I write about a lot of personal issues on here, but this is one that I have never been able to share. However, the closer that my daughter gets to becoming a teen (less than a month!) and the more stories I hear from my friends, I think the time has come. My hope is that the story will be shared until it hits the person who needs to hear it most, whoever that might be, and that it will make a difference in their life.
The story isn’t entirely mine to tell, but I’ll share mainly my side of it to protect the privacy of some of the other people involved. It’s the greatest tragedy of my life and the details are even worse than what I can share. Some of it is so crazy it sounds like a TV movie.
Where to start? I guess at the beginning but condensed. My cousin Frankie was the youngest of 4 boys. He was the one closest to my age. He was named after my grandfather, Frank. To me he was always the shy one. Although we lived hundreds of miles away, we always spent as much time with our cousins as we could. Frankie was a fun-loving kid who smiled in a way that always looked like he was trying to hide the smile but couldn’t. He played high school football and had a lot of friends.
Then our paths diverged. I went to college and he went to drugs. I went back for a visit at one point and he was different. The drugs were making him a person that I hardly even knew anymore. I had a long talk with him and he promised me that he wasn’t using anymore. I pleaded with him to stay clean and stay away from the kids that were pulling him into it. I told him he could come stay with us in Indiana to get away from them and start over.
A couple of years passed quickly and he wasn’t around for family events when I went to visit. He was too busy with his “new family.” The one that supplied the drugs. I was in law school and received a call one day that he had been arrested. Our family was in an uproar trying to figure out what to do. Get him out? Leave him there to teach him a lesson?
I called the judge, Gigi Sullivan, and begged her to put him into rehab. It sounded like she was listening to me and we had a great discussion. But all of a sudden we got a call that the “new family” had bailed him out and taken him away. Ironically, that judge was later arrested for being a heroin addict who was actually on drugs while she was on the bench. Probably while she was talking to me. Of course she wanted to send my cousin back to the drug family. They were all part of the same supply chain. Ironically, she now spends her time trying to help drug-addicted high school students. (Read: Ex-Judge Gigi Sullivan Talks About Heroin Addiction) I personally hold her partially responsible for the outcome of this story.
At that point, we knew that the drug circuit had its hold on my cousin. But the worst was yet to come.
Every sad story has to have “the phone call” somewhere in it. Mine was the phone call my mom made to me to tell me that my cousin had shot himself while under the influence of drugs. The details aren’t important but suffice to say that I had consistent nightmares about it for years and 15 years later still have to close my eyes when I am watching a movie and someone holds a gun to their head.
Seeing Frankie in that casket is burned into my memory and brings me to tears just closing my eyes and thinking about it now. I literally gasped when I walked into the room where he was laid out and would probably have fallen over if my Uncle Chuck hadn’t held me up. To go from your last memory of someone being a vibrant, outgoing young man to a white shell of a body in a coffin is something you never forget.
What happened next? Relationships in the family collapsed. People blamed each other for not taking action. Some of us were angry; some of us just went numb. How did this happen in OUR family??
Fast forward to now. I recently visited Pittsburgh with my mom and we made a Steelers arrangement to put on the grave. I looked at the picture of him in his football uniform and it all just came flooding back to me. A life cut short.
Now I look at my daughters. And the children of all of my friends. They are attending parties and meeting new people and trying new things. What could be that one bad decision that would start them down the path that Frankie took? I’m not naive enough to think that it isn’t happening in my middle class, suburban town. You shouldn’t be either.
We like to think that programs like D.A.R.E. are going to keep our kids on the straight and narrow. Studies show that over the long run, there is no difference in the level of drug use by kids who participated in D.A.R.E. and did not participate. I’m not against the program, but it isn’t what will keep your kids from doing drugs. It’s the opening to conversations you have to have with them and the outside reinforcement of what you should be teaching the kids as well.
I know Frankie’s story isn’t unique. That might be what makes it most alarming. If you have teenagers, chances are pretty good that they have friends are acquaintances who are already doing drugs. The National Institute of Drug Abuse report last year found that among high school seniors, 36.4% reported using marijuana, 7.5% used Vicodin for non-medicinal purposes, and 2.7% were already using cocaine.
A friend shared a story on Facebook last week about her freshman son attending a party only to find out that drugs and alcohol were going to be involved. A freshman. He’s a smart kid and called his mom to come get him. A lot of kids wouldn’t do that for a variety of reasons–most being the anticipated response from their parents. Would yours?
Beyond the drugs, Frankie’s story is also about suicide. About feeling like you have nowhere to turn. Drugs will do that to young people but so will a lot of other situations. There are so many outside influences pulling at our kids that we have to keep reminding them that we are their anchor in all storms. We need to give them the tools whether it is through religion, meditation, counseling, family meetings or whatever you do that gives them a way to find strength.
Not all tragedy is avoidable but without a doubt some are. I remind my daughters about Frankie often and have taken them to his grave. More than just putting fear into them, I hope that they can see that it broke my heart. Because that’s what drugs and suicide will do to your life. They will break your heart.
We’re all vulnerable. Even if we go to church every week, send our kids through D.A.R.E. classes, and pat ourselves on the back for how well we are raising them. None of us are exempt from our kids giving into temptation or making bad decisions. As soon as you think that you are, you might be the one that ends up in tragedy.