I grew up in New Jersey, in a close-knit Italian family. My husband, Tito, is from Argentina. I have three sisters and a brother and between us we have nine kids who are all very close. My husband’s side includes brothers and cousins, so we were always together with family. Every birthday, holiday, everyone is always together. Before my husband and I married and moved into our home in Ramsey, New Jersey, neither one of us had ever lived on our own. We went right from our parents’ homes to what I thought would be my forever home.
I’m a registered nurse by profession, and when I was pregnant with Danny, my third child, I started my own home-based business preparing long-term care plans for medical and legal needs. My two oldest children, Michael and Andrea, were ten and eight years older than Danny. So I had already raised two teenagers, had my nice business from home and thought I was doing everything right. I never left my kids. I was always home. I was there for them for every event. I knew their friends and their friends’ families, I made sure of that. Life was great!
All through his school years, Danny was involved in sports; wrestling, football and baseball. During his high school senior year, he decided he’d had enough of sports and began working with our older son who had started his own late-night takeout business called Road Runners. He had plans. He had goals. He had dreams. He had a lot of friends and a girlfriend. The two of them were at my house all the time, they ate dinner with us every night. He gave me absolutely, not one reason to worry about him.
How It All Changed in An Instant
Our world changed on February 23, 2014. The night before, Danny had some friends over and it was a very late night that went into morning. When I got up the next morning, Danny had just taken his friends home and when he returned, we sat together having coffee, talking. From there, I went on with my day and Danny disappeared into his room. I assumed he was sleeping after a late night with friends so throughout the day I’d knock on his door and tell him not to sleep too late. I didn’t think anything of him not responding and chalked it up to a deep sleep–typical teenage behavior after a long night up with friends. His girlfriend came over in the mid-afternoon and said Danny wasn’t answering his phone or text messages. Finding his bedroom door locked, we began banging on it. No response. We ran outside and began banging on his windows. We heard nothing. This went on for a good ten, fifteen minutes, banging, banging, banging. Finally, my husband broke through the door and we found him in his desk chair slumped over. We pulled him off the chair onto the floor, I checked for a pulse and there was none. We called 911, but it was no use. We had lost our son. We were completely devastated.
What I believe happened to our son was he thought he was partying and got involved with something he didn’t understand. I don’t know why he made the decision to use opiates. While many become addicted to legal, but over-prescribed opiates, that wasn’t my son’s situation. From what I was told after his death, Danny was a fairly new user, but he hid his habit very well. When I think back to some of the conversations we had, I realized he would say things to me very skillfully, so I wouldn’t worry about him. Although he would never give up names, he would say things like “Mom, you know some of my friends are so out of control.” He made me think, “oh wow, my kid’s going down the right path.” But he wasn’t. And because of his failure to understand the serious nature of what he was doing, our son died from acetyl fentanyl poisoning. What Danny thought was heroin was actually a synthetic form of fentanyl, concocted by the dealer.
How Do We Learn From This?
When you’re hearing the right words, and you’re not seeing any contradictory actions, what do you do? You believe your kid. He wasn’t staying out late, or not coming home. Danny was home every night. He and his friends all had curfews. They were never home past midnight. He had a part time job, he would see his girlfriend, drop her off at her home in time for her curfew, and then would go out and meet some friends at the Diner. His debit card was linked to my bank account, I monitored his spending! There was nothing that would have tipped me off that something was going on with my son. I wracked my brain daily trying to figure out what I had missed.
A month after Danny died I spent a lot of time thinking. I was angry at Danny, angry at all the kids who thought it was fun to get high, not realizing what they were risking. I thought about how Danny’s death devastated our family. I thought about our community, filled with families like ours who thought that everything was fine, and that this couldn’t happen to them. But I knew that if it could happen to my kid, it could very easily happen to theirs. I collected all those thoughts and I posted an open letter on Facebook.
The letter was meant to warn local families: “watch your kids, you don’t really know what’s going on. This is what happened in my home, and it could happen in yours.” The letter went viral all over the Internet and in newspapers around the country. I heard from people from every continent, from countries I didn’t even know existed. I was humbled from the thanks I received for starting the conversation, from people who thought they were alone. Letters were mailed to my address, gifts dropped off at my home, the response was unreal. I believe what I did was just open up the dialogue for people because no one talked about this type of struggle and the stigma attached to drug use. I responded to as many people as I could, and that kept me going, but I still struggled. I needed to do more.
I decided to write a book and began by writing one chapter at a time. When the manuscript was nearly finished, I connected with Charlene Gianetti. Charlene owns a publishing company and was instrumental in helping get the book ready for publication. Titled Life After You: What Your Death from Drugs Leaves Behind, the book’s message is that the decision to take drugs can have very far reaching consequences.
Not all drug use ends with a death, but when it does, the damage is significant and extends to family and friends. The lasting effects from being resuscitated from an overdose can also be severe. As a nurse, I have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like for someone to suffer brain damage from a resuscitation; life can be spent sitting in a wheel chair, drooling, unable to walk. These are things kids don’t learn about in school and they should. While the books message is targeted to a younger audience, the older kids are getting it, too. I’ve receives messages from young people who tell me that my book made them see a different side of things. The most gratifying response was from a young man who wrote in an Amazon review that he was compelled to call his mother and tell her he loved her after reading my book. That, to me, was a win because that kid recognized that what he was doing caused his mother so much pain and he wanted to tell her he loved her. I found out who this young man was: he has turned his life around and is in school on the path to become an engineer.
Early on, Charlene felt the next step for the book after publication was to make it into a movie. By September 2015, we had met with her contacts in the film industry and the process to turn the book into a movie began. As the project progressed, the film transitioned from being “based on” my book to being “inspired” by the book. This change gave the film makers flexibility with the story, and they intertwined other peoples’ stories into the film. The movie is called Life After You. They’re honoring my son by dedicating the movie to him. Filming is scheduled to start in early 2018 while they continue to look for additional funding.
About six months ago, a New Jersey father contacted Charlene to get in touch with me. His son committed suicide, but he believes it was his struggles with drug addiction that led him to it. It took that man seven years to find his voice. He loved my book and is now out there working hard on several drug task forces. He told me that he thinks if his son had read my book when he was younger, perhaps he would still be here. He is committed to getting my book into the hands of as many young people as possible, working very closely with Ocean County Community College in Southern New Jersey. They’re working towards the book becoming mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen, which I think is awesome. He’s also working with a theater director to create a play based on the book. We’re in early stages now but the play will likely be written to be performed at the high school level. I’m not sure what will happen with it, but I’m committed to anything that will help spread the message.
Over the past three and a half years, I’ve been trying hard to get a message out to kids and their families but sometimes it feels as though it is falling on deaf ears. It does get extremely frustrating, but I just keep trying, and trying. I do need encouragement, to keep it going sometimes and it’s gratifying when that happens. Recently at local college, I was part of a panel discussion where some young people came up to me afterwards. We talked about some of the things discussed and it was a good feeling to know that my ability to speak on this subject opened up their questions, because kids are sometimes shy and don’t want to speak out. I’m glad they felt comfortable to stay and come up afterwards. That was rewarding.
Some of the strongest support I have received was from people that I connected with on Facebook after my letter was posted. So many people I didn’t even know reached out to me. I still communicate frequently with some of them. People were wonderful to me, but their lives go on. I’ve lost friends, but my family has been my rock.
We are slowly rebuilding our lives. In 2015, we sold our home in Ramsey and moved to a quiet and peaceful community in western NJ. I couldn’t stay in the house we thought would be our forever home. I’ve recently become a grandmother and that has brought some joy back to our lives.
I strongly believe that a promise Tito and I made to each other early on has been what has kept us together and there for each other. The second night after Danny’s passing, we went for a drive just to clear our heads, and we made a pact that there was to be no finger pointing. We needed each other to get through this. It’s very common for families to fall apart after a tragedy. Many just don’t make it through the guilt and the fighting. We talked to our other children and we agreed: we all had guilt on a different level, and we couldn’t blame ourselves or each other for our tragic loss. We made a choice to keep our family as close together as we possibly could. This is the advice I give to others when I’m asked how to deal with this kind of trauma.
Update (May, 2020): The Life After You movie has wrapped up filming. For more information please visit movie website.
Attorney, Mother, Autism Advocate. Ilene Lainer’s Journey Creating Innovative Programs for People with Autism