This is not a story about statistics, with quotes from cops or government organizations, and neither is it an opportunity for institutions and professionals discussed within to be given equal time. This is the story of four sets of parents who have taken on the full-time job of trying to save their children’s lives, attempting to pull them back from the cunning and seductive grip of heroin. There are many commonalities in their stories, but two things become evident from the start: No matter how hard the parents try, there are roadblocks at every turn; and once heroin becomes part of a child’s world, it takes hold so tightly that it strangles the life out of the entire family. The names of the heroin users and their families have been changed in all the stories except for the Ciappa section.
One lesson all the parents tell is this: If you think your child is immune, you are mistaken.
In Edward Whelan’s Lindenhurst yard, he hands me a small plastic packet of heroin. His smile, which I’ve written about before—the one that lights up the room—is tinged with doubt. It’s a nice almost-fall day and the sun has already forgotten how to scorch, but Edward, who has been shooting heroin again after stopping for several months, is sweating slightly. He’s not the derelict kind of junkie we’ve become used to; he’s a decent kid from the suburbs, and he looks it, despite his habit. His crisp, white Sean John shirt glistens in the morning sun, the way his eyes did when we first met about a month ago when he introduced me to a group of his friends—some of whom were high on heroin, others who were in recovery—for a previous story I wrote about heroin use among Long Island’s high school students.
You might remember them:
Ricky and Lorraine, both 27, who were high when we met (although high isn’t exactly an accurate term: They were actually pretty low, depressed and lethargic. OK, zombies). They were busted a day later because they couldn’t wait to make the short trip from their dealer to their home, and they stopped off in what they thought was an abandoned parking lot. It wasn’t quite abandoned—there was a cop there. And they were arrested. Ricky went into rehab.
Edward, 24, tells me they are using again. The others, he says, are still clean.
I kind of knew Edward would start shooting junk again. He had stopped cold turkey on his own and was pretty adamant about not needing any type of rehab, a theme you’ll find common among all the junkies in this story. But really it was when he told me that there is a constant tug toward the drug and that he “think[s] about it every day,” that twinkle in his eye gave his future away.
Today is the day after 48-year-old actress Mackenzie Phillips, a former teenage junkie who has been proselytizing the sober life for decades, was arrested at an airport for heroin and cocaine possession. The lure, I’m reminded, is enormous.
This morning, Edward has a plan he’s about to sneak on me. Junkies are very wily, if nothing else. He wants to move the interview away from his parents’ house, where he lives, so I can bring him someplace where he can shoot up. When I say no, he just laughs. “Oh, well,” he says amiably, “I’ll just do it when I go to work.” It turns out he couldn’t even wait for that. He did it as soon as I left.
“I have no idea how to save my kid,” says Edward’s mother, Carol, sitting in a comfortable-looking armchair in their home, beginning to weep. “I don’t know where to go at this point. I had a feeling he started drugs, and then he told us he had, but he says he’ll stop. I’ve tried to stop him, but I don’t know what to do at this point. I called one counseling center yesterday and they couldn’t help me.
“Rehab won’t help. All his friends went to rehab and they ended up going back on drugs or dying.”
Unlike the other parents in this story, Carol is trying the laid-back approach. She has faith in her son. “I’m very concerned,” she says. “I stay on top of it. But what am I going to do, put a gun to his head?” Carol’s whole life is about worry. “My biggest fear is that he will not wake up in the morning,” she says, crying again. “Every morning, it’s a relief to see him.”
Edward promises that this day—the day of our interview—will be his final day of heroin use.
Tomorrow, Edward Sr. will take his son away for an extended weekend, away from his dealer, away from his friends who encourage him to use, upstate to the country.
Carol, a retired methadone nurse, wipes her teary eyes and says, “I just don’t want him to die like all his friends did.”
In their Nesconset home, brothers Steven and Bobby Clark, fresh-faced and blond, are sitting at the kitchen table. It’s Bobby’s birthday and a small cake sits before him on the table. Their mother is beaming at their side. If this were painted, it could be a Norman Rockwell Life magazine cover: the all-American family. The irony is, it is the all-American family, 2008 style: mom, dad, kids, dog and heroin.
Steven, a wiry, good-looking 18-year-old, was the kind of teen that anyone would look at and say, “What a nice, sweet kid.” And he was—at least, before this past June, when he got sickly skinny, with sunken eyes and an uncontrollable temper.
Steven was using heroin.
When his parents first noticed track marks on his arm last year, Steven said he had been scratched. He had an excuse for everything. But his father, Kenny, a recovering alcoholic, was not taking any excuses, especially after he found hypodermic needles in his driveway. Kenny immediately began trying to find help, starting with Stony Brook University Medical Center. They were unable to care for Steven. The track marks weren’t fresh, the hospital workers said, so it was not a medical emergency. “Even if he came home now and overdosed?” Kenny asked incredulously.
“At the hospital, they said that there was ‘nothing in their arsenal of resources to help,’” Kenny explains.
There are barriers along the way when a parent is seeking help for a child on heroin, Kenny complains: the high cost of rehab; insurance companies refusing coverage; centers determining whether the child is going through withdrawal and what stage they’re at. Or parents can go the legal route, family court, which the Clarks opted for. Because of Steven’s “menacing behavior” and his reluctance to get help, they took out an order of protection, which Steven violated the following day. The Clarks took the next painful step of having their young son arrested. At this point Steven was shooting three to six bags of heroin a day.
Kenny describes his interactions with his junkie teenage son: “His verbal outbursts take manic energy into a realm where anger is displayed by fits of cursing, projectile verbal crap coming at me as his face is pressed against mine. Threats like ‘I’d love to knock you out’ are viciously given in these face-to-face confrontations after short rational discussion has driven off the cliff. From zero to 90 in three seconds. The explosive anger, usually a day after his drug use, takes on ugly dimensions and leaves me emotionally exhausted and stuck in a hopeless place. I look to make sure that the windows are not open, and the neighbors have not seen and heard the drama. My pride and embarrassment have long ago evaporated into the dark void of my not-so-private distress.”
Imagine this being your day-to-day life. Now double it when you find out your second child is also addicted to heroin. Kenny’s older son, Bobby, 21, was hiding under the radar while all eyes were on Steven. And heroin was his drug of choice, too.
But Kenny didn’t know, and since Steven was the obvious problem at hand, it all but consumed him.
“I sometimes think I will lash out at [Steven],” says Kenny. “I was never violent with my kids. Perhaps I should have been. On more than one occasion I did call the police. The disease of chemical dependency has taken much of my serenity and peace.”
So because Steven broke the order of protection, Kenny thought that he’d get his son into the legal system, which would help place him into a mandated rehab program. The next day, on June 26, Steven went before a judge in criminal court in Central Islip for violating the order of protection by stealing money from Kenny’s checking account and exhibiting aggressive behavior. “The judge was good. He knew I needed help,” says Kenny.
Steven had taken his parents’ ATM card and stolen more than $1,000 from their account.
Kenny stood before the judge, and with his voice cracking, said, “I am on a mission to save my kid.”
On June 27, Kenny was going to go through withdrawal and voluntarily admit himself to Nassau University Medical Center, in East Meadow for treatment. In order to be admitted, an addict has to be in active withdrawal. So, Steven and his parents packed up and drove to Hicksville and checked in at the Econo Lodge. To pass time, Kenny and Steven went fishing while waiting for the withdrawal symptoms to kick in. At 5 p.m., when Steven was sick enough to be taken to the hospital, they packed his bag and drove toward hope—NUMC.
When they arrived at the ER, there were four other kids going through withdrawal, Kenny says, and one adult. After waiting almost four hours, Kenny says they were finally seen by a counselor.
“I need your driver’s license,” the intake counselor said to Steven.
“He doesn’t have one,” answered Kenny.
“We can’t take him without it,” said the counselor.
“He’ a goddamn junkie,” yelled Kenny, losing his patience. “He lost his license. He has a birth certificate, a social security card and two parents with him! We can’t take him home, he’s going through withdrawal.”
“But these are the rules.”
“Screw your rules,” Kenny said angrily. But it was Steven who was screwed.
The counselor made a call to Flushing Hospital Medical Center detox unit to see if they had a bed for Steven, and they did. So the family drove right over. On the way they stopped so Steven could get a slice of pizza. While he was waiting for his slice, a girl entered the pizzeria and bought a bag of heroin from the man behind the counter.
When they arrived at FHMC, they were informed that the center couldn’t accept their insurance. “How much will this cost?” Kenny asked.
“One thousand dollars a day,” they said.
“Bottom line,” says Kenny. “I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
Steven went through the six-day program and returned home. The Clarks were not satisfied; they had to get him more inpatient treatment. So they brought him to Seafield Center, in Westhampton, on the Fourth of July. Out of pocket: another $3,000 for a week at Seafield.
Imagine Kenny’s surprise when he was called the next day and was told that another patient had smuggled some heroin into the center, and Steven was using again.
Seafield—despite letting this happen under its watch—was going to kick Steven out, but eventually let him stay. Unfortunately, Steven was evicted soon after, for fraternizing with a female patient, passing notes back and forth, which was against the rules.
Drugs finding their way into rehab is a big problem, Kenny says. He says that after Steven scored at Seafield, Kenny was told that addicts should have the tools in place to be able to reject it. “I don’t buy that,” says Kenny angrily. “How can they reject that while they’re in the throes of addiction?”
Two weeks after leaving Seafield, Steven attended an anniversary meeting at Alcoholics Anonymous for his father’s first year of sobriety. His father’s sponsor, a reformed addict and now an addiction counselor, began mentoring Steven. It seems to have made a difference. “He’s much better,” says Kenny. “All the way, better. That man is a godsend.” Then, Kenny, the weary realist, admits, “Well, maybe [Steven’s] used once or twice.”
While all this was going on, Bobby was getting heavily into heroin. He had already had several years of trouble with alcohol addiction, then moved on to Vicodin and then heroin.
Bobby had been a mellow child. But now the cursing, drama and fighting were rearing their ugly heads in the Clark household again.
Bobby started physically wasting away. Although he maintained his employment at Applebee’s in Lake Grove, his father calls the work environment there “a pharmaceutical center,” and Bobby continued using.
But Kenny isn’t so naïve that he completely blames others. “We parents enable these kids,” warns Kenny. “We buy and pay for their car. We buy them clothes. We give them money and these lifestyles they lead. We let them have cell phones, which they end up using to buy drugs. When I was a kid, I used to think heroin addicts were the scum of the earth and would come from broken-down slums and from the boroughs. But now it’s in Smithtown, Stony Brook, Massapequa, because kids have everything they want at their disposal.
“And the schools are no help either,” complains Kenny.
“Snorting heroin is a socially accepted addiction,” he says. “Like marijuana.”
The fact that Bobby was using in the same house as the recovering, vulnerable Steven caused another level of concern.
Three weeks ago, Kenny found a looped belt in the back of Bobby’s car. When he searched the glove compartment he found a bag filled with about eight hypodermic needles, and in the car’s side pocket he found a half “buckle” (five to seven bags) of heroin—some of it already gone.
When confronted, of course, Bobby—with his broken-out face and gaunt appearance—denied drug use. “If we would have caught him with a needle in his arm, he would have denied it,” says Kenny, who opted to call the cops. That would lead to mandatory rehab, he hoped.
But in this never-ending world of false starts and false hopes, the cops were unable to do anything. “Unless we find it [heroin] on him,” they said.
Things escalated. Bobby stole his mother’s wedding and engagement rings—rings she had inherited from her mother. After an emotional confrontation, Kenny and his wife finally forced Bobby to comply—he was now their prisoner and he was going to go through withdrawal, away from his friends. But, sneaky as he was, Bobby managed to get some heroin from a neighbor friend—the son of a cop.
All hell broke loose, and Bobby ended up wrapping a dog leash around his neck in a half-hearted suicide attempt. Kenny called the cops and Bobby ran away with his 49-year-old father in hot pursuit. A mile and a half later, an exhausted Kenny caught up with his son after the boy collapsed in a stranger’s backyard. Kenny collapsed later in the cop car, where he was given oxygen. All the while their neighbors watched—neighbors, Kenny says, who are blind to the fact that their kids are heroin users as well. Their kids were doing drugs with his son. He tried to warn them, but some refused to listen.
The journey of junkies that is familiar to most parents was just beginning: the wild ride from one hospital to another, one rehab center to the next, for short stays or being rejected for any number of reasons.
Bobby was first brought to Stony Brook University Hospital’s emergency psych department. They determined that there was no active withdrawal, so they were unable to help. “They didn’t want to deal,” says Kenny. Eastern Long Island Medical Center, in Greenport, has very high criteria for admission and they too rejected Bobby, saying he was not exhibiting proper symptoms. Opiate addiction is not considered life threatening.
Kenny and his wife then took Bobby to a Riverhead hotel so the withdrawal process could begin. While calling rehab centers from his cell phone in the parking lot of the $300-a-night hotel, Kenny found empty bags of heroin on the ground. There is just no escaping this, he thought. Bobby had not yet gotten into deep withdrawal, so they moved on to Kenny’s AA sponsor’s home in Port Jefferson, where they crashed on his couch for two days. As Bobby’s withdrawal symptoms worsened, they felt he was ready to go for an intake at the Seafield Center Amityville facility. But Seafield rejected Bobby because of his earlier suicide attempt. At this point Kenny started driving to the alcohol recovery-based Matt Talbot Retreat Center, in Bohemia, but on the way there Seafield called back and said they had reconsidered and that their center in Westhampton would admit Bobby. The crazed traveling road show was about to come to an end.
After 21 days of mandated rehab at Seafield, Bobby shows signs of improvement. His skin has cleared up, his eyes are clearer. He was released this past Sunday, but on Monday night he tested positive for drugs. Bobby says it was from a painkiller he received at Seafield.
“It’s important to tell parents who might have similar problems with their kids that the hope of recovery can be found in the rooms of Al-Anon, Family Association (Day Top Family Assoc.), Families Anonymous, Alateen, Narcotics Anonymous, and AA. If it were not for [this], my sons’ addictions would not be addressed the way in which they have, and potentially, they would be dead.
“Tough love also helps,” adds Kenny, who knows better than to believe this is the end.
“I have to do everything I can to save my kid,” he says, crying. “I’ll do everything I can and more.”
The Never-Ending Story
In Sachem, Charlotte Mason has been fighting what she calls “a 20-year battle” to save her son, Brett, who has been an addict since he was 15. He is now 35, and he is still her baby. In many ways.
“I searched for any way to help. When he first started drugs it was before the Internet. I was calling 800 numbers and reading every book I could read,” she explains.
Charlotte didn’t waste any time when she realized her oldest son was on drugs. It was September 1989, the start of Brett’s ninth grade year, and she went to Principal Charles Cardillo at the former Sachem South High School.
“Listen,” she recalls saying to Cardillo, “I understand that [Brett] is doing drugs and dealing drugs in school. I need help.” Cardillo’s answer: “There is no drug problem in this school.”
She then brought Brett to his pediatrician, Marvin Leiber, M.D., of Holbrook, who had a brief, private meeting with Brett and said, “He doesn’t have a drug problem. He has an attitude problem.”
And so it went. No one would listen to her.
Brett never finished ninth grade.
Things came to a head when Brett got in a physical altercation with his stepfather, George, who was devoted to helping his stepson. Brett called the cops on his stepfather and Child Protective Service caseworkers were eventually called to the Mason house. According to Charlotte, as soon as they arrived and met Brett and spoke with Charlotte and George, they realized what the situation was—parents dealing with a drug-addicted kid. Charlotte asked them, “Where can we go for help?” They had no answer.
“Nobody could help us. We sought out every kind of help. Al-Anon meetings didn’t work; it was just people sharing their misery. I wanted action. I wanted to be proactive.” That was two decades ago, and Charlotte and Brett are still fighting the same demon.
In between? Here’s a sampling: In 1989, Charlotte tricked Brett and left him at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville for treatment, when he was 15. He was there for five months. Doctors there suggested that he be sent away for more long-term rehab, but Charlotte refused. “I couldn’t let my baby go for 18 months,” she says. She now desperately regrets that decision.
“From that point on, it just never stopped,” Charlotte says wearily, about trying to help Brett recover from his ongoing heroin habit.
Because of his addiction, for the past 10 years, Brett has been in trouble with the law. In 1999, he was arrested in Vail, Colo. for possession and placed on probation in New York. With Brett now on heroin, things began to escalate. In September 2003, he completed 28 days of rehab in Seafield in Westhampton and was living in a halfway house. He was arrested for shoplifting in Queens and sent to Rikers Island, then extradited back to Colorado for violating his probation. He served approximately two years in prison in Colorado, where he remained sober and healthy.
He got out of prison on May 25, 2006 and returned to Long Island, still on probation, which recently ended this past August. He was clean for a while, but began shooting heroin again. Even on probation.
That’s how it was…on and on and on and on, for 20 years. It’s amazing that Charlotte can joke about anything, but she is a strong woman. What she thinks about in the deep of night, no one wants to know.
“Why can’t I stop?” he asked his distraught mother. “Help me. Help me. Help me.”
How can a parent respond to a request like that?
“My son is going to die. Help me save my son,” Charlotte cried to anyone who would listen, this past July, during a road trip similar to the Clarks.’ Brett went through withdrawal in the car for four days as he was bounced between hospitals like the tennis ball at the Federer-Murray U.S. Open match.
It began with phone calls on July 18 to the Long Island Center for Recovery in Hampton Bays, Queens Hospital, Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, Cornerstone Drug Treatment Center in Jamaica, Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson—they all refused to take him. Either there were no available beds or they didn’t accept their insurance, Medicaid.
On July 20, Charlotte brought Brett to Eastern Long Island Hospital—you remember them, the ones with the high criteria. As with Steven Clark, Charlotte was told Brett was not detoxing enough. They brought him back the next morning and were told that his insurance wouldn’t cover it.
“You have to take him. You have to save my child,” Charlotte cried. But to no avail.
They kept calling hospital after hospital and no one was able to take him.
There was no choice but to detox him at home, with his brother, parents and recovering-addict friends at his side.
The detox was “violent,” Charlotte says. From July 21 to 23, Brett had a high fever, was sweating profusely, vomiting and unable to eat or drink.
“I never left his side,” says Charlotte. But she did leave to go to the bathroom. She says, “Unfortunately he could no longer take the suffering and snuck away from me for minutes, snuck out of the house and got high.”
After he returned high, Charlotte and Brett’s brother drove Brett from their Sachem home to NUMC in East Meadow, where, after hours of evaluation, he was turned away because they had no beds. Someone from NUMC called Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens, and Charlotte was advised that there were two beds available. They rushed to MIH to learn that those beds had been taken in that short period of time it took to get there. There’s no shortage of junkies.
“It was just heartless,” says Charlotte. “Was I supposed to leave him on a doorstep?”
They brought him back home and the next morning they took him to South Oaks, where he detoxed for the next five days.
Medicaid would not pay for any more time, despite desperate pleas from Brett’s doctor and therapist for long-term rehab. Medicaid suggested he try outpatient services.
Currently, Brett is an outpatient at Seafield, in Medford, and he sees a therapist and attends daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
Charlotte has spent the past 20 years consumed by fighting with doctors, negotiating with insurance companies, arguing with Medicaid, searching for medical help, paying legal costs, and wondering if her son would be alive by the end of any given day. There was hardly ever a minute of peace. For 20 years, and still going.
“I’m always waiting for the shoe to drop,” she says.
“My biggest fear is getting that phone call that he OD’d. I hope no one has to go through this with their child.”
“I’m Gonna Save Her”
Here’s a cautionary tale for all the invincible kids who think that if they take a snort of heroin they can stop when they want. Ever hear of Natalie Ciappa, the 18-year-old from Massapequa who died of an overdose this past June 21? She only snorted heroin; she never shot up.
Natalie was that knockout beauty who attended Plainedge Senior High. You know all about her: the cheerleader, the great singer who sounded like Mariah Carey, the honor student with a 113 average. The girl with everything to live for. The one whose father found her on her acquaintance’s couch, unconscious, her jaw so stiff with rigor mortis that her father’s attempts at CPR were futile.
It’s amazing that one small little packet of powder can do so much damage. One quick sniff can change so many lives in such an irreparable, tragic way.
The life of Doreen Ciappa, Natalie’s mother, was not supposed to turn out this way: a mother burying her teenage daughter. It was not the way things turn out in the vampire romance novels Doreen writes. There is no death in that world. Just everlasting life.
What was everlasting for Doreen and her husband, Victor, was their nightmare watching their daughter waste away and their continual fight to keep her alive.
“We hit every roadblock there was,” says Doreen. “They were pretty much everywhere.” A suspicious Doreen asked a doctor of Natalie’s to run a drug test. She was told they couldn’t do it without Natalie’s permission because of privacy laws. “They can’t do it when they’re underage, and they can’t do it when they’re over the age,” complains Doreen. “It’s at their discretion.” Doreen, now on a mission, is attempting to change those laws.
She eventually went to Natalie’s pediatrician and desperately pleaded, “I have to know what’s going on.” The doctor understood the seriousness of the situation and ordered a urine test that ended up showing marijuana and opiate use. “We were concerned at that point with OxyContin,” says Doreen. “Heroin never entered my mind. In my generation [a girl like Natalie] never did heroin.”
Natalie’s behavior began to change. “She became very volatile,” says Doreen. “She shoved passed us. She missed curfews. She didn’t care about anything. She tore the house apart. Oh my God, it was completely unlike her.” Before this, Natalie was the dream daughter. “It’s the kid you feel good about that you have to worry about,” Doreen warns.
Natalie was certainly the child that everyone wanted their kids to hang around with. She was in All County Choir, the National Honor Society, a cheerleading coach, and she was employed at a local pizza place. All that soon fell apart when she began dating Phil Ordaya, 21, who was busted for possession a month after Natalie died. The Ciappas have since learned that Natalie began experimenting with heroin when she attended a party with Ordaya, and his ex-girlfriend gave Natalie a drug to sniff that Natalie thought was cocaine. It was heroin.
“When we first met him,” says Doreen, “he was so quiet, shy, polite. He wasn’t really like the other boys Natalie dated.” Of course he wasn’t. He was a heroin addict.
The once-beautiful Natalie was now losing a lot of weight and developing dark circles under her eyes. She was moody, violent even, and in school, her eyes, with those beautiful long dark lashes, fluttered shut in mid-class as she nodded off.
When confronted by a teacher about her behavior, clever Natalie told the teacher that she might be depressed. So, in 2007—in the spring of 11th grade—Doreen says that Natalie’s guidance counselor, Lisa Madison, at Plainedge Senior High School, called her to inform her that Natalie had a “depression” problem. Doreen had her own suspicions, and when she told Madison and the school psychologist, Lauren Marcano, her concerns, Marcano later got back to Doreen and told her, “I just met with Natalie and told her she looks great.”
That following summer of ’07, Natalie really started to fall apart. Her weight fell dramatically, her behavior was deteriorating and her overall appearance was even sicklier.
At the beginning of Natalie’s senior year, Doreen, again, asked the school officials to check out her daughter. Natalie had already missed a few days of school because she was ill.
“I can’t get her to go for therapy, so maybe you can see her once a week. I need you to see her,” she pleaded to Marcano.
Doreen says that Marcano reported back that Natalie explained away her appearance by saying that she had a good exercise and diet regimen.
“Yeah, it’s called drugs,” Doreen angrily responded, in disbelief.
“She says she’s happy, and she looks fine,” Marcano said.
Fine? Natalie had lost 30 pounds, dropping from around 135 pounds to 105. Maybe it was the dark circles under Natalie’s sunken eyes that looked so good to the guidance counselor.
To make matters worse, Madison, Natalie’s counselor, suggested Natalie apply to Arizona State University, a notorious party school far away from her parents’ jurisdiction.
Things continued to deteriorate for Natalie, culminating on Memorial Day 2008, when she OD’d. Her parents found her on her bed in the morning when they woke; she was cold, blue-lipped and not moving. They touched her arm and she let out an otherworldly sound—it was Natalie trying to breathe. Victor attempted CPR, and hysterical Doreen called 911. Incredibly there was an ambulance already on the corner of their street. The emergency crew was unsure about which treatment to perform because they didn’t know what drugs the young girl was on.
“This is what I’ve been finding,” said Doreen, handing them small packets of powder. “What is this?”
“Heroin,” they answered.
Natalie, whose heart had stopped, was revived at the house and then brought to New Island Hospital in Bethpage, in what Doreen was told was “very bad condition.”
Five hours after Natalie was brought back to life, the hospital sent her home.
Sorry—did you think you read that wrong? I’ll repeat it.
Five hours after arriving at the hospital from a heroin overdose, the hospital discharged Natalie.
The hospital psychiatrist, Faiza Khan, M.D., had briefly examined Natalie.
“If she spent five minutes with her, I’m being generous,” says Doreen angrily. Bipolar disorder was the diagnosis.
“That psychiatrist had everything in her power. They had it in their hands. They could have turned this around,” says Doreen, starting to cry.
“Keep her here for psychiatric evaluation, if nothing else,” she pleaded. Natalie was a cutter and had a deep gash on her wrist. Doreen told the doctor, “This was a suicide attempt, keep her here.” The hospital refused. She had to leave.
“We were crying. We were saying, ‘Please keep her here,’” Doreen recalls. “You have to save my child. I’m begging you, please, please. We don’t know what to do anymore.”
Natalie, embarrassed, said to her mother, “You should have just let me die.” Well, that was the last thing Doreen was going to let happen. But it was a constant struggle.
Three days after the overdose, Natalie came home high. She and her mother had a talk.
“You think you love me, but you don’t,” Natalie said to her distraught mother.
“But I do,” said Doreen, crying while recounting the conversation. “I do.”
“No, you love the girl you think I am. The girl I used to be, but you can’t possibly love me now. You can’t love this girl,” Natalie said, arms outstretched to her mother.
“I love you,” Doreen told her. “I’ll always love you.”
That night, Doreen stayed up watching Natalie from 11:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., making sure she was breathing.
During the following days, Doreen began calling rehab center after rehab center, across Long Island and around the country: YES, in Massapequa, South Oaks, Seafield, Eastern Long Island Hospital, Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania ($53,000 for three months), and centers in other locations such as Florida, for information and help. By now, you know the routine, and the result. No help forthcoming. Plus, Natalie didn’t want help. She, like the other addicts interviewed for this story, believed she could do it herself.
Doreen even threatened Natalie with arrest: Go to rehab or go to jail. Nothing worked.
It was downhill after that. Natalie fought Doreen at every turn. “You’re going to have to pick me up and knock me out,” Natalie threatened.
“If I didn’t have two little kids at home, I would have knocked her out and dragged her in,” Doreen says now with a hint of regret. “But I was afraid I’d lose my [younger] kids.” “Don’t touch me,” Natalie warned her. “You’re not allowed to touch me.” As with most of the other parents trying to intervene in their child’s addiction, things finally did get physical, and there was at least one incident when Doreen had to physically fight and wrestle Natalie to obtain her pocketbook. When she finally got it and checked it, she found heroin in it. And that became a bargaining chip—“Go to rehab or go to jail” now had some weight behind it. Doreen did one other thing, which she recommends to all parents of addicts: Copy your kids’ telephone contact list.
“That was how we were able to find her the morning she died,” Doreen says.
Doreen never gave up fighting to save her daughter. But doors were shutting closed on them wherever they went.
Natalie gave in and chose to check out South Oaks. But that took weeks, with overdue returned calls and in-the-future appointments. Finally, she was evaluated and was given two more appointments. She never lived to see them.
One day, Natalie’s then-13-year-old brother, Nick, told Doreen, “Ma, I’m gonna save her.”
“I told him, ‘Don’t put that on your shoulders,’” Doreen said. “I’m an adult and I don’t know how to save her.’”
On May 25, 2008, five hours after arriving as an overdose patient, Natalie had been discharged from New Island Hospital, despite the protestations of her parents.
Overdosing again, one month later, on June 21, she was pronounced dead at New Island Hospital.