By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
Last year more than 64,000 people died of drug overdoses across our country. In Suffolk County alone over 600 deaths occurred due to opioids. That doesn’t include the countless deaths of young people written up in our newspapers as dying from “heart attacks” because too many families are embarrassed and ashamed that their sons and daughters are addicts.
So our count of deaths due to heroin overdoses I contend is much higher than the quoted 600 deaths. As one clergy person in our community, I preside over one overdose death every other week. At this point, in Suffolk County, we are burying at least two or three young people each week.
Two years ago this month, a young man from our community tragically passed away from an accidental heroin overdose. Billy had struggled with addiction for a number of years. He was totally supported by his family with all of his recovery efforts. He had extended periods where he was drug-free. Unfortunately, he was not able to sustain long-term abstinence and recovery.
His parents were beside themselves. Their grief was beyond words. It was overwhelming. Billy’s dad spoke at his son’s funeral; using his son’s voice to address the extremely large crowd of young people that gathered to honor their friend.
He urged them to take care of themselves, reminded them that life is fragile and that they need each other. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, Billy’s parents decided to become proactive to celebrate the gift of their son’s life, raise awareness and educate people specifically about heroin addiction.
Probably one of their greatest gifts to this war against addiction is their power of example. Their love and positive energy led to the creation of the Walk Against Addiction, which was held at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai on April 22 of last year to honor their son’s life and struggle and provide support for other families who are struggling.
More than 600 people gathered on that rainy Saturday morning to make a statement that all life matters. Countless families came with signs honoring their children lost to addiction seeking the solidarity and support of other families.
Billy’s parents’ tenacity to raise awareness and educate people about the perils of recovery and wellness has been profound. As an addiction specialist, I know people do recover, reclaim their lives and live fully productive lives, but the journey is long and oftentimes very, very difficult!
Their energy and commitment gave birth to the War on Addiction Rally to be held on Saturday, April 21, 2018, at the Pennysaver Amphitheater at Bald Hill in Farmingville from 10:30 a.m. to noon. While this event is free to attend, donations are appreciated. The major purpose for this rally is to educate, raise awareness, rally for compassion, change and hope! The organizers are hoping to fill the amphitheater with more than 3,000 people.
This event is intended to be more than just a rally, to hopefully be the beginning of the movement that will inspire people to challenge the government to stop paying lip service to this national epidemic health crisis and actually begin to do something that matters.
We need more treatment beds today, not tomorrow. We need to take on the insurance industry that is sentencing our kids to death in record numbers because they are denying residential treatment.
We need a greater network of support services for those battling addiction that is accessible to the person in early recovery. People who are afflicted with addiction need greater access to mental health services that are affordable and confident.
These are troubling times — disrespect, prejudice and discrimination are everywhere. We need to remove the stigma from people afflicted with addiction. We need to end the shame, blame and disrespect!
Our leadership on the federal and state level is a disgrace. They are an abysmal failure. They need to be challenged to give voice and support all those who are attempting to walk the difficult road of recovery, one day at a time. Sometimes it’s one hour at a time. However, hope is the anthem of our souls.
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.