UPPER TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Tonia Ahern’s phone rings and buzzes at all hours with calls, texts and e-mails from parents desperate for guidance on how to help their heroin-addicted children.
“All day long,” she said. “All day long.”
Ahern isn’t a doctor or a counselor — she is the parent of a man who has battled heroin addiction for years. As the number of people who are abusing heroin skyrockets across the country, Ahern and others have created a grass-roots network that helps addicts and their parents navigate the labyrinthine world of drug treatment and the criminal justice system.
“It shocked me the way things went down and the lack of information I had available, and I like to think of myself as a fairly informed person,” said Felicia Miceli of Medina, Ill. Her son Louie died of a heroin overdose at 24; another son battled heroin addiction and is now clean.
Miceli felt she had to do something — anything — to try to prevent others from using the drug. The month after Louie died she created the Louis Theodore Miceli Heroin Awareness and Support Foundation. The nonprofit takes recovering addicts into schools, where they talk about the dangers of heroin.
“Honestly to channel the grief that I feel, I had to do something with it,” she said. “I can’t live without just channeling this.”
Like many parents confronted with a child who has spiraled into heroin addiction, Ahern didn’t know where to go or what to do. She scoured the Internet and found the New Jersey Parent to Parent Coalition, a group founded by four women; three of them lost a child to an overdose.
Ahern said the group made her realize that thousands of other families were going through a similar situation. She started advocating for the widespread use of Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose, in New Jersey. Ahern is now a presence at the state capitol, lobbying legislators to devote more resources to treatment. She is not working because a full-time job would be impossible with the work she is doing with the families of people using heroin. Her son is doing well and hasn’t used the drug for months.
“In the middle of the night we’re talking to people, we’re trying to help parents, we’re trying to help people get into treatment,” she said. “People who understand, who are going to through it, really have compassion and empathy for other people.”
This weekend Ahern and thousands of others are expected to descend on Washington for Unite to Face Addiction, a rally to bring people struggling with addiction out of the shadows. It will launch a national advocacy group to combat heroin addiction.
Fed Up!, the group that Judy Rummler created after her son died of an overdose, will hold a rally Saturday in Washington. Rummler said she did not know the extent of the epidemic of overdoses when her son died and wanted to try to stop the number of overdoses and lobby local and federal government in memory of her son. In her home state of Minnesota, Rummler spearheaded a law named after her son that limits liability and provides criminal immunity for people who call the police if they are with someone who has overdosed.
“It’s enabled people to feel or to understand that it’s okay to talk about this. It used to be swept under the rug,” she said. “The more of us that speak out … people will know that this can happen to anybody.”
Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, N.J., lost her son to an overdose in 2010. Since then she has advocated for the state’s Naloxone law, which went into effect in 2014, and worked to connect patients with treatment and parents with one another.
“We are the only ones that understand it,” she said. “It’s a separate private community of people who have lost children. We’re there to lend our hands to guide other family members through the process where they can get their children the help they need when we couldn’t.”