Opioid awareness: The family’s perspective

More than 85,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in August 2020, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 232 people every day.

For every person there’s a network of family members who are left picking up the pieces, questioning why it happened and how they could have changed the outcome. Today you’ll hear from some of those people. 

Mainstreet Daily News is devoting the month of April to opioid awareness. We’re running a series of interviews with addicts, family members of addicts, law enforcement, health professionals and others, culminating in the DEA National Take Back Day on April 24.

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This week, an interview with MaryBeth Moore Zocco, who lost her son to addiction. This interview first aired on The Shepherd Radio and has been edited for length and clarity.

MIKE GILLAND: You lost your son Ryan just a couple of years ago. Tell us your story and about your project.

MARYBETH MOORE ZOCCO: I lost my 25-year-old son Ryan 27 months ago, on December 17, 2018, to what at that time I called an accidental overdose. I was told it was heroin laced with fentanyl. I have since learned that it was just fentanyl that took my son. But what I created in his honor is called The FRoM Project. And that represents Forever Ryan’s Mom. It’s important to me that just because he’s not here physically with us—that does not take away from my being a mom and having a son.

MG: You mentioned heroin laced with fentanyl. That is a common problem. People who sell drugs will purposefully do this to heighten the addict-ability.

MMZ: Absolutely. As I’ve come along in my grief journey, I’ve come along in my understanding about fentanyl. I used to know it as just a word on the news. But now it from my research and my findings I know that drug dealers are putting it in everything. There was no safe street drug. Fentanyl can be found in marijuana. A lot of our children are dying from overdoses because they think they’re getting a Percocet or Xanax. And it’s pure fentanyl. It’s not used with the intent that it came out with for pain management.

MG: You can’t help but think: Why would they do that? Are they just trying to make a buck and don’t care at all about the victim’s life, or the families that are affected?

MMZ: The dealers aren’t worried about whose lives they’re taking. Ryan was your typical boy growing up—active, energetic, loved being outside, loved music. He was best friends with his brother, who was 15 months older. They played sports and ice hockey for many years, so when my kids suffered injuries, they were given prescription Oxycontin, and I made sure my kids took it, because I was the good mom and nobody wants to see their child in pain. I did not know then what I know now right about the addictive behavior. But as Ryan got through middle school and high school, he started experimenting with marijuana, drinking, which I knew would happen, but I thought he would outgrow it. But he never outgrew it. He told me he liked the effects of when he was high.

MG: And these are the gateway drugs that open the door to much harder and more dangerous drugs later on.

MMZ: And I was what I thought was the good parent and did not have any prescription medications within my kids’ reach. I told them about prescription medicines, addictive behavior, and addictive behavior in the family history. But it’s not enough—because the teen brain isn’t fully developed. As a parent, you try and be watchful as you can and find out where they’re going, who they’re going with. There were so many things that I thought I did right. But I probably missed a lot of it.

MG: We all miss those things. We’re talking about bad habits here, and those are difficult for anyone. Some of these drugs change the body chemistry.

MMZ: Yes. When Ryan was 18, he started snorting bath salts. And at the time, the medical community did not know how to help somebody who did that. How it affected him was that when he was using them, it was a complete personality change. He was aggressive, he hallucinated, kicked in windows. One time we have police at our house because he thought we were being held captive. And I believe that affected his brain chemistry in such a way that it was the beginning of the unwinding of his brain.

So when he got off of that, he start experimenting with other drugs, and he never gave his brain the time to rewire and correct itself. And he was told by professionals when he was in rehab, ‘You have to give it at least two years to reset your brain.’ But for an addictive brain, it’s hard for them to get a feel a natural feeling, instead of the high feeling—whether the high was to make them like a speed thing or a downer thing.

MG: Did he talk to you about what he was experiencing?

MMZ: I think he battled addiction for about seven years—18 to 25. So, we spoke on and off during those years, and I realized that the time that he didn’t speak to me is when he was using and didn’t want mom to know. When we did speak, he made more of drinking. I thought his addiction problem was alcohol. I had no idea the extent of drug use that he was using. He was working on it off during that time, and he wanted to be a successful independent adult.

MG: Now you mentioned that he graduated from high school, but nowhere near with a potential of GPA that he would have had were it not for drugs?

MMZ: That’s correct. He was a straight A student involved in sports and after school activities, but by the time he got to high school, my straight A student was making Fs. He was not doing work, didn’t like authority, wouldn’t get up for school. It was a battle every single day.

MG: Your comments here may be useful for some parent out there going through the same thing.

MMZ: When you see that, my advice is, don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. It’s our job to be a parent. It’s not our job to be their friend. They will have friends along the way. But as a parent, find out who they’re hanging out with and monitor everything.

MG: Before we close out, tell us more about The FRoM Project.

MMZ: At the time when my son passed, I did not know one other parent who had lost a child, let alone a child to an overdose. I had nowhere to turn. So I went back home and struggled in my grief. And all I heard from people was, “Have you talked to a counselor? Get help.” It got to the point that it made me angry. So I started The FRoM Project. In the grief groups that I found online, specific for grieving moms who lost the child to substance use, I saw moms struggle with the pain and the grief. And I felt helpless. It wasn’t about my grief. I felt so bad for them, and what can I do? And I knew people around me didn’t know what to say to me, so they say nothing.

The first thing I did was I connected with one mom online who lost her daughter to an overdose a year before I lost Ryan. I wanted to do something for her, and I needed a way to keep my son’s memory alive. So what do I do? I made her a card. I made her a card, and I sent it to her. And in the card, I personalized it. And I wrote her daughter’s name. Because only three months after losing Ryan, nobody said his name anymore. And I sent her the card. And we’re still friends to this day. And I felt like not only did it help her, it helped my heart.

So I started making cards to send to other grieving parents who lost a child to an overdose or substance use disorder. And in it I have a short summary of Ryan’s story. And I personalize every card with their angel’s name. Because there’s nothing like receiving something tangible, and then opening it up and seeing your angel’s name. And it doesn’t matter when they passed. It’s that somebody cares about you. And somebody is remembering your child’s name.

This is the second in a series of interviews to bring awareness to the opioid epidemic. To listen to the full radio program on the families of addicts, click here. To read last week’s interview covering the addict’s perspective, click here.

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