By Stephen J. Kotz
The pain and suffering addiction to heroin and other narcotics can cause a family was brought home Tuesday night when survivors of Gabriel Phillippe, a 15-year-old Center Moriches boy who died of a drug overdose four years ago to the day, took part in a forum on the growing epidemic of teen drug and alcohol abuse at Joshua’s Place in Southampton.
“Four years ago this morning, we got a phone call from my son, Bryan, saying my grandson Gabriel was in the hospital and had died of a drug overdose,” said Paulette Phillippe of East Hampton. “I can remember holding his hand…and it was very cold, and I can remember praying, praying really hard, thinking maybe this was a dream. Maybe he was going to come back. He didn’t.”
“It’s hard to put into words how I actually felt, but if just one person can be saved I would do this a million times,” she said of the forum that also included presentations by Gabriel’s father, Kim Laube, the executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Seminars, Inc., or HUGS, Lieutenant David Sheehan of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, and Katie Pryhocki, a recovering alcoholic and the mother of four.
“We know we have this epidemic, some are calling it a pandemic” said Ms. Laube, who shared with the group that she had been in recovery for more than two decades. “Young people are dying and that is unacceptable.”
“This is simply a health issue,” she said, adding that there would be no stigma attached to someone coping with heart disease or cancer. “When we begin to treat this as a health issue, we are going to see progress.”
Ms. Laube told the gathering of about 25 people a major cause of the problem is “we have normalized substance use in this society” and are unable to talk about the problems substance abuse causes. “Even the best cooks refer to cookbooks, she said. “Why do parents think they have to work in silence?”
Isolation and denial combine to prevent parents from recognizing the reality of addiction, she said, pointing out how many people say, “Thank God, my kid’s just drinking and he’s not using heroin.”
The reality, she said, is that Suffolk County, and the East End in particular, show higher alcoholism rates than the national average and that kids who start by experimenting with alcohol and marijuana are at greater risk for trying harder drugs.
“There’s a line I hear very often,” said Lieutenant David Sheehan of the Sheriff’s Department. “’Not my kid.’”
Lt. Sheehan said many parents think their children are too intelligent, responsible, honest, or good to fall into the trap of drug abuse, but that they are dead wrong. He advised parents to watch their children closely for changes in behavior. If a kid who participates in sports loses interest in them, or if his grades suffer, or if he starts hanging around with a new group of friends, it’s a clear sign that “something’s up,” he said.
He urged parents to monitor their children’s computers and cell phones, administer drug tests, and make it a point to look through their rooms for signs of suspicious activity. He then showed off some of the typical hiding places for drugs, including beer and energy drink cans that are really containers, as well as the kinds of small paper bags and rubber bands used to wrap up tiny bags of heroin.
Katie Pryhocki, who said she had developed a serious drinking problem by the time she was 15 and became sober seven years ago after collapsing in her home, with the youngest of her four children with her, also urged parents to be vigilant. “I don’t know what my decisions have done to them. Time will show,” she said, adding that even though she cannot keep up with her children’s activities, she does her best to always be on guard for their welfare.
Bryan Phillippe, Gabriel’s dad, said his son matched the profile described by other speakers. “He was the good kid. He was the smart kid,” he said.
Mr. Phillippe, who said he too has been in recovery for many years, said he noticed changes in his son, starting when he was about 12 years old. “I trusted him too much,” he said.
Things spiraled out of control quickly, with Gabriel being hospitalized for a drug overdose in December 2009. “For three months, it was a struggle every day,” he said, as he tried to convince his son that he needed to enter a 12-step program for recovery. The night before his son’s death, Mr. Phillippe said he took him to a meeting in Port Jefferson, but Gabriel refused to get out of the car.
Instead, they went to a diner. When Mr. Phillippe dropped his son off at his mother’s house in Center Moriches that night, he said, “I gave him a hug and told him to call me tomorrow.”