

“I had to somehow keep it together for them."

Anthony had been prescribed many medications throughout his adolescence. At age 12, he was prescribed Lithium to help with reducing harmful stimming, a term used to describe repetitive body movements and noises that typically helps some autistic people manage their emotions. 

Wall said that sometimes Anthony’s stimming could be physically injurious.

“He would get so frustrated . . . he [thought] his brain didn’t work. He would do the classic head banging because he thought his [head] wasn’t doing what he wanted it to.” 

Anthony was additionally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD; to cope with the last, he was prescribed legal amphetamine, Wall said.

“I was [usually] against too much medicine, but Anthony had a lot of issues – he really needed it,” she explained. 

“He didn’t like the medicines. He didn’t like the way they made him feel … he didn’t like not being able to control his mood on his own.” 

Wall said she and her son had many open and honest conversations about this. As soon as she could, she had Anthony in counseling to learn how to manage his feelings about the prescriptions. But when he turned 18, Anthony made the decision to immediately stop taking all the medications he had been using throughout a critical portion of his life. Wall said that she, doctors and other professionals he spoke with advised him against this decision because of the risks associated with withdrawals, but at the time, Anthony was too exhausted and frustrated to listen, Wall said. 

Immediately discontinuing a prescription is usually discouraged by medical professionals, as the medication impacts a patient’s body chemistry and the body needs time to adjust to sudden changes. With Lithium, in particular, withdrawal symptoms can include hand trembling and weak muscles, along with increased anxiety and irritability. Rather than quitting a medication “cold turkey,” doctors tend to establish discontinuation plans with their patients, which include efforts to gradually decrease the dosage prescribed over time.

“I’m not blaming the doctors. Anthony made the wrong decision, but I’m not saying he had a choice with what happened to him. Addiction is a disease.”

Around 19 years old, Anthony started to experience withdrawals from the absence of his medications — and this was when her son started to go down an ill-fated path.

“A friend, who was not really a friend, gave him the wrong thing to help with the withdrawals.” She paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “They gave him meth.” 

Wall said it was hard for her to pick up on the signs Anthony was using meth in the beginning, because some of the ways he started to act also could have been interpreted as a product of his bipolar disorder. Wall holding newborn photos of Anthony (left) and Brenden Wall. 

“Being really shaky and on edge all the time . . . I couldn’t really say, ‘Oh, he’s jittery, he’s doing drugs,’ because Anthony [was] always like that.” she explained. “It’s really hard -- you don’t want to accuse someone in their face.” 

When discussing her role in responding throughout the course of her sons' drug use, Wall found herself in an extremely difficult position.

“I know as a mom there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know; I’m not ignorant in that fact.”

She continued, “I always tried to be open with my kids and be as close to them as possible, and I always tried to have [for them] another adult they could talk to besides me because, let’s all be real – as close as we are to our parents, there’s stuff we don’t want to talk to them about.” 

“They would have that day with me as long as they walked in that door and were clean."

Comparatively, Wall said that Anthony was much more transparent about his addiction than Brenden was. 

“It did take [Anthony] a couple of years to come to me . . . it was a rough few years before he did that.”

Before admitting his addiction to his mother, Anthony had spent some time living on the streets. He’d abandoned the residential house he was living in once he came of legal age. Wall had tried to place her son on housing lists, but Anthony was insistent on doing things independently.

“He always wanted to try and do it himself to make me proud of him,” she said. “I’d hate to say Anthony chose homelessness, but I think there were situations where he chose homelessness at the moment. He lived that lifestyle because he wanted the freedom.”

Wall said that for several years it had been back and forth between Anthony sleeping on the streets, staying with a friend, getting clean, then going back to using. 

In 2017, Wall said her son had been sleeping outside of a church in Cambridge when an altercation arose between him and another Arlington man. Anthony was arrested and charged with armed assault with intent to murder. 

“I'm not agreeing with this . . . I just know because Anthony told me, he always kept a knife under his sleeve. Sleeping and living on the street is dangerous. If he woke up and somebody was messing with him, he had to have something to protect himself.”

After about a year, the case was dismissed, according to Wall. Anthony then applied to the Somerville Homeless Coalition and was set up with an apartment and a recovery coach. Still, he was reluctant to accept help from his family.

“What do you want me to do? I know I can't do it for you, but I'm here to support you,” she would say to both of her sons.

According to Wall, both Anthony and Brenden reached points in their lives when they were homeless. This is not something any mother wants for their children. Once settled in Arlington, Wall moved into a subsidized housing unit for low-income families. Her two youngest children, Dara and Corbin, resided there with her. Wall said the housing unit allowed somebody not on the lease to stay only 21 nights out of the year. 

And while Wall did have Anthony and Brenden spend nights with her here and there, the mother also had to consider her other children.

“My youngest two were still minors at the time, teenagers. Having someone [who possibly] was under the influence of drugs was not necessarily a safe space for them,” Wall said. “I had to put myself in a very hard position and make a choice to keep the youngest two safe.”

As her sons were adamant about doing things on their own, Wall had to accept that she could not snap her fingers and fix the problem – but rather focus her energy on promoting practices that prevented enabling their addiction. 

 If either one of her sons asked for money for food, Wall would give them gift certificates for groceries instead of cash. So long as her sons were clean, they were invited to Wall's house to shower, do their laundry and have a meal. They would always leave with a bag of groceries and a list of resources including the addresses and phone numbers of local rehabilitation or homeless centers. 

“[They] would have that day with me as long as they walked in that door and were clean. If they were not clean, then they didn’t get that day of resources and visit with me.”

The tough-love approach was not easy for Wall, but she knew it was what she needed to do to best encourage healthy lifestyles for her sons. 

The weekly visits were enjoyable for her boys, giving them time to spend with their mother in an environment where they knew they were safe, supported and loved.

When the pandemic struck, however, Wall had to practice strict isolation habits, especially as she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 and needed to stay Covid-19 free in preparations for surgery. 

“There were no therapists at the time [of the pandemic]."

“That was very hard on them emotionally, which didn’t help their issues,” Wall explained.

Her sons were very cautious concerning their mother’s health, and so their visits home ceased for a while.

“‘You got enough to worry about, ma, you’re sick,’” Wall remembers Brenden saying to her. “‘You get better; don’t worry about it.’” 

The morning of Aug. 26, 2022, Wall was on the phone with Anthony. She was refurbishing an old mortar and pestle her son had found — both she and her oldest shared a love for collecting antiques. They were chatting about Anthony’s scheduled visit to come over that evening. She remembers them both saying to one another, “Goodbye, I love you, I’ll see you tonight.”  

Just a few hours later, Wall got the life-shattering phone call from the Somerville Police Department about Anthony.

According to Wall, at this time Brenden had just been released from a mandatory 72-hour hospital evaluation and was staying with a friend; only five days before his brother died, Brenden’s fiancée had committed suicide. 

Wall wouldn’t tell any of her surviving children the news about Anthony over the phone and said it took a few days to get Brenden to come to the house.

“I knew I had to grieve, but I also knew I had to somehow keep it together for them,” Wall said about telling her children.

 She still remembers the look of disbelief on Brenden’s face when he finally came to the house.

“It totally blew his mind. He didn’t know what to think, what to do, kind of like me,” Wall recalled. “[He screamed] ‘No, I can’t believe it . . . This is some kind of joke!’ ‘He kept me safe!’ It was like his brain couldn’t make sense of it and then his body couldn’t make sense of it . . . he took off running out of the house.” 

Wall initially did not suspect anything but grief causing Brenden’s behavior. But, looking back at it, she said, she thinks Brenden was on drugs.

In his early 20s, Brenden had left the family-friend’s house and moved to Boston. He started work at a restaurant in Jamaica Plain, where he met his fiancée. For a few years, Wall suspected that Brenden still suffered with his substance problem despite never confessing anything. 

“Brenden didn’t talk too much about the drugs and the addiction because he was ashamed of it,” Wall said.

But for those years living in Boston, he had his fiancée whom he deeply loved and his protective older brother to turn to. At rough points throughout Brenden’s experience with addiction, he would go stay with his older brother in Somerville, Wall said. 

“He was so deep into that despair."

She said she wasn’t sure why or when Brenden turned to cocaine as his vice but speculated that it was just that he didn’t want to live without his two favorite people in the world. 

After the loss of Anthony, Wall did her best to get Brenden set up with any form of counseling she could find. 

“There were no therapists at the time . . . everybody needed therapy because of Covid. We couldn’t find anybody – nobody was taking [new] clients,” Wall expressed the difficulty of battling mental health problems during the pandemic. 

A 2022 Washington Post article regarding counseling after the pandemic referred to a survey from the American Psychological Association, which found that 65 percent of psychologists had no capacity for new patients despite the fact that there was a surge in demand for anxiety, depressive and trauma related disorders.

“Brenden was angry with the world. Angry that he lost his fiancée, angry that he lost his brother . . . Even though there were people there for him, he just couldn’t see his way out even though everybody was right there. He was so deep into that despair,” Wall said. 

She tried to organize the funeral services as close as possible to how Anthony would have wanted — which was a small and intimate wake at the house. During this time, Brenden spent some nights at his mother’s. Without his fiancée, he could no longer finance the apartment in Boston on his own. Wall reminded her son that he could stay with his mother and younger siblings for a little while so long as he was clean, and she showed him a list of shelters he could apply to.

“It was so sad for me to watch my boys choose to be homeless . . . but it’s not really choosing to be homeless, because the drug is talking for them."

“He was so emotionally distraught that he wouldn’t even do it,” Wall said. “He went to the shelters on the really cold nights …” the mother paused to wipe a tear, recounting Brenden’s sense of hopelessness. “He just didn’t.” 

As that summer came to an end, Wall described Brenden as floating between homelessness, sleeping at shelters and residing with his mom periodically. 

That fall, Wall staged an intervention for Brenden at her home with one of Brenden’s friends. For roughly two weeks, they got Brenden to stay at a detox facility in Worcester. Upon being released, however, her son chose to go back to living on the streets. The mother expressed her frustration watching Brenden decline the different options she presented to him.

“It was so sad for me to watch my boys choose to be homeless . . . but it’s not really choosing to be homeless, because the drug is talking for them.” 

The night of Dec. 17, Wall had Brenden over for his weekly visit. The two of them worked on applying for benefits and food stamps for him. She noticed that his coat was in poor condition.

“He died with a clean jacket."

‘I felt horrible because he had this coat, and it was really icky. I tried to wash it and it kind of messed [the coat] up. So I was like, ‘leave it here, I’ll straighten it out.'”

Before he left that night, Wall gave her son an extra winter coat that she had found lying around the house. Wall hugged her son and told him, “I love you,” before he left that evening.

The next night, Dec. 18, she received a second phone call that another one of her sons had died from an overdose. 

“He died with a clean jacket,” Wall said with a tear.

Wall remembers being in a state of shock for weeks after the death of her second son. She said she was “numb” while planning the cremations and the services for both of her boys — but once the visitors paid their final respects and the urns had been placed in a small memorial spot, her shock wore off.

“I was just walking through my living room one day, and it hit me, and my body just started shutting down. Everything started to hit.”

“My world stopped, and the rest of the world kept going."

Wall cried every day for a long time, and she still does cry, she said. She had to remind herself to do simple things such as eating a meal or leaving the house.

“Time stopped; it really did. It feels like you’re going in slow motion,” she said. “My world stopped, and the rest of the world kept going.” 

Wall remembers a nightmare she had had about Anthony overdosing a year before it actually happened. She woke up in the middle of the night, reached for her journal and started to write a poem. "For it is our scars that help us define our path," is one of the poem's lines.The boys dressed up as Harry Potter characters, in 2001.

“Our weaknesses and our scars don’t define us as individuals. We are whole people,” Wall explained.

This is the message she wants others to consider when hearing the story of her sons. This is the perspective she wishes the community would embrace when considering all those suffering with addiction.

"When we go through stuff . . . it leaves impressions on us. Scars are character marks. It gives us a purpose, a reason for living, a way to help others," she said. 

Wall has accepted the scars in her life and the scars that were in her children’s lives. As much as she wishes she could have changed things, the mother looks at her experiences as an opportunity to educate others about living through addiction – whether dealing with it personally or seeing it impact a loved one.

“I want to try to make something positive out of this . . .  if I can at least ease the path of somebody else going through the same thing.”

Now that her two youngest children are older and out of the house she had been living in, she is in the process of moving. Wall is in remission from her cancer and is looking for a new place in town, saying she wants to stay where she raised her family and established a community.

During another interview, in April, she looked around at her life in boxes and pointed out one specifically designated for holiday photos. Each year, the Wall family would send Christmas cards signed by the children. She recently found an extra copy that had the latest signatures of all four of her children – even though Wall previously had thought that they all had been mailed. 

“Do what you can, when you can, while you can."

She tore the card down the middle so both the photo of her kids and their handwriting was visible -- and framed it to be displayed during the holiday season each subsequent year.

“I’m going to make a holiday book with only pictures of the boys, so that when the holidays come and the boys are not there with us, we can look at the book.” 

Wall said she talks about her boys and substance abuse every chance she can. She attends vigils and support groups to help keep the memory of Anthony and Brenden alive. And, sometimes, she wonders about what might have been.

“He wanted to eventually get to a point where he was clean,” Wall said about Anthony’s hopes for his future. “He didn’t want the typical life . . . he wanted a little piece of land to call his own. He wanted to travel Europe. He wanted to live peacefully.” Elizabeth Wall at Spy Pond, October 2023. / Brynn O'Connor photo

Wall said that Brenden always loved to cook and even talked about owning his own restaurant one day. But more than that, Brenden wanted a family. She laughed, remembering how he said he wanted to be a “stay at home dad” just to spend all his time with his kids.

“He really, really did . . . Maybe in the next life he can,” Wall said.

Wall’s belief in reincarnation helps her find solace in the death of her two sons. 

“They could still be resting . . . . They could be out there somewhere . . .  I might see them again,” she said. “I find comfort in that, to know that it’s not the end for them -- and [meanwhile] I can help somebody in their path.” 

When asked what she might say to other parents in the community with children suffering from addiction, Wall quoted some advice that she heard from a friend long ago.

“Do what you can, when you can, while you can, for as long as you can. Make the most of life with your families.”

Part 1: June 23, 2024: Drug crisis hits home: How town's outreach began to address fatalities
Part 2: June 30, 2024: Tommy Caccavaro: Becoming clean and sober -- and helping others to do the same

In this third part of YourArlington's four-part series, Brynn O'Connor, assistant to the editor, documents the story of the Wall family; it was published July 7, 2024.

In the fourth and final part, O'Connor speaks with the town health department and other local leaders about the money Arlington is receiving from the National Opioid Settlements and how the town plans to spend these funds to help residents impacted by opioid abuse