By Kathryn G. Menu
It is the call no parent can imagine receiving, but far too many get. Sitting in a Long Island Rail Road car bound for Manhattan one spring morning, Linda Ventura’s phone rang — it was her youngest son, Andrew, who in choked sobs informed her that her son, Thomas, was dead.
Just two months shy of his 22nd birthday in March of 2012, and after years of battling addiction, Thomas — who had just returned home with renewed hope after a 21-day rehabilitation program — overdosed on heroin, losing his battle to a disease that is ravaging families across America. For Ms. Ventura, a resident of Kings Park, it was the beginning of a life dedicated to activism and education, with the hope that fewer families — and fewer children — will have to contend with the devastation of addiction and be given better resources to fight the disease if they do.
Ms. Ventura, who founded the non-profit Thomas’ Hope, will be joined by HUGS Inc. (Human Understanding and Growth Seminars) executive director Kym Laube at a pair of lectures about substance abuse, addiction and prevention for parents and other members of the community. On Wednesday, June 1 from 6 to 8 p.m., HUGS and the Sag Harbor Coalition will present “Substance Abuse: A Prevention Forum: What Every Parent Needs to Know” at the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike.
The following evening, on June 2, Ms. Laube and Ms. Ventura will lead the discussion “Heroin: What Every Parent Needs to Know,” sponsored by HUGS and the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons, at 6:30 p.m. at the church on Saint Andrews Road in Southampton.
Ms. Laube encouraged parents with children as young as those in elementary school to make the evenings a priority.
“This is a parent and community presentation,” she added. “We need to create places where adults can take their questions without the distraction of having their children next to them.”
While Ms. Ventura will be speaking about her experience as a mother who has watched a child fall into addiction, and suffer the ultimate consequence, Ms. Laube will focus her energies speaking about the origins of the disease.
“As petrified as we are of heroin, we have to remember people don’t start drug use with heroin,” she said. “I want to talk about where addiction begins.”
According to a survey conducted by the Southampton Town Youth Bureau in 2010 and 2011 for students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades, students in Southampton Town as of 2011 continued to abuse alcohol as their number one drug of choice.
“Binge drinking continues to be a significant problem,” the report said. “Other than alcohol, local youth also report frequently abusing marijuana, tobacco, prescription drugs, and over the counter medications, in that order.”
Overall, 29 percent of students reported ever using marijuana and 15 percent report current use of marijuana. Synthetic marijuana, or herbal mixtures sprayed with synthetic chemicals to mimic marijuana, is reported by Southampton youth to be used at a rate of 18 percent. Overall, 7 percent of students report using prescription drugs to get high and 6 percent of students report using over the counter drugs to get high.
In terms of illicit drug use, 3 percent reported the use of methamphetamines, 4 percent reported cocaine/crack use, and 2 percent reported heroin use, among other illicit substances.
While some parents have questioned the results of these surveys, Ms. Ventura says it is that kind of denial that gets to the root of why communities are struggling to deal with substance abuse and addiction in a substantive way.
“The struggle is that parents have to open their hearts and minds and not just say, ‘This is not my kid’,” she said. “Could it be your kid? Yeah, it could. Could it be your niece? Could it be your nephew? Could it be your grandchild? Yes, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. But a big part of this disease is denial — the feeling that it is never going to be you.”
For Ms. Ventura, her son’s venture into dependence began as it often does — during a difficult three years for the family. Beginning in 2004, both of Ms. Ventura’s parents died as did her mother-in-law. She and her husband divorced.
“We had a lot of loss and a lot of trauma and Thomas was the kid that couldn’t share his feelings, which is not unusual,” she said. “He was really sensitive, as most teenagers are, and around the age of 15 he found a way to numb the pain.
It started with Thomas smoking cigarettes, and then marijuana and alcohol use. “By the time he was a senior in high school, he was snorting heroin,” Mrs. Ventura said.
Thomas made several attempts to beat his disease, including inpatient and outpatient programs. While those means can be successful for many addicts — if the funding is available — Ms. Ventura focuses her efforts as much on prevention as treatment.
“For me, it is prevention, prevention, prevention, but it is also learning to teach children as young as kindergarteners coping skills, communication skills,” she said. “The best thing you can do for your children is have an open dialogue with them, and empower them to come up with their own solutions at a very young age.”
Ms. Ventura also encourages parents with children in elementary school to start learning about these issues now. Children as young as 10 and 12 are trying a substance for the first time, and it is altering their brains, and can alter their lives forever, she said.
Increased binge drinking, alcohol consumption in general and e-cigarette use are all trends professionals are seeing increase amongst teens, according to Ms. Laube. With the legalization of marijuana, there is also a belief that it is a “safe” drug, when in fact medical research has shown regular marijuana use can actually alter the structure of the teenage brain, impacting cognition and academic performance.
“When we dive deep we understand that every time a young person drinks we are increasing their chances of creating a future addiction tenfold,” said Ms. Laube. “This isn’t about a ‘right of passage’ and ‘we did it and we were fine.’ This is about the fact 90 percent of anyone who has an addiction had it begin in their teen years, and one in nine will suffer from addiction.”