Local family on a mission to save others from deadly heroin epidemic
Stephanie Graham, Courtny Gerrish
MUSKEGO - A recent report shows heroin-overdose deaths have surpassed cocaine fatalities in Milwaukee, and it's a growing problem across all of southeastern Wisconsin. A problem that can be prevented.
Linda Lenz is a mom in Muskego. She reads us some excerpts from her deceased son's journal--words that are all she has left to remember her son Tony by:
"Too much time to think, too much time to wonder, to dwell--how much worse is hell?"
"All the love I feel for my family comes from so much shame and guilt."
"I can't hold it in any longer--the drugs will definitely kill me."
Linda and her husband Rick Pyszczynski had it all: Two great sons, and a strong family based on love and trust. Tony was the baby of the family.
Linda recalls, "He was a perfect child. Straight A's at school, he was popular, had all these friends."
Rick adds, "The early teenage years he would still always tell the truth, even to the point where it would get him in trouble."
Things started unraveling for Rick and Linda about 15 years ago, when doctors discovered a rare genetic defect in their older son Canton. It was especially tough on Tony. Linda says, "But he always said he was alright. I don't think he wanted to be a burden."
After an 11-year battle with his illness, Canton passed away in 2010 at age 30. Shortly after that, 21-year-old Tony admitted to his parents he was addicted to heroin.
"I said 'It's OK. There's help. We'll get help,'" Linda says.
Tony's addiction started with painkillers. His dad explains, "I never thought he would try heroin. I never thought he would get addicted."
Linda adds, "He was too smart... but that has nothing to do with it."
David Glick, LSCW, a substance abuse counselor with ProHealth Care, says today's heroin is more pure than ever. "It's a cheap high, doesn't cost a lot of money, and they don't realize that the strength of it is massive compared to what it used to be."
Glick also warns the face of heroin is changing. It's no longer an urban street drug. It's in the suburbs. It's in schools. It's everywhere, and many addicts are kids.
"What you're seeing is the teenage to mid-20s crowd, who again are very unknowledgable about what they're doing," he says.
Tony knew what he was doing was wrong. His parents tried to help him, but found it wasn't that easy. Linda recalls, "We had a lot of trouble finding help here.... That's the point I wanna make. Heroin is... we talk about it, there's segments on TV, but people don't like to say that word. Doctors don't want to be heroin doctors."
Tony did several stints in rehab. Then he would relapse. Finally he got clean in early 2012 and started to piece his life back together.
Then, one slip, and it was all over. Tony died of an overdose in February. He was 23 years old.
"I never thought in a million years he would overdose and die. Just because he was smart, he talked about it, we were familiar with it," Rick says.
Linda wears dog tags with her sons' names around her neck as a tribute. "I wear them all the time. Very precious. They hit me right on my heart."
Linda and Rick admit every day is a struggle, but they cherish the memories they have of both sons.
Rick says, "We're still breathing for some reason."
Linda adds, "We're walking around... for a purpose. I have to believe I have a purpose, and I believe my kids did too."
That is why they are speaking out--hoping they can save the life of someone who sees their story.
"If we start talking about heroin and say it out loud and shout it... it'll make people hopefully speak about it and say 'I have a problem,'" Linda exclaims.
If you, or someone you love has a problem with heroin or any substance--tell someone and get help. Linda has a Facebook tribute page for Tony where people can reach out. It also includes links to organizations that can provide help.