View attachment 49451 What would happen if you took everyone who is addicted to heroin in New Jersey and sent them to live in one place? It would be the state's fourth largest city, boasting a population of at least 128,000. Its residents are diverse enough that the town would be self-sufficient — with lawyers, politicians, construction workers, teachers and scientists walking the streets. And you will know one of them.
In fact, social network analysis suggests you likely will know several city residents, whether they toil at a desk behind you or sleep in a bed down the hall. This city exists all across New Jersey, where heroin and opioid addiction have exploded in the past 10 years, killing more than 5,000 people and enslaving hundreds of thousands more. It's not a new story, but one whose tendrils reach far deeper into the Garden State than most know.
Over the past year, NJ Advance Media has collected hundreds of stories from people touched by this epidemic – addicts, recovering users, mothers, fathers, friends and family – to detail the struggle with addiction. Last year, we put out a blind call to readership: Tell us your heroin story. It was an experiment — give people an anonymous form and a blank canvas — and see what happens. The results were remarkable. We received more than 500 responses from 215 towns in New Jersey. The men and women spanned ages 17 to 79. Some responses ran more than 2,000 words.
Since then, 12 months of reporting has taken us into suburban homes and city apartments, and from needle exchanges and rehabilitation centers to jails and cemeteries. The stories were told in the words of the people who lived them. They detailed joy and heartbreak, anger and frustration. So imagine, if you will, a town populated by these individuals – the fastest growing municipality in New Jersey. By far.
Our town is fictional, but the voices are real. Heroin users move through addiction along strikingly similar paths. They enter this world and are sucked deep into a community that seems to collapse around them. Death lurks and any hope of escape seems miles away.
I: Our City
Herointown is a city in a bubble, its residents unknowingly bound in their own isolation, drifting farther away from the lives they once knew. From the border, Herointown looks inviting. The view is not unlike staring at the heart of Jersey City or Morristown — streets alive and bustling, hallmarks of a vibrant and growing community. There's a diversity of housing, from mansions to apartment complexes and single detached homes.
Like the rest of New Jersey, Herointown's residents are diverse, but that's changing. It's whiter and younger today, with most arriving in their 20s and early 30s, while the average age across New Jersey climbs. While things appear normal, a closer look reveals cracks and deformities — like the slowly crumbling facade of a building. On many homes, the paint is chipping, the sidewalks cracking. Lawns have been allowed to grow a little too long.
Look closer still. In many cases, the buildings are just skeletal husks, a curtain hiding decrepit living conditions. Herointown is a carefully crafted mirage. And it isn't until you're deep inside its borders that you realize something is terribly wrong.
The death rate here is nearly twice that of the state, and the rate of communicable disease, unemployment and homelessness far outpaces any level New Jersey has seen in decades. The road into the city is the same as the road out — there's only one — and the deeper you wind through the streets here, the harder it is to get back to the main boulevard. From the inside, Herointown's booming population makes sense to the residents. The same thing that brought them here keeps them here.
II: In a Snap of the Finger
Every day, Earl Amin Jr. watches people head into Herointown, his former home. It stirs conflicting emotions about his past and their likely future. He has empathy, but only shakes his head. "I understand that life," the 62-year-old said, sitting in a chair at his sparsely furnished Newark apartment. "I know where they're going, and it's nowhere good." Amin was released from prison in 2012 after serving 30-years for armed robbery, which he said he committed to support his heroin habit. Heroin took half of his life.
View attachment 49453 When released, Amin said he was immediately struck by the ubiquity of heroin. "I just don't think the average person understands and knows exactly what heroin can do. Heroin won't just destroy your life, it will destroy your community. One drug dealer can destroy an entire community like that," he said, snapping his fingers.
Jonathan Fedorchak, a 22-year-old from Bernards, remembers being enamored when he arrived in Herointown more than five years ago. "It was fun. I can't lie and say it wasn't," he said. "Life just seemed like a big party." When he arrived, there was a sense of inclusion and comfort Fedorchak long had craved.
It was the same for Jennifer Cassa. It was the early 2000s and she recently had graduated high school, where she was a cheerleader and a soccer player. She spent some time at college but left because it wasn't for her. She began dating a recovering heroin addict who used methadone to stifle his cravings. She knew nothing of the drug, or its pull on users. "I was so naïve, I had no idea what heroin even was," she said. "It was never even around me. The most I ever did in high school was either drink or smoke weed and that was very rare. Then one day I guess he stopped going to the methadone program and he relapsed. He just ended up doing it in front of me."
It would prove to be a life-altering moment.
Addicts often describe using heroin or opioids for the first time as transcendent. For many, like Cassa, it is born out of youthful curiosity. For others, it begins with necessity – a car accident or injury soothed by powerful painkillers. Dave Greenwald, a boat mechanic from Brick, was prescribed Percocet and Oxycontin after suffering a back injury. "I got addicted," he said. "It was awesome, that's the problem."
After initially visiting Herointown, most want to return, addiction experts say. It seems welcoming and comfortable, shiny and new. When the high wears off and reality comes crashing back, the desire to come back is only reinforced. Prescription pills are readily available, albeit expensive, which isn't often a problem at first. They're legally prescribed, so it seems safe. But the prescriptions run out and pills can cost $30 each on the street, according to law enforcement officials. At $5 a bag – less than a McDonald's Extra Value Meal — heroin is an economically sound alternative.
Recovering heroin addict David Greenwald lost his mother to suicide when he was 5 years old. "You can literally go down the street in some places and have people fighting over (your business)," said Patricia, a recovering addict from Westfield. Many of the new users are running from something, addicts and addiction experts say. Abuse, neglect and depression are common among addicts, and heroin or opioids dulls the sharp edges of such plights for a time.
This was Cassa's experience. It was the same for Fedorchak, Greenwald and Kelly Rainier of Clayton. "There was a lot of stuff going on in my family. My mom left. My sister was young and I was raising her. And I was overwhelmed with that, with school, with work," Rainier said. "Instead of actually dealing with the feelings of all of that, I could use. It just, it made me not feel. Pretty quickly I realized I didn't like the way I felt without it."
III: "They Just Don't Seem to Care"
Hepatitis-C spreads uninhibited in Herointown. According to the state Department of Health, cases of the potentially deadly disease have tripled since 2002. Bob Baxter, who ran a needle exchange program in Newark up until earlier this year, says at least a quarter of the clients under 25 test positive for the disease. "They just don't seem to care," Baxter said. "I've been at this a long time and there's a comfort level about using and sharing needles I've never seen. It doesn't seem to faze them."
People who live here say their lives become a means to an end — get high and get more. Nothing else. It doesn't take long – some say a month, for others just a week, even though many people here have jobs, families and active social lives. But behind the curtain, heroin drives every action.
Matt is in his 20s and grew up in Essex County. Outwardly, he's doing well, working as a full-time chemist. He found a job right out of college after maintaining high marks. He's paid well. And he uses heroin every day. "My parents sound so proud when friends ask what I've done since college," he said. "I know that behind my mom's smile is a dark family secret that tears my parents apart, and the worst part is that no matter what they do to help, the heroin always seems to win. None of my coworkers know my demons, even though I'm high at work almost every day."
In time, people inevitably start to catch on. Then the questions begin. Why don't you just stop? Can't you see what is happening? How did you let it get this bad? The answers, unequivocally, are as uniform as the questions: I can't. No. I don't know, respectively. In answering these questions, Fedorchak explained how he sacrificed a little bit more of his old life each day. It started with pills at parties. He liked them, and the pills became a habit. He was in college, after all, he reasoned. Then he started to get sick when he wasn't taking them. And they were expensive for a college student with no income, so he started selling drugs and his possessions. Eventually, he was stealing. Little by little, he said, the unthinkable became part of his day-to-day just so he could get high. It's a common refrain among addicts.
"A lot of people that haven't been through it don't understand how much it affects you as a person ... how powerful it is over you," he said. "If you're in active addiction, the addiction always wins. It'll make you do whatever you have to to get one more."
Cassa said she and her boyfriend once carjacked a taxi. David, a 47-year-old from Boonton, said he lost his pizzeria after he began stealing from his partner of more than 20 years. Charles, a 27-year-old from Roxbury, said he used with his friends for years, a decision that cost him his career in the military and landed him in jail.
It can go on like this for years. Many users maintain jobs and relationships, sometimes only by a thread, but enough to give the appearance of normalcy – a lie as important to themselves as anyone else. For most, reality eventually becomes too difficult to bear as consequences mount. Sick days are a weekly event. Friends fall away and fights with loved ones happen regularly. Some witness people die around them.
Heroin promises the illusion of a better life, if only briefly, and lies prop up the illusion until an addict can use again. "I wrecked my bike once while I was using, nearly lost my leg. I was laid up for months," said Brian McAlister, a 58-year-old recovering addict from Kearny, who now runs the Full Recovery and Wellness Center in Fairfield. "I told myself it was just a flesh wound, could have happened to anyone. I could rationalize anything. It was never the drugs. ... Never."
And as long as the home looks normal enough from the street, few question what's behind the front door. It's not a perfect life, but it works, addicts often say, until it doesn't.
IV: Boomtown Booming
Herointown has a known population of 128,000, making it larger than Elizabeth, Edison, Toms River or Woodbridge. It was founded more than a century ago, but truly hit the map in the 1960s and 1970s, when low prices and high availability first allowed the population to swell. It's population remained stagnant for years, but the proliferation of prescription painkillers like Oxycontin over the past 20 years provided a new path to Herointown, and things changed quickly.
Herointown has grown by at least 28 percent in the past 10 years — six times the rate of the rest of the state. While there is no hard count of heroin users in the state, NJ Advance Media derived its estimate from several available sources, such as state treatment center data, federal data on state mental health and substance abuse, hospital data and death reports. Most researchers confronted with our estimates conceded the count is likely low. Were you to include prescription opioid users, one of the most common gateways to heroin, for example, the population could double, bringing its population closer to Newark or Jersey City.
Even without those addicts, the net the drug casts is far wider, and applying simple hypothetical math becomes daunting. The average household size in New Jersey is 2.71 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If each of the city's residents affect that many people – immediate family, more or less – the result would be an extended reach of 350,000. Add extended family, friends and significant others to that formula and the figure mushrooms again. And the effects ripple farther than that — to schools, employers, friends of family and more.
"Life totally, totally changed," said Denise Fedorchak, Jonathan's mother. "The legal problems, the financial problems, the whole way you lived, it all changed. You couldn't leave anything around. Even things locked up were stolen. People would talk about you. It becomes a part of you, and you'll never be the same." View attachment 49454
V: Hiding in Plain Sight
Toward the end, Steve Willis wasn't much of a person. He had gained weight, quit exercising and stopped practicing law. He was ignoring his wife and his young daughter. He just couldn't seem to make things right. Rehabs hadn't worked, neither had outpatient therapy. Brushes with the law did no good. Suicide attempts, overdoses – nothing. Willis wasn't the addict. It was his son, Mark.
"He was struggling in his recovery because he kept trying to do it himself. 'I got this, dad,' he kept saying to me," Willis said at his Toms River office. "But because of the myriad of drugs he was taking, he developed a seizure disorder, in time. And he wouldn't take his seizure medication, because 'I got this,' right?"
On Sept. 15, 2013, Mark suffered a massive seizure while fishing on the bank of a river in Texas. He drowned in eight inches of water. He was 31. To Willis, being a passenger in someone's addiction inflicts a devastation all its own. While addiction may be highly personal, the fallout destroys the lives of everyone around the user. "Many people don't get (help), and they actually start to lose a part of themselves," said Willis, who helps run Hope Sheds Light, which reaches out to loved ones struggling alongside addicts. "No one can do this by themselves. I couldn't and I thought I was all that ... I nearly lost everything."
A combination of desperation, fear, ignorance and denial sends tens of thousands of visitors into Herointown each day, either in hopes of tearing someone they love out for good or convincing themselves things aren't as bad as they seem. Addicts say they know how to use the devotion of loved ones to feed their addiction as well. "My buddy, now he's the one with a problem," they'll tell their loved ones. "I'm serious now. It'll be different this time. Promise."
"You don't care about who you're hurting, you don't care what you have to do, there's no limit when it comes to stuff like that," Cassa said. "You don't think about anything else ... Your mission is to find the drugs, do them and feel fine."
VI: Losing Everything
Betty, a 56 year-old Newark native, has been using heroin for 16 years. Her voice is slow and slurred, her face worn. As she explains how heroin pulled a happy woman with a steady job cleaning homes in Rahway to the depths of homelessness and despair, she wipes tears away from the right side of her face, where her eye used to be. "Before my mother passed I wasn't doing drugs. But I lost my mother and then my father and I just lost it. After I lost my father, I just gave up," she said. "Now I use just to maintain. My problems seem like they would go away if I get high, but it all comes back. So I've got to keep getting high. I feel like drugs is the best friend to me now." Betty spoke from one of the few places that help people like her – the needle exchange. But outside its walls, Betty's reality is grim. Sometimes, she says, it seems worse than death.
View attachment 49455 It's a quiet desperation Kelly Rainier knows well. "I didn't want to die. I honestly wanted to stay out of prison, but at this point I was living in a cabin in the woods with no heat in a meth lab," Ranier, the 32-year-old from Clayton, said. "My life went down so fast. I lost my family. I lost every job I had. I would steal from everybody. I was a scumbag."
Rainier said she knew her life was hanging by a thread, but didn't know how to live without drugs or how to ask for help. "I just assumed everybody was on drugs, that nobody lived sober," she said. "It's insane looking back on it, but that's how I thought then. That's what reality looked like to me."
Jebrie is a 39-year-old heroin addict from Newark who has lived in abandoned buildings with his wife for years. For a moment, he talks glowingly about his current situation — a home he's been able to squat in long enough to build a makeshift bed and living-quarters. "We actually have it set up pretty nice," he said. "The only things we're missing are electricity and running water." He smiles for a moment. There is hope in his voice, but it is faint. "We're tired of it. We want to get help, get clean," Jebrie said. "I'm just kind of frustrated. And with our living situation ... doing it cold turkey would be very hard."
VII: The Treatment Riddle
Users who fall deep into addiction often are the most helpless. Treatment beds are available in New Jersey, but often only if you can afford the $20,000 or more for extended inpatient care, or have insurance that covers it. most addicts can't and don't, state treatment records show. The system is flawed and can be complex and confusing. Few in the industry disagree with that.
Lauren, a 26-year-old Atlantic City native in early recovery for heroin addiction, said she spent hours on the phone trying to find treatment in 2013, to no avail. Unsure of where to look, she picked up a phone book and started making calls. No one had a bed. That is, until she was arrested and qualified for drug court. "It takes you getting to a certain point as an addict to actually sit there and ask for help," said Lauren, who was in treatment at Integrity House in Newark when she spoke to NJ Advance Media. "But when I came to terms that I did need help and I went looking for it, no one wanted to offer it."
The federal government estimates more than three of four people who need treatment in New Jersey don't receive it. Some centers have waiting lists dozens of names long. Getting a bed can take weeks. Robert Budsock, executive director of Integrity House, said he was going through his mail not long ago when he came across a small card. It was a funeral announcement. "And basically the letter that came with it said 'my son tried to get into your program and you guys didn't have a bed for him. I just wanted you to know he's dead now,'" he said. "To this day I am haunted by it, and it breaks my heart."
A state-sponsored hotline hopes to alleviate some confusion, but getting reliable information in the hands of people who need help remains a work in progress. Treatment officials also say expensive facilities with questionable records in other states prey on addicts through advertisements. All of those in active addiction interviewed by NJ Advance Media said they wanted to stop, some breaking down into tears. But moments later, they talked frankly about how they couldn't. Most have a laundry list of reasons, some legitimate, others concocted.
The most common path to sobriety takes addicts from Herointown into church basements, school gymnasiums and community centers around New Jersey. Twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous (which generally will welcome drug abusers) long have been popular paths to recovery. Members of 12-step programs who spoke to NJ Advance Media said the juxtaposition between anonymity and strength in numbers makes it successful for so many. Addicts know addicts, they say, and addicts know how to help each other.
Candace, a 28-year-old from Williamstown, said she was a walking corpse before she sought help. She had been sexually abused, was alone and homeless wandering the streets of Camden when she decided to make a phone call that changed her life. "One of my trips to rehab I had met someone from NA that lived in Allentown, Pa. I called them and begged for help," she said. "Another member of NA from New Jersey drove me out there where I detoxed on the woman's couch. I couldn't get up for days. But I had had enough and I wasn't going to give in. I stuck it out and to this day I am still clean."
But AA and NA don't solve the addiction riddle for everyone – nothing does. There is no easy ticket out of Herointown.
Those in recovery say it comes from inside the individual, from the willingness to make a change and accept help. The road out of Herointown is rarely a smooth ride. "I thought the only thing I had to do was put down the drugs," Rainier said. "But I had stopped learning how to deal with feelings. When they all came rushing back, it was crazy." But in all of hundreds of stories collected by NJ Advance Media, the alternatives to recovery, with few exceptions, are confined to three places – the street, the jail or the cemetery. There is nothing else here.
VIII: Looking up From the Bottom
The decision to leave Herointown often requires reaching a place few could imagine. For Dave Greenwald, it was a failed suicide attempt in 2010, which led to the state taking his away daughter. For Jonathan Fedorchak, it was sitting in a jail cell, knowing his family wasn't coming to bail him out. For Kelly Rainier, it was waking up on the floor of a meth lab.
Patricia, of Westfield, said she grew up in a middle class family and had a good childhood. She began using heroin at 18, while working as a waitress. A few years later she woke up in the hospital. She had been beaten and raped, her throat cut. Her heart stopped in the emergency room. This is where her addiction took her. And for her, that was it.
"When I was in that hospital bed, my eyes were swollen shut. The white part of my eyes was red. I was almost unrecognizable. I had staples and stitches in my throat, in the side of my head, under my eyes. I was done," she said. "I knew that if I stayed out there any longer I was going to die."
Regardless of where people end up when they decide to get help, the path out is always the same. It often starts with a nightmare. Detoxing from heroin or opiates won't kill you, but it will make you wish you were dead, addicts say. By the time the addict decides to stop, their body has recalibrated to life with the drug. When you remove it, the body rebels fiercely, sometimes for up to a week or more. "It feels like having the flu times 1,000," Greenwald said. "You'll be puking all over yourself, crapping yourself, skin crawling off your body. It's horrible." But if solving opiate and heroin addiction were as easy as detoxing, it would have ceased to be a significant issue long ago.
The real work is done in the mind, experts say, which makes addiction complicated, individualized and incredibly difficult to treat. It's not just the drug. By this point, addicts' entire lives have shifted. Senses have dulled. Reality seems foreign. "When someone has been using for a while, they're often doing it just to avoid withdrawal. When they're high, that's their normal and that's the time when they actually function," said Ramon Solhkhah, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, Jersey Shore University Medical Center. "Part of treating addiction is helping people live without that substance, and leading a sober life is very complicated for that reason."
IX: Getting Out
If there's one thing immediately noticeable about someone who makes peace with leaving Herointown, it's the light in their eyes, in their voice. "Someone took me down to Seaside Heights, to the ocean. I was like blown away," said Thomas Reigle, shortly after his release from prison. "Just having the water touching my feet was like the equivalent of having someone win the lottery. ... To me, it's a big deal."
Leaving behind addiction, something that has often defined a life, is not easy, but it's possible. And the rewards, recovered addicts and family members say, can be almost immediate – even if the first few months are a minefield, fraught with reminders, triggers of the life that they lived, a life always just a phone call or a short drive away. An addicted mind operates on a hair trigger, they say, and the most miniscule detail — certain words, the flick of a lighter, the way someone's body moves — can catapult an addict toward a relapse. "My first try, I tried to stay sober on my own, you know, just white-knuckling it," said William Egan, of Asbury. "I got to 90 days and I celebrated by using drugs and alcohol. It was an extremely humbling experience. I didn't understand that just because I put down the drugs and alcohol for a while doesn't mean that I was cured."
Egan is a prime example of how the road to recovery often isn't a straight line. Egan had claimed more than five years of sobriety and had started a business telling his story to high school and college students to raise awareness of the issue. But during the course of reporting this story, Egan was arrested for allegedly sending nude pictures to a minor he met at one of the schools at which he spoke. Police said they later found several controlled substances at his home. Following his arrest, Egan could not be reached for comment.
Doctors and treatment experts say every mind is different, and the treatment path that sends one addict running back to Herointown could be the salvation of another. Cassa found hers in a year-long treatment community in upstate New York. Amin through intensive group and individual therapy. Araya, a 57-year-old from Plainfield, manages her addiction with Suboxone, a pharmaceutical considered a successor to methadone.
When someone leaves the city and does not return, the results are remarkable. In virtually every person NJ Advance Media interviewed in recovery, there is an intense gratitude for what they have.
Today, Cassa works with other addicts in early recovery and recently had her first child. Rainier is independent, and works two jobs while living in Newark, 18 months removed from sleeping on the floor of a meth lab. The list goes on. Recovering addicts often reacquire loved ones, start families, earn college degrees, advance their careers. One recovering heroin addict who contacted NJ Advance Media is now a successful elected official in New Jersey, though he asked for anonymity. "After several failed attempts and multiple visits to drug rehab institutions something finally clicked," he said. "I don't know what it was, but I can tell you the support and love from those who never gave up on me was possibly the only life left in me."
But Herointown never completely disappears, even for those in recovery. It's always there, always a place to escape from the rigors of day-to-day life. For heroin and opioid addicts in recovery, managing addiction is the best they can do. "The urges, 10 years later, they don't go away," Cassa said. "I know that if I went back to it, if I relapsed, I'd have to be at the point where I didn't care about anything ... And I know there would be no coming back from it. I'd overdose and die, I'm sure of it. And it terrifies the hell out of me to think about."
X: Facing the Consequences
On a recent spring day, Thomas Reigle visited two graves for the first time. The first was his mother, who died 15 years ago. The second was his uncle, who Reigle beat to death with a pipe while high and rummaging through his home for drug money. Of visiting the graves, Reigle said, "It was something I really needed to do. It was very emotional. I needed to get some closure." Reigle, 53, has been sober for 20 years, but lost half of his life to addiction. He was released from prison in April after serving 30 years for murder. He is free and sober today, but the cost was steep. Stories like Reigle's represent one of two ways most people leave Herointown without entering treatment – prison or death.
Incarceration and sobriety do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Amin spent three decades in prison and used heroin for more than 10 years while locked in the now defunct Riverfront State Prison. "It was always around," he said. "In prison you might get it once a week, but you crave it week-to-week, just like you do day-to-day and hour-to-hour out here ... You're just as hooked in there as you are out here."
Amin was lucky. The prison's warden, David Parrish, took Amin and a handful of other prisoners under his wing. A practicing psychologist, Parrish personally counseled inmates and led recovery groups. Amin says it saved his life. "He asked me, 'Why do you do all of these things that are destroying your life? Don't you ever want to get out of prison?" Amin recalled. "He taught me about integrity, about honesty and humanity. I started to rebuild, piece-by-piece." Amin's story is the exception, not the norm. Several ex-convicts said state prisons are riddled with drugs, constantly flowing in from the outside. Treatment is generally confined to prisoner-run 12-step programs, which Amin and others said were not taken seriously.
Jails in New Jersey, meanwhile, typically act as little more than temporary holding pens, addicts and treatment officials say. Addicts are not often presented with any treatment, nor any perceivable way to improve their lives upon release. Hudson County is trying to change that by offering a robust reentry program that connects former inmates to treatment, housing and job placement, but this, too, is the exception. More typically, when they are inevitably dropped back onto the streets, addiction seems like the best — if not the only — option.
"In a matter of three years I found myself on probation after catching 13 felony charges for credit card theft and fraud, a stolen car charge, and over 20 municipal charges," said Stephanie, a 32-year-old graduate of Stockton University from Cherry Hill. "It became so bad that I was literally spending more time in jail then I did outside of jail. I was a half functioning skeleton just trying to get through one day at a time by not wanting to kill myself from the withdrawal."
For some, jail or prison is rock bottom. For others, it's just another stop on the way down. Egan was in jail on $100,000 bail in 2008. He had been there two weeks when his mother arrived one day. "She picks up the phone and says, 'Billy, are you ok?' I said 'yeah, what's going on?'" he said. His father had died a night earlier. "My father died at the age of 58 while I was sitting in county jail," he said. "You would think that would be enough to make me go the opposite direction and start to do the right thing. It didn't."
XI: Where the Road Ends
The cemetery in Herointown is the only place keeping pace with the city's breakneck growth. In the past decade, more than 5,000 residents have been buried here. The faces of parents and loved ones who visit with their flowers and memories appear just as confused as heartbroken. They come to remember the person they had in their lives and wonder how they lost them.
Ron Rosetto visits about once a month. He still remembers looking his son, Marc, in the face and trying to wrap his head around his struggles. "My son flat-lined like four times. And I'd say to him, 'Marc, you flat-lined,'' said Rosetto, a Realtor from Toms River, who, along with Willis, now runs outreach for parents through Hope Sheds Light. "And he would just smirk and say 'Dad, it's bullshit. I didn't flatline.'
"You just can't get through to them when they're on the drug ... Their brains are not normal." Marc died in November of 2012 from a heroin overdose, after more than a decade of struggles. He was 32 and is one of 90 from Toms River since 2004 buried here. He rests alongside at least 53 others from Williamstown in Gloucester County, with 305 from Newark, 51 from Woodbridge, 39 from Cherry Hill and 27 from Pemberton.
There are at least 591 buried here from Camden County, 302 from Bergen County and 389 from Middlesex County.
Kim, a registered nurse from Mercerville, lost her longtime partner Larry to heroin addiction in 2013. For years she worked at a dual-diagnosis facility, treating substance abusers who also have other mental health issues. She knows addiction well. She still cries when she visits the cemetery. She gets angry — not that Larry put her through years of turmoil — but that he didn't fight. "I watched him kill himself. It was the slowest suicide you could ever possibly see. I did everything right and everything wrong to save him," she said. "I never gave up hope on him, but I felt like I was doing all the fighting for him. I just wanted him to get up and fight for his own life."
Patty DiRenzo says the summer of 2010 was the last time she felt whole. Her son, Sal Marchese, was in recovery. He appeared happy and grateful and had become part of the family again. "They were the best days," DiRenzo said. "We'd spend afternoons outside, me, him and his sister, and he'd talk about all the hope he had and how sorry he was for all the pain he caused, how crazy he'd been." At 26, Sal had been addicted to heroin for years.
He had tried and failed to quit several times. His family was never able to afford more than 14 days of treatment and Sal had applied to complete a full long-term treatment program, but his insurance denied him. Still, this time it felt different, DiRenzo said. It felt real.
"I was driving him everywhere for a while. He was going to an (intensive outpatient program). Every couple of weeks, I'd check up on him with the staff," DiRenzo said. "They'd say 'he participates. He tests clean every week. He's my best person here.'" So, DiRenzo decided he needed to be his own person and let him start using her car. September 22 five years ago was a big day. Sal had 90 days sober, a significant achievement. He was going to pick up his 90-day key-ring from his NA group. There would be cheers; celebration meetings are often raucous affairs. "We talked a little bit — me, him and his sister," she said. "He kissed her goodbye, kissed myself goodbye, said 'I love you. I'll see ya later.'"
He left the house at 5:40 p.m. for his 6 o'clock meeting, "And that was it, we never saw him again," DiRenzo said. Shortly after he walked out the door, Sal was dead of a heroin overdose. Police found him in his car, alone, parked at the center of Herointown.
He was 26.
By Stephen Sterling - NJ - True NJ/March 18, 2016