PORTSMOUTH — Earlier this year, when the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition (PPC) released its latest needs assessment that tracked substance abuse among local youth, the results were seen by many as good news. For the first time in years, the PPC report showed a downward trend in alcohol and marijuana use among local teens.
FOR MORE: Read about Carol Wilcox, who's fighting for better treatment for people with both substance abuse and addiction problems, following the death of her son, Kevin James Medeiros, from an accidental overdose last year.
But something important got lost in the 20,000-word report, according to Liz Morley, who joined the PPC 10 years ago after catching her 16-year-old son smoking pot.
According to the substance abuse survey, the number of heroin treatment cases in Portsmouth increased from five in 2012 to 19 in 2013, and to 30 in 2014. In addition, 10 local people reportedly died from overdose deaths from 2014 to 2016, representing nearly half of all deaths from opiate usage on Aquidneck Island, according to the report.
“Unfortunately, based on these trends, it confirms that the opioid overdose problem has roots in Portsmouth,” stated the needs assessment, which was prepared for the PPC by John Mattson Consulting. “Overdose deaths have increased statewide from 2011 to 2016 by more than 90 percent.”
It’s a troubling trend that cannot be overlooked, Liz said.
“The kids are using less pot and alcohol based on this needs assessment — that’s the headline,” she said. “But it also refers to Portsmouth as a critical area of this opioid crisis, and you could ask 1,000 residents of Portsmouth and not one of them would be aware of that. People need to wake up. To me, (opioid addiction) is getting lost. We have experienced two deaths …”
“ … in our small moms’ group,” interjected Carol Wilcox, whose son, Kevin James Medeiros, died of an accidental drug overdose at her home on Christmas Eve, 2016. He was 22.
Carol was part of a core group of five mothers that started meeting regularly after participating in a focus group for one of the PPC’s needs assessments. Some of the moms already knew each other because their children were in treatment programs together, Liz said.
“They were interviewing us on what we knew about drugs and alcohol, our opinions — that type of thing. We were the informant group,” she said.
“The Moms Club” — often called “the drug moms” — has been meeting for five years now, collecting a few new members along the way. They connect at an ongoing support group held Wednesdays at Clinical Services of Rhode Island’s King’s Grant office. Now they’re on a crusade to spread the word about opioid usage, and to help parents learn to detect the early warning signs so they can stop a problem before it starts.
“These were moms who were trying to do the right things for a long time,” said Ray Davis, coordinator of the PPC. “It’s heart-wrenching. I’ve been to some of those funerals, and it’s tough. Sometimes a parent can help another parent understand a situation much better than I can, because they’ve been in the fire.”
“They’re some of the best, strongest women I’ve ever met,” said Debbie Lawrence, whose 25-year-old son, Bradley, died May 20 in Los Angeles after suffering from heroin addiction for years.
Bradley was a member of Portsmouth High School’s Class of 2010, which the moms said seems to have been haunted by opioid addiction.
“There have been at least three deaths,” said Liz. “One of the kids is in the ACI now. That was a particularly troubled class.”
Problems in middle school
For most of the moms, their children had problems in middle school with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, or had a learning disability such as ADHD. They started drinking and/or smoking pot, and opioids came later in high school.
“It starts with a mental condition — depression, anxiety, withdrawing,” said Debbie. “We have to get over this stigma of mental illness. Look in your backyard. How many of our kids that Bradley went to school with have died? It’s in our backyard.”
“The stories are all so tied together,” said another mom, Susan, who realized her son Robert was a heroin addict shortly after noticing all the missing spoons at her home nearly five years ago. Now living in California, Robert’s been in recovery for several years. (“Susan” and “Robert” are pseudonyms to protect their identities.)
Added Carol, “I think our kids who are addicted are so incredibly special to us because we can feel their pain. We saw them grow up from babies and know why they self-medicated. We saw how difficult their lives were.”
Can happen anywhere
What’s especially frustrating to the women is the idea that a place like Portsmouth could be immune from opioids. Many parents have buried their heads in the sand, they say.
“We all have an impression that it only happens to people who live under the bridge and that it doesn’t happen here,” said Susan.
Susan said opioid addiction can befall a family of any socioeconomic status because it’s a disease that doesn’t discriminate. “I know people from every single walk of life,” she said, mentioning the CEO of Hasbro, Brian Goldner, who lost his 23-year-old son Brandon to a heroin overdose in 2015.
“People have a very distinct image of what a family with a heroin addict is like, and it’s not what they think. We’re not all from New Bedford, or wherever this stereotype comes from,” Susan said.
“We’re not all from divorced homes,” said Meredith (also a pseudonym), another Portsmouth mom whose life has been upended by a child’s addiction to opioids.
“We’re college-educated, we’re military families, we’re everything,” said Susan.
Reporting the problem
Too often, parents and adolescents look the other way when they suspect someone may be involved in drugs, the moms say.
“Parents should hold each other’s confidences, and the youth of this community should not be afraid if they see a friend, classmate in trouble with alcohol or drugs to confide in someone that can get some help to them,” said Meredith. “No one is immune and you need to stay on guard.”
Carol agreed. “If there are five kids goofing around, one of them is going to be in the soup,” she said. She urged parents to work together and veto sleepovers, which all the moms said is a recipe for bad behavior.
But too often, they say, parents are quick to downplay a potential problem or warning sign, such as marijuana use. One mom said another parent once urged her to “lawyer up” after her child was caught with pot. When police inquire, many parents get defensive.
“They say, ‘What are you calling me for? It’s only pot.’ But this isn’t the pot from the ’70s,” said Liz. “It gums up the system, as opposed to it being an opportunity to get some help.”
Carol nodded. “What we’re hearing is … parents aren’t cooperating,” she said. “We realize that many parents’ kids will smoke pot and be fine, but our kids weren’t, and there are many other kids who aren’t.”
Once someone is hooked on heroin or another opioid, it becomes much more difficult to get them to stop, they said.
“What have we not done? We grounded him. We’ve yelled, we’ve cried, we’ve talked, we’ve made contracts,” said Susan.
“We took away the car, we took away the computer, we took away the phone,” added Meredith.
They tried so many things but couldn’t change the outcome. “But we still want parents to know that maybe they could see things a little earlier,” Meredith said.
“And, we can’t say it’s hopeless,” added Carol. “Robert is alive. One of the other mom’s child is alive.”
‘There’s help out there’
They also want parents to know that if they do suspect there’s a problem with their children or a friend’s child, there are plenty of local resources to tap into.
“If you need help, there are support groups out there,” said Susan. “There’s no shame in walking through that door. You don’t have to be ‘on’ for your family, or this set of friends. You’re not alone.”
Liz said there while there’s been plenty of progress in fighting substance abuse in Portsmouth, more needs to be done.
“A lot of great changes have happened. There once was no school resource officer; now there’s a cop in the schools full-time. Now they have drug-sniffing dogs,” she said.
While parents should enforce real consequences for their kids, she said school administrators, coaches and the Boosters need to educate students and share information with parents about substance abuse rather than immediately suspend a student who’s caught with drugs.
“We want the kids to be engaged with school, so we’ve been fighting out-of-school suspensions or being thrown off the team, because you want to give kids a reason to hang on,” Liz said. “With these kids who are struggling, you don’t want them to be isolated and disconnected from the school. Two weeks out of school? Why even try to study after that? How could you bring your grades up after that? They’re home using drugs for two weeks.”
‘People with names’
Besides sharing their personal experiences in hopes it will benefit other Portsmouth parents, members of The Moms’ Club also want the community to know their children are not mere statistics.
“My son was not just another addict, and neither are the others,” said Debbie, whose Common Fence Point home is full of photographs, mementos and memories of her son Bradley’s life, which was tragically cut short in May.
“They’re people with names. They were sons, they were brothers, they were somebody’s friends and they all have an identity.”
If you or your family has been impacted by opiate addiction, here are some resources recommended by The Moms Group:
• Clinical Services of Rhode Island (https://clinicalservicesri.com) offers a family support group facilitated by Peter Letendre at 6 p.m. every Wednesday at its King’s Grant office, 11 King Charles Drive, Suite A2.
• The Portsmouth Prevention Coalition meets from 8:30-10:30 a.m. the second Wednesday of every month, from September to June, in the second-floor conference room of Portsmouth Town Hall, 2200 East Main Road. The group has a website (portsmouthprevention.org) that will be up soon, as well as a Facebook page.
• Learn to Cope (learn2cope.org) offers meetings run by experienced facilitators. Its support group of family and friends touched by opioid addiction meets at 7 p.m. every Tuesday at St. Luke’s Hospital, 101 Page St., New Bedford.
• Kelly O’Loughlin (email@example.com; 401/683-2124, ext. 2604) is the student assistance counselor at Portsmouth High School, and prevention and intervention are at the center of her work. Parents who have questions about substance abuse can always contact her, and all discussions are confidential.