“The question isn’t really, ‘Why am I doing this?'” said Maureen Cavanagh, an activist mom whose daughter is now 18 months sober. “Why isn’t everybody doing this?”
By Reed Alexander, Managing Content Editor
Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Center
These parents are the definition of inner strength.
It was 6:20 A.M. on the morning of September 8, 2008, when longtime ABC News reporter Jeffrey Veatch was driving to his office in New York City. Like he did on any ordinary Monday, Veatch pulled into his parking spot at 125 West End Avenue, ABC’s former Manhattan address, and reached into his briefcase to grab his cell phone.
That’s when he knew something was wrong.
Glowing on the screen was a call log displaying at least a dozen missed calls from his office, and countless more from home, which had come in during his morning commute. Veatch had left the phone on silent after a work event the night before, so the calls rang straight through to voicemail. But why was everyone trying so frantically to reach him?
“I called (work) and they said, ‘Don’t come in, you’ve got to go home right away,'” Veatch told Sober World. Still sitting in his car, he dialed his wife Marina. That’s when she told him their 17-year-old son Justin was dead. Justin, who had long battled recreational drug abuse, had snorted a fatal dose of heroin the night before, and Marina discovered his lifeless body in his room that morning.
“She couldn’t wake him up,” Veatch recounted in an interview. “The paramedics came but they couldn’t do anything.” Their teenage son — an aspiring musician with big dreams — was gone.
Tragic as Veatch’s case is, it isn’t an isolated event. In 2017 alone, 72,000 people died as a result of substance abuse according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The New York Times has named lethal drug overdoses the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
For any parent, losing a child is a devastating and unspeakable nightmare. But for parents who lose their kids to substance abuse, there’s another layer of pain: Is it my fault? Is there something else I should have done?
Luckily, former special education teacher Maureen Cavanagh, 55, of Marblehead, Mass., doesn’t have to answer that question. After about six years of continuous opioid abuse, her daughter Katie, 26, has now been sober for the past 18 months — but not before Cavanagh discovered in 2015 that her then-23-year old daughter had been arrested for prostitution, desperately trying to scrape together enough money to fund her addiction. Cavanagh first learned of her daughter’s incarceration by reading an article about it in the local newspaper.
“The girl that I know would not have done the things that (Katie) did unless she had no choice,” Cavanagh told Sober World.
For Katie, the arrest was the tip of the iceberg. Prior to achieving sobriety, she went through as many as 40 unsuccessful instances of treatment for drug addiction therapy, overdosed on 13 occasions, and once even stole her mother’s precious jewelry collection — largely composed of valuable family heirlooms — to trade in for cash to buy heroin.
Nevertheless, Katie eventually got clean, and her journey inspired Cavanagh to write about her experiences in her 2018 memoir, “If You Love Me.” In 2012, amid her daughter’s heroin battle, Cavanagh founded Magnolia New Beginnings, a nonprofit that specializes in helping other kids suffering from substance abuse find treatment, access sober living homes, and get their lives back on track. Since she started the group, countless young people living with the disease have contacted her for life-saving guidance.
These parents’ lives were transformed as a result of their kids’ battles with addiction, but it wasn’t all negative. “No one is immune from the perils of substance abuse,” Veatch said. “It’s happened to everyone, no matter how well-off or poor you are.” That’s why he’s doubled-down in the 10 years since his son Justin’s death, going on a speaking tour to discuss the dangers of substance abuse with more than 30,000 public school students; launching the nonprofit Justin Veatch Fund; and putting his journalistic skills to use by hosting a new, conversational podcast called “The Drug Crisis: Faces Behind the Struggle.”
Through the Justin Veatch Fund, the family oversees the allocation of scholarship grants to high school students who plan to study the arts in college –something that Justin, a talented singer-songwriter, never got to do. They even collaborated with filmmakers to produce “Whispering Spirits,” a roughly half-hour documentary in which they endeavor to show viewers “how we dealt with adversity to bring this powerful message to (other) kids,” Veatch explained. “It’s all to honor Justin’s legacy. I’ll go anywhere where people want to hear (our story).”
Experts say that, for parents like Veatch and Cavanagh, getting into the activism space can be highly fulfilling — but it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. “People may feel the wish to help others, especially since they may have endured a sense of hardship themselves and want to make a difference in other’s lives,” said Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glenn Oaks, NY. “Helping others may offer a sense of gratitude and encourage meaning in one’s life.”
On the other hand, “parents may not wish to disclose their child’s addiction and may rather choose to keep it private,” Krakower added. “It is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about… If the parent and child choose to speak (publicly) about what happened, then it can turn into a healthy and positive experience,” that can benefit others in similar situations, he noted.
Patti Weisbrod, Director of Family Engagement at Retreat at Palm Beach, a substance abuse treatment provider in Palm Springs, Fla., agreed that it can take parents time to recover from their children’s addiction battles before they’re ready to take up arms. “The parent or loved one is so traumatized that, until they get the help they need, they can’t really help someone else.”
Once parents are ready to take that first step toward activism or advocacy, though, their contributions are immense. For instance, in Weisbrod’s weekly meetings at Retreat, which bring family members of patients together to explore their feelings and support one another, she routinely sees some parents offer mentorship for others in the group. “It’s spreading the word. They don’t want to see somebody go through
the pain of addiction any longer.”
For Magnolia New Beginnings founder Maureen Cavanagh’s part, she says taking on substance abuse has helped her connect to so many kindred spirits — like-minded parents who have endured the unimaginable at the behest of their children’s addictions, and have now become crusaders against the disease. Cavanagh’s journey to reach this point was often unpleasant, though: When her daughter’s addiction first came into the public spotlight in 2015, Cavanagh says she was ostracized by her town of 22,000 people.
“I understand that people often don’t know what to say, but, just say something,” she urged. “This is so painful, and the fact that not one person reached out to me (after Katie’s disease became public) was just amazing.”
That’s why she’s on this mission: To remove the stigma around substance abuse and get people into treatment before it’s too late. Indeed, it’s often the most unexpected of young people who fall prey to the predator of addiction, she concluded. “It’s not the kids that everybody thinks are going to get into trouble. It’s the kindest, sweetest, most empathetic (ones), the ones without that hard outer shell.”
“Those are the kids we’re losing. Those are the kids that are numbing themselves; those are the kids that are dying.”