PORTSMOUTH — Carol Wilcox, one of several local parents whose families have been hit hard by opioid addiction, said it’s often difficult to get their warnings through to others.
FOR MORE: Read about a group of local moms whose children have suffered from addiction to opioids, and they're efforts to spread the word to other parents.
“We’d like to just line up on a stage in the Town of Portsmouth and say, ‘Here we are, guys. You don’t think it’s going to be you? Well, we didn’t think it was going to be us,’” said Carol.
“If they had said 10 years ago that my child was going to die from a heroin overdose, I would have never believed it.”
Carol’s son, Kevin James Medeiros, died at home of an accidental overdose on Christmas Eve, 2016. He was 22.
“He was right next door to me. I didn’t know,” said Carol.
But as was usually the case, Kevin was in her thoughts at that very moment. Kevin had recently returned from Croatia — he won a trip there through a video contest he had entered — but went into a downward spiral at home.
“I knew that he had relapsed and I was actually in bed texting his recovery coach, telling her that we just needed to get through Christmas and then I was going to give him an ultimatum: Either he needed to leave or get into treatment again,” Carol recalled.
But she vows to ensure her son’s death won’t be in vain, by crusading for better treatment of opioid addiction to honor Kevin’s memory.
“He aspired to become a counselor for people struggling with their mental health and addiction,” Carol said. “He’s doing work now that he could not get to when he was alive. He’s doing it now.”
Started with pot
As with many people who end up getting addicted to opioids, Kevin started with marijuana.
“I think it was between middle school and high school — that summer and first year in high school,” Carol said. “I remember picking him up at a friends’ house one day and I knew he had done something and that he had smoked. His eyes were red.”
The fact that she kept seeing bottles of Visine around further confirmed her suspicions. “Your kids would never have Visine unless they were smoking pot — trust me,” she said.
It’s a mistake to downplay the seriousness of marijuana use, she said, especially since the drug is much more potent than it was 20 years ago.
“People say, ‘It’s just pot, it’s just weed,’” said Carol. “As Kevin’s counselor would say to him, ‘Kevin, no one ever started with heroin.’ Kevin would say, ‘I’m not going to use heroin. Are you kidding me? That would never be me.’”
After pot came the pills.
“It progressed to benzos (benzodiazepines), like valium — all very easy for him to get in this town. He never had to look very far,” said Carol, who suspects Kevin started self-medicating with prescribed pills he had secretly taken from another family member. “That’s a very common way for kids to get drugs and people need to be very aware of that.”
Kevin was attending Portsmouth High School but things got so bad that Carol and her husband, Michael, took him out and enrolled him in a therapeutic school during his junior year.
“We had tried a wilderness camp; that didn’t work at all,” she said. “We arrived there and he had oxycodone in his pocket. They couldn’t deal with Kevin; he just wanted to get home. Kevin drove them nuts because he went and stole a counselor’s phone; he just wanted to come back.”
Kevin lasted five days at the camp.
“That was a horrible experience. He was sent home from that wilderness camp as if he had gone to a sleepover party. They said, ‘You have to go and pick him up.’ There was no plan,” she said, noting there was no therapy for Kevin. “We had taken him out of school by that point and basically they just said, ‘Here’s your son — good luck.’”
Things got worse after Kevin graduated from Academy at Swift River in Massachusetts in 2013.
“Things just unraveled,” Carol said. “He got very heavily into drugs and alcohol. But when your child has mental health issues, too, it’s very hard to do that tough love kind of thing because they’re so fragile. Putting them out is something that’s really scary to do. We did try that but it didn’t do anything; it just made him very angry.
“It was like a train coming at us; there was very little we could do to stop his drug use.”
Good care is hard to find
After graduating from high school, Kevin spent nearly a year in California for rehab.
“Then he came home for Christmas and refused to go back. We had a difficult year. About five or six months later he told me that he had started using heroin. He said, ‘But mom, I’m not injecting it. I’m smoking it,’” Carol recalled.
Kevin was immediately enrolled in CODAC Behavioral Healthcare’s methadone program, but he still wasn’t getting the treatment he needed. “He basically flew under the radar,” she said. “He went in, got his methadone and left. He didn’t attend meetings. Good treatment is really hard to find, I gotta tell you that. It’s a nightmare.”
People who are addicted to opioids often have mental health issues, and Kevin was no different. In a video for Lifespan, Carol remembers Kevin’s unprompted crying fits as a young boy. He was diagnosed and treated for depression, ADD, bipolar disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. He felt out of place at family functions and was bullied as a child, but never told his parents at the time, Carol said.
“He was always changing our passwords on our phones, so people wouldn’t get to him, or he was blocking people. Can you imagine a little kid going through all that?” she said.
The video in which Carol appeared was featured at Newport Hospital's Summer Soirée, which raised funds for a dual diagnosis partial hospitalization program at the hospital for those suffering from both mental health issues and substance abuse, like Kevin. It’s one of the changes Carol is crusading for.
“Right now the one that they have at Newport Hospital is mostly geared toward mental health. They have a partial day program that Kevin did attend, but it didn’t deal with his addiction,” she said.
Kevin the person
Carol wants people to know that her son’s life wasn’t defined by drug addiction and mental illness. Kevin was a talented photographer, an excellent soccer player in high school, and so handsome he did some modeling on the side.
Although he struggled with his sexuality for much of his life — “Kevin said that he’d rather be ‘Kevin the stoner than Kevin the faggot,’” Carol recalled — he came out to his friends after high school. “That was very brave. I give him a lot of credit for that — for having the courage to be himself.”
Kevin had a goofy sense of humor and made friends everywhere he went.
“Kevin loved his family,” Carol said. “He adored his two older sisters, Jessica and Allison. He was an uncle and he loved his nephew. He had very good friends; he was a very popular kid. His funeral was amazingly attended, with 22-year-old kids coming by themselves. I remember one girl and I said, ‘How did you know Kevin?’ and she said, ‘He always included me.’ He wasn’t in one group; he was in all groups.”
Kevin’s life was “an overwhelming success,” the family wrote in his obituary, because he left the world a better place.
“The theme for us, with all of our children with addiction, is that the world was almost too much for them,” Carol said. “They were all very warmhearted people, and kind.”