When the drug crisis hit home

by Jeffrey Veatch

My life was changed dramatically in 2008 when we lost our 17 year old son, Justin, to an accidental drug overdose. It was unthinkable to us that this could happen. After all, Justin was a good student, athletic and musically accomplished, having composed and professionally recorded several songs that he hoped some day would be included in his first album. And there was the fact that we as parents, like all parents, thought this could never happen to us. But it did, as it has for parents in just about every city and town across the United States.

window-cropped-copyJustin had spent his last day, a Sunday, out with friends–some we knew, some we didn’t–three months after attending a drug abuse rehab program. Justin was the picture of health, and we had him on a short leash, keeping close tabs on his activities. But with a 17 year old there is a limit to how much control you can exert. He ended his day that Sunday at home doing an assignment for his upcoming first full week as a high school senior and somehow, unknown to us, sniffing a small amount of heroin. There were also other drugs in his system, we later learned, and he never woke up Monday morning.

Finding answers

Since that awful day I have devoted my life to trying to figure out how this could have happened and trying to understand ways to prevent this from happening to others. After Justin’s death we did what many other families do when they lose a child. We created a scholarship fund and a non-profit in his name called The Justin Veatch Fund. In June 2009, we awarded The Fund’s first $1,000 scholarship to a talented young man in Justin’s graduating class. I also took on a year-long project to gather all of Justin’s best recordings and try to persuade artists Justin had admired, but didn’t know personally, to record covers. We were invited to appear on ABC TV’s Good Morning America later that month. We wanted to explain what happened to Justin, put a suburban face on it and also talk about his music. After the program aired we received kind notes from people all across the country. Many of them said the same thing had happened to their families or their friends’ families. There was not one angry comment telling us we were failures as parents even though we fully expected them. Later that year the music project I started to release Justin’s creative work turned into the CD “Permagrin,” a name Justin had chosen himself. The Album of 14 tracks ended up being distributed by Polyvinyl Records. It has since sold or streamed in all 50 states and 38 countries. This was a pretty amazing accomplishment I thought. But in my gut I still knew this wasn’t enough.

Doing more

Veatchnew-2-copyWe decided The Justin Veatch Fund would create programs for talented teens to afford them opportunities to experiment with their music in front of others. Local open mic nights we created with the Yorktown Teen Center became a community focus and continue to this day. And that led to music workshops, and finally concerts that enabled the most talented young people we encountered to open for a headliner on a big stage. One of those headliners was Bernie Williams, the former Yankee star-turned-musician. Our thought was to keep these talented kids focused, inspired, and gainfully active with the hope that drugs would never be an issue for them. But, again, something in my gut felt this was not enough.

Getting personal

We kept hearing about other young people in our town, other towns and across the country dying of drug overdoses. How could a talented, smart, athletic young man like Justin fall victim to the menace of drugs? How could it happen to so many others? I decided it might be helpful to tell Justin’s story directly to people and let them know that drug overdoses can easily happen. At a time when my wife, Marina, still couldn’t accept what happened, could not broach the topic without tremendous upset, I made it my personal project, going through a lifetime of Justin’s photographs, recordings and videos. Urged by my brother-in-law, who books speakers in colleges, I struggled to put together a multimedia program directed to other young people or whoever would listen. It wasn’t easy. I spent hours scanning photos, writing, trying to fashion a talk. Then I realized I couldn’t write a talk to be effective. I had to speak from the heart every time I came before an audience. I created pictures, icons if you will, that marked points in Justin’s life, and I spoke about them. I talked about Justin’s normal and happy childhood, his early success in music, the time we first learned about Justin’s experimenting with drugs and how we struggled as a family to turn it around. And how we won battles but eventually lost the war.

Screen-Shot-2013-05-19-at-5.25.44-PM-copyWhen I felt I was ready, I nervously delivered the talk to a friend, then a couple of small groups, and then a focus group of student assistance counselors. In the spring of 2012 I first presented “A Message from Justin” to Middle School kids in New Jersey, then High School students in other places. As of this writing I have presented Justin’s message to more than 20-thousand young people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I speak to them as though Justin is talking to them through me. And they listen. I have been told by a number of educators that I’ll never know if and when, but the talk will save lives. But as much as I might feel some satisfaction from those comments, the accidental drug deaths continue at an alarming rate.

Epidemic still spreading

In March the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention came out with an alarming report that heroin deaths had nearly tripled since 2010 across all age groups. Overdose deaths from other drugs were also up. Prescription narcotics, opioid analgesics, were the gateway to heroin use in many communities. While in many instances pills were raided from medicine cabinets those same pills were available on the streets at a high cost from drug dealers while bags of heroin were available for only $6. We already knew from another earlier report that deaths from drug overdoses had surpassed deaths from traffic accidents.

Russian Roulette

10671360_748650255205846_905724642334056253_nWhat are we doing wrong as a society, as parents, as teachers, as friends to allow these tragic events to continue? Are we presenting accurate and detailed information to our young people or are we just trying to scare them into towing the line? Teens are very smart, and they know BS when they hear it. In schools the message is largely “say no to drugs,” at the same time that 20 percent of the students are already experimenting. Is there a message being given to that 20 percent? Many assume that adolescents engage in risky behaviors because they have an innate tolerance for risks. But a recent study done at Yale School of Medicine, NYU and Fordham found this is not the case. The study says teens enter unsafe situations not because they are drawn to danger or risk, but, rather, because they aren’t informed enough about the odds of the consequences of their actions. They are, the study shows, much more tolerant for ambiguity when risks are not precisely known. When risks were precisely stated, adolescents in the study avoided them at least as much and sometimes more than adults.

A culture issue

I believe, and this is borne out in my many encounters with young people, that our drug crisis does not originate from drug pushers or lack of law enforcement but, rather, comes as a result of the accepted behavior of peers in our youth culture. My goal in delivering Justin’s message to kids is to first create awareness that what happened to Justin can happen to them or their friends. Secondly, that they have a great deal of power in changing the culture that harbors such a cavalier attitude about substances. Thirdly, that they as friends can do a better job taking care of each other, recognizing those in trouble, and persuading them to get the help that they are reluctant to do on their own including telling a third party. The important thing is to start a conversation.

Justin’s message

I usually end my talk with a true story about the power of the Internet and how young people can make a difference. I tell of a young Englishman named Olly who I learned about shortly after Justin died. Olly was a fan of Justin’s Myspace Music Page where Justin had posted several of his songs. After Justin died there was a posting on Justin’s page by a member of a British band that said a friend had had the entire lyrics of one of Justin’s songs, ESRT Page 13, tattooed on his rib cage. The post amazed me but I didn’t really believe it until about a week or two later when there appeared a picture of Olly with the lyrics very ornately inscribed on his torso. There was only one line in the song, “And I can’t stay away, ‘cause you’re a radio wave and you always seem to be transmitting to my brain,” but as a tattoo it was a very significant undertaking.

I had to get in touch with Olly to find out why he did this. He told me he loved Justin’s music and had heard that he recruited friends to sing with him on that track. Olly said that he too had had some problems with drugs and he had the tattoo as a reminder to take better care of himself. I told Olly “I think you have a guardian angel in Justin.”

NOTE: The story of Justin Veatch and his family is told in the documentary film “Whispering Spirits” which debuted in November, 2014, at The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Organizations can arrange to show the film at no charge by contacting producer Sean Gallagher [email protected].

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