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Connecticut parents find coping with death in state opioid epidemic a tough and lonely road

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This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register and was written by Anna Bisaro and the photo is courtesy of Peter Hvisdak.

WEST HAVEN >> As she headed downstairs on her way to work one morning in late May, Joy Meyerholz was surprised to find the light on in the living room, where her son, A.J., and his ex-girlfriend appeared to be asleep.

She had seen him sleep like this before, slumped on the floor with his head resting on the couch. But it was strange to see his ex-girlfriend, who had moved out months ago, draped on top of a chair in the corner of the room.

Glancing over at her son, who was 20, Meyerholz saw his shirt slightly raised, revealing what appeared to be blotches on his back, she said. She knelt down to wake him up.

And then she started screaming.

Gina Mattei of Shelton also recalls screaming the last morning she saw her son. She said she was asked to leave the ambulance outside her then Derby home because she would not stop screaming. She continued to scream for her son Louis, 22, to come back as she watched a nurse push on his chest, performing CPR for 25 minutes in a hospital bed.

Meyerholz and Mattei do not know each other, but they are part of a growing group of Connecticut parents who have lost children to opioid addiction, a disease that is claiming more and more lives every year. They are not keeping quiet about it.

As some parents search for ways outside of an obituary to share their child’s story, some speak publicly to share stories of love, loss and what might have been for their sons and daughters, as a warning to other parents whose children might fall victim to the same fate.

Addiction to opioids, many parents say again and again, knows no bounds and it can sneak up on and grab hold of anyone of any race and social status, including their own popular kids, athletes, artists, free spirits and caring older brothers and sisters.

“Probably every parent is scared to death that this could happen to them,” Mattei said. “There are a lot of Louises out there.”

In Connecticut alone, 78 youths from the ages of 17 to 25 died as a result of drug overdoses in 2015, or what the state refers to as accidental intoxications, according to data from the state medical examiner. For the first half of 2016, that tally had already climbed to 46 individuals, including Anthony “A.J.” Meizies, who died in May, and Louis Ahearn, who died in February.

“No mother should have to know how much their son’s brain weighs,” Meyerholz said, referring to the autopsy report that showed Meizies died from an accidental intoxication of cocaine, heroin and Xanax.

Ahearn, according to Mattei, died as a result of taking a pill of pure fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin.

“He didn’t stand a chance,” Mattei said. “To me, my son’s death was accidental, just like a car accident. This snuck up and grabbed him.”

‘I’M NOT ASHAMED’

When Ginger Katz’s son Ian died 20 years ago from a heroin overdose, she said she was advised by doctors to say that he had died from a heart attack.

“Most parents weren’t telling the truth about what was happening,” Katz said. “I didn’t want to bury my son in a lie. I’m not ashamed of him.”

Ian Katz, who would be 41 now, had relapsed in the days before his accidental fatal overdose and, the night before he died, he told his mother he would be heading back to rehab, she said. Katz found him in the morning on her way out of the house for a morning jog. He was still warm when she found him in the living room, she said.

While that fatal day is forever stamped in her brain, Katz is now using her experience as a grieving mother to prevent other children from meeting the same tragic fate as her son. She founded and now is the director of The Courage to Speak Foundation, a Norwalk-based organization that works to educate parents and students across the country about the dangers of opioids, a problem that has grown worse in the years since Ian died, she said.

“One out of three parents talk to their kids about drugs,” Katz said. “That means two out of three kids come to school not having that conversation at home.”

The state medical examiner predicts that more than 800 people will have died from accidental intoxication by the end of 2016. More than 480 of those deaths are predicted to involve heroin.

Despite the growing numbers of deaths from opioids, the stigma feels far from gone for some mothers who have lost children to overdose as recently as this year, including Meyerholz and Mattei, but said they have refused to remain quiet about it.

In October, an obituary ran in the West Haven Voice that describes Meizies as “a very sensitive, polite, popular young man,” and the start of the last paragraph says, “He died of an accidental drug overdose on May 24.” Meyerholz keeps a copy on the refrigerator and a stack of the newspapers containing the obituary on a shelf in her kitchen.

“I don’t want to hide how he died,” she said. “I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of him.”

Meyerholz said Meizies struggled with addiction for three years — at least that’s how long she knew about it. He was not the first in the family to suffer from the disease, Meyerholz said, and she said she feared that his draw to drugs stemmed from his father being in prison for a lot of his childhood on drug-related charges.

“I knew he smoked weed,” Meyerholz said, adding that her son never had used drugs at home. “The farthest thing from my mind was that he was addicted to pain pills. … He was a good person but he let his demons fulfill him.”

Meyerholz pushed him to do rehab programs in New Haven after he opened up about his addiction, she said, but she never considered throwing him out of the house.

“The reason for his death does not touch on who he was,” Meyerholz said, adding that Meizies was athletic, funny, and was a loving brother to his sister, Amaya. He had Amaya’s name tattooed on his right arm, she said. He had planned to move to Florida for a new job and a fresh start, and had been due to leave two weeks after he died.

Like most parents who don’t want to come to believe their child’s an addict, Meyerholz said she thinks she put her blinders up when it came to understanding the extent of her son’s addiction.

“It was like he had a separate life,” Meyerholz said. “And I don’t believe it’s a choice. … A lot of people say ‘let the addicts die,’ but they can’t stop. They really can’t. He didn’t want to be like that.”

A CALL TO ACTION

Connecticut’s U.S. attorney’s office working to help families of fatal overdose victims

Inside Sue Kruczek’s house in Guilford, there are five stockings hanging from the fireplace off the kitchen. One of them is for Nick, Kruczek’s son, who died two years ago from a heroin overdose.

Kruczek said she was initially very quiet about her son’s death, until she realized how few parents she came in contact with were aware of how easily teenagers could get their hands on illicit drugs. Nick’s story, which has been told by Kruczek many times in the last two years, began when an upperclassman gave him a pain pill before his first hockey game as a freshman in Madison. It was to help take the edge off for the 14-year-old freshman starter.

Years later, it was Kruczek who found him dead in his apartment, having lost his battle to addiction after several attempts at detox and rehab.

“I think people can really relate to his story,” Kruczek said, adding that it still pains her to speak in public about her lost son. “But, when I’m done, I think maybe I’ve helped one more person.”

“Whatever can be said or done to help other parents not walk in our shoes, we are all in,” Kruczek added.

In addition to speaking at panels in the area, Kruczek worked with state Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, on the recently passed legislation that prohibits state doctors from prescribing opioids for more than seven days for pain that is not chronic.

Scanlon also has worked with Betsy Jehan, another Guilford mom who lost a child to overdose, to help raise awareness about opioid addiction, including attending and speaking at fundraisers Jehan has held in honor of her daughter, Martine, who would be 30 on Dec. 18.

The annual fundraiser will be held this summer to benefit Spiritual Gardens in New Haven. Jehan chose to call the fund­raiser “Wake Up — Stigma Kills” because one of the detectives that told her about her daughter’s passing said “she looked like she was just sleeping.”

Jehan’s daughter Martine died in November 2013, losing a battle to addiction that began when she was away at college in California and had already once been defeated with a sober period of at least three years.

The fundraiser benefits Spiritual Gardens because Jehan said she wants more people to have access to rehabilitation, as too often it’s too expensive for people who most need the help.

“She was a very proud girl,” Jehan said, adding that her daughter, a spiritual woman, had checked herself into rehabilitation programs several times on her own initiative and never shared much of her journey with her parents. “She thought she could do it all on her own.”

‘I DON’T WANT TO BE PART OF THIS CLUB’

The Friday before Louis Ahearn died, he helped Mattei’s fiance pick out her engagement ring. Since his father was not around much, Mattei said her eldest son had always been the man of the house growing up, and helping to find that ring was one of the last on a long list of things he had done to care for her and his younger brother throughout his life.

“Louis was unique and he had a heart that was bigger than life,” Mattei said of her son. “He was my hero.”

Mattei has shared Ahearn’s story publicly, including in federal court as his alleged dealer was prosecuted, because she wants to bear witness to the life he had before he started experimenting with drugs. Ahearn had only been experimenting with opioids for two weeks before he died, she said, and that was as an avenue to deal with a bout of depression that occurred after leaving college and having a hard time finding a job and missing his friends. He had been offered opioids by a friend — the federally convicted dealer — as a way to cope, she said.

But, as much as she talks about him, the pain remains very real, especially as the holidays come closer and she must constantly face that her son is no longer with her.

“It’s like the Earth just tilted and is forever changed,” Mattei said, after describing how she had to run out of a store full of Christmas decorations when memories rushed back of buying new ornaments from Ahearn’s favorite sports teams every year. “In a way, it’s like time stopped.”

Further, knowing there are other mothers out there dealing with the same horrors and tragedies doesn’t always help, she said.

“I’m not alone, but I don’t want to be a part of this club,” she said.

Federal charges were also filed against the alleged dealer in Meizies’ case, and the living room he was found in served as the crime scene for federal law enforcement as they conducted their initial investigations for hours.

Now, Meyerholz’s Christmas tree stands where Meizies’ body lay just more than six months ago, and she must find the strength to carry on every day.

“I feel like he’s stepped into my body and I’m now carrying his weight. That’s how heavy it feels,” Meyerholz said. “I can barely go to work every day still.”

Despite the horror of finding him in her own home, and memories of his barely open blue eyes staring as law enforcement turned her home into a crime scene, Meyerholz said she is grateful he was home when he died.

“I wasn’t sure how I felt about finding my son,” Meyerholz said. “But, when I think back, I think it was kind of precious because a lot of moms that this happens to, they don’t get to say goodbye.”

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