Heroin deaths galvanize families, authorities in Scituate
By Brian MacQuarrie
SCITUATE — Syringes on the beach. Young people found drugged and unconscious. A growing list of deaths caused by heroin.
Those elements are part of a drug-related drama playing out in Scituate, a comfortable South Shore community whose whitewashed lighthouse and cozy harbor have long evoked a seaside ideal of suburban life.
But now, five deaths have been linked to opioids in the town this year, and officials fearmore fatalities before the region’s drug crisis abates.
“It’s awful,” said Annmarie Galvin, 42, a mother of four who helps lead a Scituate group that seeks to curb drug abuse. “The reality is, it’s our sons and daughters. It’s not always the bad guy from Boston.”
Galvin echoed what has become a mantra of health workers and police in Massachusetts: Heroin does not discriminate. Once considered the rock-bottom fix for nodding junkies in the inner city, the drug has spread among all income groups and across all town boundaries, state and local officials say.
“It’s a constant, ever-adjusting, ever-changing problem,” Police Chief W. Michael Stewart of Scituate said. “It is on the front-burner, it is on high heat, and it will stay there.”
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One Scituate parent who has seen the trauma firsthand is Susan Trachik, a mother of six who wiped away tears recently as she sat in a downtown restaurant on a beautiful summer day.
Her 22-year-old son, Christopher, hanged himself in his father’s laundry room in January after two torturous years of heroin addiction. The drug had finally led him to a place where surrender seemed the only escape.
Trachik shook her head at the thought. “I’m the mother of a child who’s dead,” she said. “I just wish he hadn’t given up so early.”
Although much of the attention to addiction has focused on poorer communities, many affluent towns from Cape Cod to the Berkshires are being equally affected in rough proportion to their size.
Scituate ranks among the top 20 percent in per-capita income in Massachusetts. Just to the north, the seaside town of Cohasset — which has had two suspected heroin-related deaths this year and six other overdoses — is in the top 5 percent in income.
In Winchester, an affluent suburb northwest of Boston, two brothers were arrested this month on heroin-trafficking charges after a 25-year-old man died from an overdose.
“It just seems to be happening in Anytown, USA,” said Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope, a Massachusetts organization that offers support and resources for family members and others close to addicts.
The number of overdoses treated in the South Shore Hospital emergency room in Weymouth has risen 80 percent since 2011. The hospital, with a service area that includes Scituate, is treating an average of 45 overdoses a month this year, compared with 25 in 2011, according to emergency room data.
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About 40 percent of those patients are in their 20s, said Dr. Jason Tracy, chairman of the hospital’s emergency department. About 20 percent are in their 30s.
Whether a patient comes from a larger, middle-class town such as Weymouth or a smaller, affluent community such as Cohasset, the proportion of overdoses to population is approximately the same, Tracy said.
With those numbers comes a greater arc of collateral damage. Nearly every person felled by an overdose has a wide circle of family, friends, and other loved ones who grieve that loss and second-guess what could have been done.
ZACK WITTMAN FOR THE GLOBE
Susan Trachik said her son’s heroin habit led him to steal, lie, manipulate, and do his best to keep his drug use secret.
“Parents are scared to death because they know it’s a game of Russian roulette,” said Stewart, the Scituate police chief. “On any given day, any given dose, or any given injection, it could be fatal.”
At one recent Learn to Cope session in Quincy, a 70-year-old Milton man slowly raised his hand when the moderator asked, “Is there anyone in crisis who would like to speak?”
Bob, who asked that his full name not be used, had attended Learn to Cope meetings before but rarely spoke. But on this evening, Bob spoke at length about his 35-year-old daughter’s addiction, about how he had lost his home and savings in an effort to help her, and about the agony of setback after setback.
He picked at his hand as he spoke, his voice quavering, as dozens of other parents sat riveted.
“To wrap it up, it’s a sad story,” Bob said. “My daughter died last week.”
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Despite the growing number of Learn to Cope meetings around the state, Peterson said the fear of being stigmatized keeps many suburban parents quiet about the addiction they see. Often, Peterson said, parents travel far outside their communities to attend meetings, endeavoring to avoid anyone they know.
“The myth is: ‘It wouldn’t happen here.’ It’s the not-my-kid syndrome,” said Peterson, a Raynham woman who founded the group in 2004 in a desperate bid to help her son, who is in recovery.
“There are still many towns that don’t want to touch it,” Peterson said. “They don’t want to give their town a bad name.”
In Scituate, the parents of two young people who died recently from suspected overdoses politely declined requests for interviews. Trachik, however, said she feels compelled to discuss her son’s death and the frustrating path that led to his suicide.
“Nobody wants to say, ‘My family has an addiction problem.’ You feel like you’re not doing your job,” Trachik said. “I can fixeverything, but I couldn’t fix this, and I don’t want anyone else to go through it.”
It is hard to understand, said Trachik, what prompts some of the town’s young people to drift to heroin.
“Maybe they’re bored; maybe they have the money; maybe they feel that if they’re from Scituate, it won’t happen to me like it might in the inner city,” Trachik said. “Maybe we love them a little too much, and they think we’ll get them out of trouble.”
The story of her son’s addiction is familiar to many families in Massachusetts. A fun-loving young man, Christopher secretly developed a heroin habit that led him to steal — jewelry from his mother, even the weather vane from the garage — as he bounced between rehabilitation programs, Trachik said.
He lied, manipulated, and did his best to keep his habit hidden, all while pledging over and over again to seek help and stop.
“You have to draw a fine line between helping your child and enabling your child,” Trachik said.
Nothing seemed to work for long. In the last two weeks of his life, Christopher was brought to South Shore Hospital twice: once with an injured hand, and another time, after an overdose in the bathroom of a Scituate restaurant.
At Christmas, Trachik said, Christopher made a statement that in hindsight proved ominous.
“If anything happens to me, at least you’ll have Duke,” a boxer-Labrador pet, Christopher told his mother.
“I love Duke, but he doesn’t replace you,” she answered.
Since Christopher’s death, Trachik has taken her story public.
Scituate schools, meanwhile, are educating students about the dangers of opioids. The police are partners in a campaign that sees prevention as more effective than arrests. And FACTS, the antidrug coalition cofounded by Galvin, recently held a health fair to connect families with treatment providers and support groups.
Galvin and others know that driving heroin out of Scituate will be difficult. The drug is notorious for its ability to progress quickly from an adventure to a craving to an addiction.
“It will take years and years and years to dig us out of this problem,” said Stewart, the police chief. “And, unfortunately, we’re going to continue to lose people along the way.”