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Amber's parents had split up when she was very young. Her mother, Deb Augustine, lives in Waterloo, Illinois. Her father, Boyd "Butch" McGathey, lives in Parkville, Missouri. Amber had a brother three years older, but when she was 4, he died in a hospital. Augustine says Amber was a beneficiary of the settlement that followed the resulting malpractice lawsuit.
Receiving money as a result of her brother's death never sat right with Amber. Augustine says her daughter was extravagant and irresponsible with her finances; her friends say material things just didn't matter much to her.
The social-justice focus of a Jesuit education amplified her rich-girl guilt. When she left for several months to volunteer as an aid worker in Africa, I remember feeling relieved. Africa seemed like an opportunity for her to get clean.
By the time she came back, Amber had gained some healthy weight. She moved into an apartment below me with a guy named Jason, who didn't go to our college. When I ran into her in the lobby or on the elevator, she was jumpy. She talked fast. Her mouth seemed dry. Something was wrong. I kept my distance.
My then-roommate, Jeremy McKenna, and I learned later that Amber wore turtlenecks in the summer because Jason choked her, leaving bruises. Twice she called the police on him.
Whenever she could, Amber retreated to another friend's apartment, where a group of guys passed a bong between classes and watched daytime TV. Through them, Amber met Mikey. They were both fans of Phish and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and would hole up together for days at a time. Jason eventually relinquished his grip on Amber, but not before using a bat to break every window and headlight of Mikey's car.
"Our relationship was weird and centered on drugs," Mikey tells me now. "We never used the terms girlfriend or boyfriend. We just spent a lot of time together and did a lot of drugs together."
Cocaine, Ecstasy, and prescription pills such as Xanax were the couple's main entertainment. Mikey was so thin that the blue veins under his skin were visible in his face. Talking to him was like talking to a ghost. But one day, after a long absence, he reappeared. His hair was shorter, his blue eyes were bright and his skin was no longer translucent. He still went to Phish shows -- now with a group of sober fans in a group called the Phellowship. He wanted to reach out to Amber, who was still using.
But she hadn't hit bottom.
In the fall of 2002, Mikey got a call from Amber. She needed to borrow money to pay a dealer. She'd been awake for days and hadn't eaten. Eventually, Amber found someone to cover her debt. A day later, she called a neighbor's apartment; my roommate that semester, Katie Sylvester, happened to answer the phone. Amber was nearly unintelligible. She was looking for coke or money or help. Katie went to her apartment.
Amber answered her door straight from the shower, naked and dripping with soapy water. Katie got her dressed and convinced her to walk down to the Red Line train station. Amber didn't want to get on the train. Once on, she didn't want to get off. She thought everyone on the train was looking at her. Katie coaxed her off the train at the Belmont station and got her through the doors of a drug rehab clinic.
Shortly after that, Amber asked her mother to come to Chicago for a weekend. During her visit, Augustine says, she felt that something was wrong. Amber's roommate told her it was drugs. When Augustine returned to Waterloo, she called Amber's dad in Kansas City and told him to get Amber. (Augustine would not comment further about her daughter to the Pitch.)