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Suburbia’s Deadly Secret

When a great place to raise children is also an easy place to score drugs

by Jennifer Austin on August 21, 2013 · 13 comments

 

Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Route 43 in Rensselaer County is a winding rural road that offers scenic views of rolling hills and endless grassy fields, sporadically populated with old farmhouses and single-family homes with landscaped flowerbeds and manicured lawns. About a 20-minute drive from Albany, most of it along Route 43, Sand Lake is a quiet town with housing developments set back from the main roads, where neighbors might join each other for a summer swim in the pool or a family barbecue on the back deck. AJ’s Pizzeria, Deanna’s Country Shoppe and Bridal Boutique, and the Pie Squared Bakery and Sweet Shop are a few of the independently owned stores spread out along the county route.

The small town of Sand Lake, which includes the hamlets of Averill Park and West Sand Lake, has been popular over the years with city dwellers who have come to enjoy the seven lakes, some of which boast docks and sandy beaches, and the Poestenkill Falls, a glistening waterfall and swimming hole tucked away in the woods. Like many rural towns that once were blanketed with farms, Sand Lake increasingly has become more of a suburb, families lured by the peacefulness and quality of life; the Averill Park School District was ranked 14th out of 85 in the Capital Region in the Business Review’s 2013 Schools Report. This is a town where the smell of freshly cut grass lingers in the air, and all that can be heard on a typical summer evening is a few dogs barking, a child dribbling a basketball, and the rhythmic chirping of crickets.

Early this July, on a Tuesday morning around 10 AM, it seemed like just another typical day in the small town. Residents gathered at the local Stewart’s shop on Route 43 in West Sand Lake and sat together in booths to share their morning cup of coffee and the daily gossip. But then the unthinkable happened. According to various reports from people in town, a young man stumbled out of the bathroom and told the clerk to call 911 because he had just taken a bad dose of heroin. Witnesses say that he collapsed outside the front door of the shop.

“This is a tragedy,” says Maria D’Amelia, a spokeswoman for Stewart’s, “and we’re saddened by what happened.” The 23-year-old, whom family members describe as an all-American boy who played sports, was a Boy Scout as a child, and loved his family, was later pronounced dead at Samaritan Hospital in Troy.

Sand Lake is hardly the only community enveloped in the latest epidemic of drug abuse sweeping the nation. Local officials say the use of heroin is on the rise in many neighboring communities in the Capital Region, and with the death of Glee star Cory Monteith, who died from a combination of heroin and alcohol, the crisis is getting national attention. Communities from suburban Boston to Orange County, California, are plagued with the rise of both prescription drug and heroin use, and the overwhelming consensus is that it’s occurring at a younger age. Earlier this month, on the talk show Katie, in a segment titled “Dirty Little Secret in the Suburbs,” Katie Couric said that “thirty-four thousand kids between the ages of 12 and 17 will start using heroin this year. Over the last 10 years, teen heroin use has increased 80 percent from coast to coast.”

According to drugfreeworld.org: “In its purest form, heroin is a fine white powder, but more often it is found to be rose gray, brown or black in color.” It is sometimes cut with “strychnine or other poisons,” and when these additives don’t fully dissolve, they can “clog the blood vessels” and “lead to infection or destruction of vital organs.” It is difficult to know the “actual strength of the drug . . . and users are constantly at risk of an overdose.”

The town of Sand Lake is still abuzz over this young man’s death. And locals say he was the second young adult, both former students at Averill Park High School, to die in just two weeks. Family members say that they’ve heard one medical professional in the community say that he had lost 10 friends in the past two years—eight to heroin.

 

Dying young and fast: O'Neil-Haggerty says that once someone starts to use intravenously, death may be only months away. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“It’s an epidemic,” West Sand Lake resident Linda Martino said at the Rage Against Alcohol and Drugs (RAAD) community meeting at the Averill Park Firehouse on July 17. Martino added that she has been to five or six funerals of young adults in the past four years. “I’m tired of burying people. . . . It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “This heroin grabs a hold of everybody and sucks them right down. They’re good kids. They’re good kids. They come from good families.”

Leaders at the RAAD meeting told the room full of concerned friends, neighbors and relatives of troubled local youths, that it often starts with prescription drug use, and some high school kids are going to parties where a big bowl of pills are set out for consumption; that these young kids are popping pills and they don’t even know what they’re taking. Plus, they’re mixing it with alcohol. Kids are getting hooked on prescription drugs and that can lead to using harder drugs down the line. A young student stood up to speak. She told the crowded room that by the time she hit the eighth grade, it was all about drugs all the time in school.

“Eventually, the high [from prescription drugs] isn’t good enough and they turn to heroin,” says Jennifer O’Neil-Haggerty, Averill Park High School’s student assistance counselor. Prescription drugs can also be a very expensive habit to maintain. “The heroin is pure enough to be snorted, for a while. And it’s cheap. So they use that and, eventually, probably will inject.” She adds that once people start using intraveneously, death is often only about six months away.

RAAD leaders stressed to those who attended the July meeting, that if you think it’s not going to affect you or your children, you’re wrong: Everyone will be touched by this crisis in some way. The family members of the victims share similar sentiments: I never thought it would happen to my family. Now that I know, I see how big the problem is. Now I see the signs all of the time. It’s unavoidable.

“You’ve got to be aware of the change in the culture, the availability of things kids get high on. It’s everywhere, and you’ve got to know about it,” says Rensselaer County District Attorney Rich McNally. In last year’s annual drug survey of Averill Park students in grades 6 through 12, there was a startling discovery: Fifty-two percent of surveyed students said they don’t think drugs are risky. “There’s been a huge change in the last five, 10 years, seeing prescription drug abuse. The new crack is what I call the Rush Limbaugh,” McNally says, referring to a sharp increase in abuse of prescription drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, and all prescription pain medications that fall into the opiate (narcotic) classification. Because they are prescribed by a doctor, there’s a perception that these prescription drugs are safe.

 

Finding hope: (l-r) Tator and Holser know that recovery from addiction is possible. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

New York state police and Rensselaer County sheriffs have set up a task force to handle the growing problem of drug abuse in the town of Sand Lake, but officials say it takes time. “Long-term narcotics investigations are just that,” McNally says. “You have to get out, gather intelligence from individuals . . . get confidentiality . . . learn how to get in and make transactions, and make investigations, and make arrests that are gonna stick. It takes time.” Community leaders contend that is why it’s important for the community to get involved and for parents to understand where the cycle of addiction is starting.

“It’s easy to think that the big bad drug dealers are out there luring our kids into taking drugs,” McNally adds. “It’s a convenient way to think, but that’s not what it is. We have a culture of a lot of different narcotics and drugs that are available to our kids in the home.”

RAAD leaders say that kids are even finding Fentanyl patches, a drug that is significantly stronger than Morphine and is typically prescribed for patients suffering with severe chronic pain who have grown resistant to other narcotic pain medications. They are cutting the patches up and eating them to get high.

The family of the young man who collapsed at the Stewart’s shop asked that his name not be printed here, and some would argue that the omission of his identity is symptomatic of a part of the problem. “Stigma is one of the hardest aspects of addiction,” says O’Neil-Haggerty, but “addiction is a disease, not a moral failure.”

If any good can come from the deaths in Sand Lake and around the country—which may be of little or no consolation to families who have lost loved ones—perhaps the publicity will help change the perception and stigma associated with heroin addiction. “I am a parent of one recovering addict and the other one is currently using and is on the streets,” said Barb Holser at the Averill Park RAAD community meeting. Holser added that she used to be in total denial about her children’s drug use. “No way can my kid take heroin, that’s for bums on the street. Well, it’s not.”

Holser’s children, she says, had very normal lives before they started using. “My kids were each the average child. They played baseball, my daughter did bowling, we went on family vacations. I went to all the school meetings like parents do.” Holser’s partner, Dave Tator, has been in recovery for 18 years. He attributes his success to work he does with a 12-step program.

O’Neil-Haggerty says, “Addiction is not planned, or a choice, and can happen very quickly. People who use opiates become physically dependent on the drug with the very first or second use.”

According to drugfreeworld.com, a 15 year-old addict named Sam said, “It will cling to you like an obsessed lover. The rush of the hit and the way you’ll want more, as if you were being deprived of air—that’s how it will trap you.” Experts agree that it is a powerfully addictive drug and that parents need to discuss with their kids how just one time could be the end.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, even if you don’t think your kids listen to you, studies show that “kids who believe their parents will be upset if they try drugs are 43 percent less likely to do so.” And parents need to understand that the head-in-the-sand notion that their kids would never use drugs is unrealistic. It’s difficult to accept because the negative perception of the heroin addict is everywhere. Rensselaer County DA McNally says, “It’s not us against them. It’s us against us.”

Most experts agree, on both a local and national level, that awareness and education are key and that drug abuse is starting with prescription drugs that kids are getting right out of their own homes. Experts say parents need to get rid of the drugs that they’re not using and monitor anything they are. They also need to talk to their kids even if they don’t suspect anything. “You gotta have these talks with your kids,” McNally says. He and RAAD leaders insist that your kids do listen to you, even if you think they don’t.

O’Neil-Haggerty adds, “You are the biggest influence. This is not a one-shot deal, and should be talked about many times over.” She also says that the community still doesn’t know what to do about the “18- to 27-year-olds who seem to be struggling the most at this point” and adds that her “number one hope is that young adults can receive treatment. Connect with a support group because recovery is possible.”

Holser hopes that message hits home. “I’m being open and honest about this,” she says, “because if I can just let any parent know and not let it get to this point, and to let them know there’s help and hope out there, that’s what I want. If I can change one person’s life, it’s worth it.”

 

Help Is Out There

RAAD meets on the third Tuesday of every month at the Algonquin Middle School Library at 6:30 PM. The next RAAD meeting is Sept. 17. RAAD encourages parents, students, and community members to attend. RAAD also encourages students to join the local chapter of SADD. Meetings are held monthly at the Averill Park High School.

For more information, join RAAD on Facebook @RAAD AP or obtain free alcohol and drug information and prevention publications from the National Clearinghouse on Alcohol and Drug Information at (800) 729-6686. You can also get help for alcoholism, drug abuse, and problem gambling at 1-877-8-HOPENY (1-877-846-7369).

To find treatment providers, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-Hour Toll Free Treatment Referral at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357). Locally, Conifer Park offers a number of treatment programs, including inpatient and outpatient programs, and a new outpatient detoxification for opiates program. To contact Conifer Park, call 1-800-989-6446 or go to coniferpark.com.

You can also visit drugfree.org, timetotalk.org for tips and advice on starting conversations with your kids, drugfree.org/timetoact for parents who suspect or know their kids are using,drugfree.org/teenbrain for insight into teen brain development, and drugfree.org/parent for a Parent Tool Kit offering videos and articles on how to talk to your kids at any age.

{ 13 comments }

Robert Monroe, Jr. August 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Interesting article…I wish they had titled it “Suburbia’s Deadly Secret: White Punks on Dope”. Maybe law enforcement should start “Stopping & Frisking” white youth to curtail the spread of drug abuse in the suburbs. But, that would go against the real reason for this country’s “War on Drugs”…the targeting and criminalizing of Black and Latino youth…would’t it?

Anonymous September 4, 2013 at 8:53 am

Yeah ok. Liberal nut

Anonymous August 22, 2013 at 11:37 pm

What’s not talked about here is the problem of social groups in high school. Developmental psychology literature supports that good parenting works up to a point, and that point is typically adolescence. At that point, social groups seem to matter more; ensuring the children are not befriending and imitating their ‘bad influence’ peers is crucial to keeping your child on the right track. Moral of this story is to guide them to the group of peers that you most advocate as a parent. Too much freedom is neglect. Too much discipline is authoritarian. Need a healthy balance to be authoritative – to let your child know that s/he is being heard.

Anonymous August 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

The article reaches its goal of making the public aware of the growing issue of drug abuse but does not address the larger issue of being able to stay in a recovery program long enough to be effective. As a long time resident and parent of 3 kids raised in the APCS its sad to see so many lost to addiction. I belong to a non-traditonal, living room support group. We meet once a week in AP to simply provide a safe environment to talk about whatever; addictions, depression, financial pressue, bondages of all kinds. We have people in the throws of their addiction and others with 30+ years of soberity. What we are finding is that the ‘recovery programs’ available seem to be very restrictive. We have someone who has tired, unsuccefully, to get into a 30 day program twice only to be toss out after 4 days. Another who was attending a 90 day programs was tossed after 30 days. This as recently as last week. These people are then left to their own becasue the “insurance wont cover it” we are told.
It seems, to us that the “recovery programs” seem more interested in $$ than in recovery. We have decided (through experience) that the only effective, permanant way to real recovery has been through personal, daily support of one another, AA meetings where appropiate, prayer and God. For us this is working and we have grown from 3 to 15 people.

MEB August 23, 2013 at 1:40 pm

The article reaches its goal of making the public aware of the growing issue of drug abuse but does not address the larger issue of being able to stay in a recovery program long enough to be effective. As a long time resident and parent of 3 kids raised in the APCS its sad to see so many lost to addiction. I belong to a non-traditonal, living room support group. We meet once a week in AP to simply provide a safe environment to talk about whatever; addictions, depression, financial pressue, bondages of all kinds. We have people in the throws of their addiction and others with 30+ years of soberity. What we are finding is that the ‘recovery programs’ available seem to be very restrictive. We have someone who has tired, unsuccefully, to get into a 30 day program twice only to be toss out after 4 days. Another who was attending a 90 day programs was tossed after 30 days. This as recently as last week. These people are then left to their own becasue the “insurance wont cover it” we are told.
It seems, to us that the “recovery programs” seem more interested in $$ than in recovery. We have decided (through experience) that the only effective, permanant way to real recovery has been through personal, daily support of one another, AA meetings where appropiate, prayer and God. For us this is working and we have grown from 3 to 15 people.

dakotasmami September 9, 2013 at 9:38 pm

I agree wholeheartedly …. 30/60/90 days in rehab are not going to get people “clean”….long term recovery is needed. I’ve had a family member bring one or two heroin users to the hospital in the throes of possible ODs and the hospital turned them away from the rehab program…not in enough withdrawal … WTH????

Boring Upstate August 23, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Happiness is a warm gun,….Bang Bang, Shoot shoot…

Anonymous August 24, 2013 at 3:50 am

lets call people who do too many drugs and die the Heath Ledgers, and people who do drugs and crap in their pants the Keith Olbermans……yeah.

dakotasmami August 26, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Yes, this is an epidemic that until the public death of this nice young man, was kept largely under wraps. However, he wasn’t the first (hopefully the last) but over the last four years more than 10 people from our community have passed from drug overdoses. Time to de-stigmatize the deaths of our young people….it doesn’t matter if they die from cancer or drug ODs…they’re still gone from their families, friends and all who loved them. These were not “bad” kids…I was lucky enough to know some of them in different aspects…but I can say they were “good” kids from “good” homes and they got into something they couldn’t find their way out of. We, as a community, have to be more vigilant in coming forward with the knowledge of the people who are bringing the drugs into our community.

And lastly, a few of the above comments were truly crude…young people have died and their families are in pain…those off the cuff remarks are unwarranted.

Sharon Stancliff August 27, 2013 at 10:16 am

Heroin and other opioid overdose deaths are often avoidable. Naloxone is a safe inexpensive medication that can stop an overdose from becoming fatal if witnesses have it and know what to do. Call 911, rescue breathing and administer naloxone. In NYS it is legal for anyone who has had a 10 minute training course and received naloxone from an authorized prescriber to carry and use it. Many lives have been saved.
For more information:
http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/aids/harm_reduction/opioidprevention/index.htm
and
http://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/

dakotasmami August 27, 2013 at 11:26 pm

I agree 100% Sharon…in today’s world we need Naloxone right next to the AEDs…immediate access may have saved some of our young people!

Anonymous September 4, 2013 at 8:59 am

Calling it a disease is ridiculous. It makes it sound like the drug seeked out and found the user. We all make conscious decisions, do or don’t do, try or don’t try. Calling it a disease is a cop out, an excuse. With all the exposure to info about drug use today there is no ignorance. Instead working to further your career and pay for the big house and fancy cars, stay home with your kids and raise them. It’s called sacrifice for the good of your kids future.

Robert Monroe, Jr. September 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm

“Drug Overdose Is Only Tragic When It Happens to a Rich White Celebrity” or, may I add, white “all-American” suburban kids from “good families”. http://www.alternet.org/drugs/drug-overdose-only-tragic-when-it-happens-rich-white-celebrity