In an emotional interview with PEOPLE, the 'Southern Charm' star opens up for the first time about her brother Conner's cause of death and the secret health condition that drove him to addiction
"I wish you could have met him, because he was just the most amazing guy," the 31-year-old Southern Charm star tells PEOPLE in her first interview about his final days. "My brother, he was very lively and loved bringing people together; he literally made friends everywhere we'd go. Even when we went on vacation, we'd go down the hotel lobby to get breakfast and he knew everyone by name. He was this 6'5" beautiful guy who had the biggest heart."
But behind Conner's smile, Olivia says, was a "longtime battle with Lyme disease" — the treatment of which drove Flowers into the perils of addiction, and ultimately, his untimely death.
"It's just heartbreaking," Olivia says. "There are these holes in the healthcare system, and my brother fell into one."
Symptoms of Conner's Lyme disease first began surfacing when he was just 15 years old, Olivia says — though it would take years for doctors to diagnose, as many of those indicating effects (such as headaches, dizziness, and joint/body pain) also are common in other conditions. There's also still no way for medical professionals to test for the presence of the bacteria that causes Lyme.
"I remember my parents taking him to doctors literally around the world trying to find answers to these symptoms that he talked about to no avail," she says. "My parents saw the best of the best clinics, and Conner was just told over and over, 'It's all in your head, you're fine.'"
Instead, Conner was prescribed painkillers to treat his chronic pain and medicine for his associated anxiety, all of which led to long-term troubles. "He started depending, at a very young age, on this prescription medicine to feel normal. And we as a family started to see this toll it took on his body."
"He had become addicted to the very opioids and Xanax he thought were helping him."
As time went on, his pain persisted. Once an avid golfer who was ranked in state and studying in college on golf scholarship, Conner had to stop playing regular tournaments and eventually drop out because it became too difficult, Olivia says. "It just changed him," she recalls. "The symptoms he had from Lyme, they were debilitating."
Eight years in, Conner was finally referred to a functional medicine doctor who focused on identifying his problem rather than putting a Band-Aid over his symptoms. But the Lyme had been in his system for so long, it caused more internal damage to his health. And he had become addicted to the very opioids and Xanax he thought were helping him.
"Now, not only was he getting treatment for Lyme, but he was also in rehab dealing with getting off this medicine," Olivia says.
Anyone who has been around someone in a similar situation knows that's easier said than done. "Nobody wanted to get better more than Conner did," an emotional Olivia reflects, noting the challenge it can be to shake the reliance on these medications. "It was just such a hard time. We are very, very close as a family. We were all very involved and rallied round him. But for years he was just in and out of rehab, trying so hard to get on the other side of this."
"He always maintained that he had a problem," she adds. "It was never a fight to get him to go to rehab; anytime my parents would get him help, it was because asked for it. He wanted to stop this."
One time, Olivia recounts, Conner was on a nature walk while away at rehab and he broke his back jumping into the water. "He was rushed to the hospital and they pumped him full of pain meds, not even thinking," she says. "That was a relapse all in itself."
Recalling Conner's story, Olivia holds back tears. "It's really difficult to speak on," she says. "People, when they hear words like 'rehab' or 'drugs,' they assume the worse. But these weren't substances he turned to for partying. This was medicine. This is what made him feel normal."
When cameras went up on Southern Charm's ninth season, it was the winter of 2021-2022. Conner — who had originally been approached to be on the series alongside his sister, but passed due to focus instead on his health — was living at a wellness center in Arizona, where he was receiving treatment for both his Lyme and his addictions.
"He was in the best shape I'd seen him in years," Olivia remembers. "We had all gone up there to spend Christmas with him and he was completely clean. He just looked and felt great. My brother, he had such a hunger for life and an entrepreneurial spirit. He loved to work. He had huge dreams he wanted to accomplish. And he was talking about his plans to move to Dallas, Texas, where he already had jobs lined up."
Before that, Conner came to Charleston for the weekend to visit. "We were supposed to have dinner together while we were here," Olivia says. "I talked to him on the phone that day and we were going to meet at our house in Isle of Palms. But I went there, and it didn't seem like anyone was home, so I left."
"He was in the best shape I'd seen him in years... He just looked and felt great."
Approximately 15 minutes later, Olivia got the phone call that would change everything.
"My dad called me and said he could see on the cameras in our driveway that there was an ambulance there. And I turned around to get back but by the time I got there, the house was blocked off and nobody was allowed to go in," Olivia recalls. "I think I stood there for, it felt like an hour — just asking questions, not getting any answers. And it wasn't until the coroner pulled up that I put two and two together and realized he was gone."
"It was just so crazy," she adds. "We were on the phone not even an hour earlier. And then... he's gone."
The coroner would rule Conner's cause of death as accidental overdose of fentanyl. He died on Jan. 30, 2023, just a week shy of his 33rd birthday.
Even as she tells the story all these months later, Olivia recognizes that the circumstances of Conner's death will be shocking to those who knew him.
"My brother hated talking about his illness," she says. "So many people, even in his close circle, didn't know about his Lyme. So again, to hear he died of a fentanyl overdose, there's immediately going to be this assumption that he was partying. Conner wasn't like that. This was a relapse. This was his means to survive."
But talking about it helps. Last month, Southern Charm viewers saw the episode that was filmed when Conner died. News of his passing hit the cast with a wave of sadness and compassion, many rallying around Olivia to offer their support. It was an emotional hour of television that earned praise across social media by Bravo fans.
The response gives Olivia the courage to share details of Conner's death with PEOPLE.
"Like most siblings, Conner and I have always been very protective of each other. So discussing this loss with a larger audience hasn't been easy. But I definitely want to step outside my comfort zone and use my platform to shed some light and awareness and possibly help others, because I know I'd be honoring Conner in some way by doing that," she says.
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Sharing also keeps Conner's legacy alive, for those who weren't lucky enough to know him personally.
"He loved to help people," Olivia says. "He was actually the one who encouraged me to do the show. And I remember producers asking several times if they could do a scene with Conner and I, but because I'm so protective of him, I never wanted to talk about what he was going through on camera. But he agreed to do a FaceTime call from Arizona and I'm so glad he did because now I have that footage forever."
"It was such an accurate portrayal of who he was, too," she continues. "If you watch, what he's saying is 'Passing the torch to me.' And I didn't know at the time what that would mean, but I'm very, very grateful for that conversation."
Olivia pauses. "You know, I've always been known as 'Conner's sister.' Not 'Olivia,' mind you — that was what they'd call me. 'Conor's Sister.' Literally, written on my name tag at camp," she tells PEOPLE. "I hope they still call me that..."
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please contact the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.
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