The disease of addiction tells many lies.
Abusers tell themselves one more pill, one more hit, one more shot will be different this time.
Addicts buy into the myth that it’s just a matter of willpower, that this time they will control the imperious urge to use. They just need to try harder.
But the biggest lie they tell themselves may be that addiction is a victimless crime, that they are hurting nobody but themselves. It’s their body after all.
Yet in churches and other community spaces, those who lost loved ones to addiction meet in Palm Beach County in support groups. They carry the scars of fighting for the lives of their grown children, their siblings, their spouses. Some, rather than enjoy retirement, care for grandchildren left behind.
And even after their loved one became yet another overdose death, another statistic, the disease still takes and takes from them.
These walking wounded let their guard down one Sunday afternoon at a Mexican restaurant to a Palm Beach Post reporter to talk about how support groups help them heal. Meetings, however, remain confidential and they remain stigmatized, afraid of the judgment of friends, co-workers — or worse — employers. Several parents decided, after they were interviewed, that they didn’t want their full names used in this story.
‘It shatters families’
“We are all the same. We all feel the same. It’s a comfortable place to talk,” said Lisa of Coral Springs who lost her 28-year-old son, Richard to an overdose. “My friends on the outside — they don’t want to talk about it. If I bring up his name, the subject is changed.”
She attends Alex’s Grief Support Group at the First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton on the first Thursday of every month. The group with more than 80 members is there for anyone who has lost a loved one to addiction. It’s the only one of its kind in South Florida and some members travel up to two hours to attend.
“I have spouses, I have grandparents, I have siblings attend,” said Melissa Friedman, who founded the group in 2015 after her brother died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose. “This disease goes so beyond just parents, though. It shatters families. I try very hard not just to focus on the parents in my group because there are so many people hurting.”
Others attend Compassionate Friends, which meets on the third Monday of the month at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Boca Raton, and focuses on deaths of loved ones from any disease or tragedy.
Vida Hamilton attends both Alex’s Grief Support Group and Compassionate Friends.
“I feel I need two meetings a month to help me through this,” she said. “I told my husband this last meeting I feel like I’ve grown. There were new parents attending that night and all they did was cry. They couldn’t even talk and I remember being at that point. But now I can talk without crying.”
She lost her son, Eric, to an accidental drug overdose in March 2017. A former teacher, he died at her Boca Raton home. Later she found a Xanax pill that she suspects was really deadly carfentanil, an opioid used to sedate elephants, because that’s what was in her son’s system, according to the autopsy.
It is not unusual for traffickers to press pills out of fentanyl to look like other popular medications, such as Xanax or OxyContin, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Lisa said the group known as GRASP — Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing — was a lifeline for her.
“I was really kind of Googling, ‘how to survive after losing your child,’ because basically you just want to die,” she said. “And GRASP came up and I called the number.”
‘All of us fought so hard’
Long before these deaths by overdose, the members of these support groups were victims of addiction.
They spent sleepless nights waiting for their child, spouse or family member to return home or at least call. They found their credit cards and possessions stolen by the addicts they unconditionally loved. They watched their family member face charges in court. They emptied bank accounts to pay for treatment.
Still, when they talk about those they lost, it is about their loved one’s dreams, their passions, their brilliance — not the drugs.
For the parents, there is a well-worn phrase that mothers and fathers are only as happy as their saddest child. If this holds, every relapse, arrest, lost job, broken relationship — all were also their burden.
Those left in the wake of these overdoses are angry that more isn’t being done on all fronts to fight the opioid epidemic.
They want dealers facing murder charges, a proposal voiced by President Donald Trump. They want pharmaceutical companies held accountable. They want the federal government to shut down the international suppliers that have fueled the scourge of fentanyl.
All, though, want people to know they fought — fought like hell — against a disease whose appetite seems to know no respite.
According to the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, 552 people lost their lives in the county to drug overdoses in 2016. Numbers for last year haven’t been released but overdose deaths are expected to increase.
As the opioid epidemic grows, support groups catering to those left behind grow, too. GRASP was started by a couple in San Diego in 2002 in their living room and now has 100 chapters in the United States and Canada. The group’s Facebook page has 7,250 members — a number that grew 2 percent in March.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will slow down any time soon,” said Denise Cullen, GRASP’s executive director in Southern California. “There are new chapters forming all the time.”
‘The definition of this word grief’
Losing a child at any age is traumatic, but to lose one to substance abuse is — as one member of Friedman’s group said — “the definition of this word grief.”
Unlike when someone dies of a heart attack or cancer, survivors often face the stigma — that their loved one must have been a bad person, that the parent, spouse, sibling or friend somehow failed them, GRASP’s website states.
“People don’t look at you the same, people don’t treat you the same. There is always the shame,” Friedman said.
Sociology Professor William Feigelman at Nassau Community College in New York has been studying this particular kind of grief since his son died of a drug-related suicide 16 years ago.
“A lot of people, especially early in grief are shame-riddled. People want to keep quiet and not disclose anything, but we find out that when people are open they are much healthier,” he said.
He said many times parents feel a sense of relief after the overdose, that the struggle — the numerous rehab stints, the arrests, the lost jobs — is over. “However, there is a gnawing guilt. They ask themselves, ‘Why am I at peace? I will be glad to give up this quiet state and run after my child and give them another chance.’”
In his study of people who lost loved ones to addiction, he found that once these individuals get in a support group they start to feel a sense of purpose. “They think maybe I couldn’t save my child, but I could do some good. I can memorialize my child and can help these other kids. There is an opportunity for post-traumatic growth.”
At a typical Alex’s Grief meeting, members share their feelings about who they lost or discuss a topic chosen by the coordinator, such as coping around the holidays. Sometimes doctors or grief counselors speak. Often newcomers arrive in crisis mode.
“When someone fresh comes into the group they are in complete shock and hysterical,” Friedman said. “Everyone in the group can put themselves back to the day they buried their loved one. Everyone can give advice and coping mechanisms to the new members because we’ve all been there.”
‘Always the shame’
New members are initially reticent to share after experiencing the stigma, but once in the group, they open up, Friedman said.
“People don’t look at you the same, people don’t treat you the same. There is always the shame,” she said. “But once they are here, there is a feeling of comfort and support. They are finally getting what the outside world refuses to give them because there is no sympathy for someone who was using pills and drugs. People don’t understand unless they’ve been through it.”
The disease transforms the lives of family members. This doesn’t always change when the addict dies.
Liz of Davie, who lost her 29-year-old daughter, Danielle Ferraro Morales, to a heroin-related overdose in March 2014 is now raising her daughter’s child. She goes to the park and feels out of place among the young mothers. She visits friends her age but she has her 8-year-old granddaughter in tow.
“There are a lot of children out there who are suffering from the disease of addiction, little ones. A lot of grandparents are raising them,” she said. “That while it is difficult at times being older and raising a young child, I am very grateful to have my granddaughter. She is a gift. It helps me get through each day.”
Frank and Susan Oddo of Boynton Beach echoed how the child left behind by their son has helped them cope with their grief.
“The memory of my son through my granddaughter helps me cope,” said Frank Oddo. “Every time I look at her, she is my son: her mannerisms, what she says, what she does.”
Oddo’s son, Frank Oddo Jr., died in October 2016. Today, he wears his son’s rosary beads at Mass every Sunday, he had his son’s thumbprint made into a necklace and keeps his son’s driver’s license next to his own.
Still, he concedes, “Every day my heart is silently in pain.”
He later found a letter his son had written to his unborn child, confessing he was an addict and that he was working toward getting clean. The mother of his son’s child got clean after finding his body and now cares for the child alone.
“He couldn’t fight this disease. He just couldn’t fight it anymore,” Frank Oddo said.
But children aren’t the only ones left behind. Other say dogs and cats formerly owned by their lost loved one serve as a great source of comfort. “Our pets don’t judge,” Lisa said. “They give us comfort and love us unconditionally. Our dog, Khloe, has been a tremendous support for myself and my daughter, Genna.”
These survivors share among themselves how songs come on the radio and trigger crying jags or how the most random of items can remind them unexpectedly of their loss. But they also talk about the little signs they take as messages from the other side.
“One white feather I found had a little black heart on it. It landed right in front of me,” Hamilton said. “I was outside sitting in the backyard and I was crying and this feather just flew down.”
‘He was murdered’
Hamilton said her son used to tell her he didn’t want to die and if he succumbed to an overdose to know it wasn’t on purpose. But adding to her anguish was when the Medical Examiner’s Office listed the overdose as suicide. She got officials to amend the cause of death as undetermined.
Hamilton organized the meeting for members of support groups to speak with The Post. The manager of the Boca Raton Mexican restaurant, Baja Cantina, opened up his establishment one Sunday afternoon.
One parent spoke about how her child ended up an addict by happenstance — a story familiar to many.
Wendy Lindsey of Boca Raton said her son, Tate Lindsey Jr., died at age 27 from an overdose of fentanyl in February 2015. When he was 18, Tate Lindsey was injured at work and prescribed tremendous amounts of hydrocodone, she said.
Lindsey is not a big talker, but she finds solace by attending Alex’s Grief Support Group. “Just knowing there are other people like me and being able to relate to everyone’s stories and being with people who understand where I’m coming from.”
Her son was one of those profiled in The Post’s Heroin: Killer of a generation, a November 2016 special section identifying the 216 people who died from heroin-related overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2015.
Lindsey would fax pill mills telling them to stop prescribing her son pills. After her son died, Lindsey learned the dealer who sold him the fentanyl had been in jail just one week prior.
And these parents track these individuals who sold drugs to their offspring. They track their movements on social media.
“We know where he is,” Susan Oddo said.
Many parents and family members of lost addicts also have fought their grief with action. They travel to Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers. They show up at county and city council meetings. They protest in front of pill mills.
“I’m not going to hide what happened,” Frank Oddo said. “We are going to tell people. We want to help people.”