Alicia Cook is a best-selling writer and award-winning activist from New Jersey whose work has been featured in numerous media outlets including the NY Post; CNN; USA Today; the HuffPost; the LA Times; American Songwriter Magazine; and Bustle.
Named by Teen Vogue as one of the 10 social media poets to know, her bestselling book of poetry, “Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately” was a finalist in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, and her follow up, “I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip” was released in June. Cook released a surprise collection of poetry in January 2019 entitled “Anomaly: A Concept Album.”
Cook lost her cousin Jessica to drug addiction when they were teenagers. An essayist and speaker, her activism to fight the opioid epidemic is far reaching and has garnered a worldwide readership, and her very own episode on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Here’s the Story”. Many of her essays on addiction have gone “viral” and have been viewed millions of times. Cook writes about how drug addiction affects entire families, and how mental health is affected by the disease in the process.
She was the recipient of 2017’s “Every Day Hero” award from NJTV and 2018’s Women with Voices award from the Women with Voices Foundation. Her songwriting has been recognized by American Songwriter Magazine (4x honorable mention), Music City Song Star (semi-finalist), and the American Songwriting Awards (winner).
She lives in Newark, NJ. She earned a BA in English from Georgian Court University and an MBA from Saint Peter’s University.
I WAS 20 WHEN JESS DIED
I was 20 when Jess died. I didn’t publicly talk about it or write about it until, I was in my late 20’s. But also, if there was more of an internet back then, maybe I would have. But I would like to think I really did my research because it’s one thing to come out and say, “I know what you are going through, I lost a loved one,” but I thought it was very important for me to understand the mechanics behind addiction and what happens and why it happens. I wanted to know statistics. And I wanted to, if I was ever challenged, I wanted to always have an answer. So, I educated myself on that. But I have been writing my whole life. Always.
In our last conversation, she said to me, in my living room, “I need you to write about it if anything happens.” And then I remember telling my mom that. This was like six weeks before she died. And then my Mom said, “you can’t tell Uncle Bobby and Aunt Cindy that she said that, because they need hope.” And what Jess was telling me was that she wasn’t going to make it.
I'LL BE THAT VOICE
So, I pinky promised that I would write something one day and then we went about our day together and then six weeks later she was gone.
It was always in the back of my head. Like, but what am I going to write about? You know like, who am I? I almost had imposter syndrome, like why should I be this person? But then I went to Barnes and Noble and looked for books on what I was going through, not a parent, not a spouse… what I was going through as a peer and I couldn’t find anything.
So, then I went home and told my mom, “I’ll be that voice.” And so, she gave me a pat on the back and was like, “okay, honey.” Not knowing that it was going to become what it became. And that’s really how that started.
JUST SAY NO, DIDN'T WORK
I am the DARE generation and what? 100-plus of us are dying every day.
“Just Say NO” didn’t work.
Because it’s not about saying no when presented with the opportunity. It’s about the genesis of why you want to even escape yourself to begin with. And that was never discussed in my life as a kid.
And now I know 3rd graders that are taking mental health classes, practicing self-care, doing yoga in the middle of the day and then people want to laugh and call them snowflakes or whatever but, maybe this is helping? Because I was the “just say no” generation and that’s who is dying.
EDUCATION IS IMPORTANT
Education is important. I do think they shouldn’t have the health/gym teacher in the room reading from a text book about what drug addiction is. I think they need to bring in experts, and by “experts” I don’t necessarily mean people who have doctorates, I mean people who have lived this. That can really talk about this and who have gone on and become recovery specialists.
I am not even saying people like me that can just talk about one angle of it. If feel like I am more of a grief counselor because by the time people want to talk to me, it’s because something terrible happened. I am not preventative, in my eyes.
I HEAR SO MANY STORIES
Education is just one prong of it. If we can’t get our act together with everything else, health care, all that, people are just going to keep dying. I hear so many stories every day and one that sticks with me, and it’s like 5 years old now, is this woman emailed me and said, “my daughter is 19 years old and has been on and off using. She wants to go to rehab.” Then she would email me, “no she changed her mind.” And then she finally emailed me, “she wants to go, we are going to call around.” So, they went on their health care provider site and within, I think it was like 80 miles they looked, at minimum for a place that could take them within their HMO. One place was available, and they called, and the bed had just been filled. There was like a six-week waiting list for one. They couldn’t get a bed for this girl who wanted help.
And then about a week went by and she emailed me, and she said while they were waiting for a bed, her daughter overdosed and died.
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF SHE HAD ACCESS TO THE HELP SHE NEEDED?
And I think about that at least once a week. I think about if she was even in this area that wouldn’t have happened. She was somewhere in the Midwest. You know if she was here, she would have had a bed. And it’s something like that where she died waiting for a bed. What would have happened if she had access to the help she needed?
There are some rehabs that exist that don’t have a detox center attached to them. And it’s like, why do you even exist?
IT'S ONLY ONE PILL
When my cousin Jess was just addicted to pills, we were like, “it’s just pills. People are prescribed these every day.” We didn’t even understand why she moved to heroin. We didn’t know it was this slope of one in the sameness.
How would you respond to someone saying “It’s only one pill, I can’t get addicted from it?”
I would just say, “I’ve seen it happen.” Someone I love is dead and buried, and thousands more are suffering every day, over 100 people are dying each day, because of what ultimately began with an “it’s only one pill” mentality.
IF I KNEW I WOULD HAVE SAID SOMETHING
If someone messages me they usually say, for example, “I think my sibling is using” or, if they come up to me in person, “I know my brother is using something” – Tell you parents, tell someone that can help. You’re that stepping stone but tell someone in an authority role that can help, especially if they are under 18 and you can maybe do something before the problem snowballs.
I give the advice I was probably getting myself at the time but wasn’t listening. And now as an adult, I wish I listened a little bit more because I struggled a lot with the idea of it could have maybe been prevented if I spoke sooner or did I know something and didn’t say something? The whole idea of being a friend vs. being an enabler. Your immediate reaction, especially when you are young, is to protect your friend and to protect your sibling or protect your cousin, from the parents who are driving your lives crazy to begin with.
If I knew Jess was using heroin, I would have said something. I think that’s why she didn’t tell me because I know she told at least 3 people that I know of that weren’t in that circle of people using. I think that Jess assumed I would narc on her if I had known. And yeah, she was right. I would have in this situation.
I AM NOT ABOVE JESS
I can say I am lucky because I didn’t use drugs, but I know enough to know that I didn’t use drugs because there was, at the time at least, no mental health issues or depression. I wasn’t looking to self-medicate or anything like that or my brain chemistry was different.
Whereas, I am not above Jess. I wasn’t better than Jess.
And the whole idea of moral luck, it’s just that, you are brought up the same way, it doesn’t matter what cards you are dealt or anything, a fork in the road comes and you go different ways. And it doesn’t mean that I lived better than her. And that’s how I look at it.
There’s no difference between me and her. I still don’t think there is any difference between me and her.
WRITE DOWN SOMETHING GOOD
Just recently, I was talking to a young woman who lost her boyfriend. And I said, “the New Year is coming, while you are healing every day is going to feel like the worst day of your life.” She has voiced her desire to “be with him.” I get that feeling. Many could understand that feeling. Many have loved someone that much, where if they weren’t on this earth anymore, you couldn’t imagine wanting to be here still. It happens for everyone eventually, even if you are old and grey.
So, I told her, “get a jar or box, it doesn’t matter, and every day write down something good that happened that day.” Because something good happens every day. And you can forget that when you are going through hell.
It is something as simple as: the other day I ordered a medium ice coffee and they gave me a large. That’s a win. And those little victories matter, especially in the beginning following a loss or trauma.
And I always tell them to look for signs because that’s a manifestation. I don’t think signs just fall into your lap. I think if you are looking for them, you’ll find them because you need to find something. If you weren’t looking for something you would have walked right by it. So that’s something I try to tell people. You need to recover no matter what. I always try to say, the person you lost wouldn’t want you to be like this. They wouldn’t want you to die. They didn’t want to die.
The young woman messaged me the other day and said, “I found a parking spot immediately, and that doesn’t happen all the time.” So that was a win for her where she was able to park close to where she had to go. I told her, “write it down.”
It's just the little things.
THAT BOOK SAVED MY LIFE
I wrote my first poetry book, Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately, at a time when someone else very close to me started struggling with drug addiction. The cycle began all over again. But this time I had a platform and I had a voice. I wrote Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately at the lowest point of my life. Like, even compared to losing Jess. This was the lowest point of my life. It was affecting everything in my life. I wrote it to manifest my own hope. Almost every piece I would write would be really dark and then I would add a line that like, made it lighter or gave it some kind of silver lining, and it was almost like a mental exercise to do that. I self-published not thinking anything of it. I wanted to donate whatever I made to the Willow Tree Center in Morris County. They have since been acquired by the Integrity House. Today, it is now traditionally published and a bestseller, with over 50,000 copies sold. Everyone who reads it says how hopeful it is and I was thinking, “Wow. I wasn’t hopeful at all when I was writing it.” There were days I wasn’t getting out of bed. So, I dedicated the book to anyone who has a loved one that is battling addiction. Writing saved my life. That book saved my life. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have that outlet.