“It Won’t Happen to My Kid”

We lost our child to heroin – can we help save yours?

By Allan and Diane Harris

My wife and I tried to give our two sons the very best we could provide. We encouraged them to exercise and live productive, healthy lives. We did our best to be good role models. We stressed the importance of a good education and lectured them on the dangers of smoking, drinking and drugs. We knew the teenage years would be tough, but we firmly believed that as good parents, our guidance would safely get them through.

How wrong we were. On Aug. 21, our eldest son, Matthew Harris, 23, one of the kindest and most caring people one could possibly know, died from a drug overdose.

Matthew began suffering from migraines when he was at Garrison Middle School. He spent many school days at home, lying in a darkened room, waiting for the pain to subside. We took him to every doctor for every treatment imaginable. Nothing seemed to work for long. When he got a little older, we learned that he also suffered from social anxiety. (We now know that the anxiety had a lot to do with his headaches.) He also suffered from restless leg syndrome and often had trouble sleeping.

When Matt was a sophomore at Haldane High School, he suffered a foot injury that required invasive surgery. He was prescribed a large number of opioid painkillers to get him through his six-week recovery at home. Unfortunately, this was his introduction to opiates. He later admitted to us that he knew he liked opiates because when he took a painkiller his legs were still, he could sleep, and he felt calm.

When Matthew graduated from Haldane in 2010 we were unaware of a drug problem. We knew he had smoked pot, but we thought it ended there. It wasn’t until we caught him stealing from us that we realized the extent of his problem. (Lying and stealing are common during drug use.) Buying pain medication on the street is expensive. When our son could no longer afford the pills, he switched to heroin because it was “affordable.”

Our lives became consumed by Matt’s drug addiction. Over the next three years, he attended rehab twice. Each time, when he returned home, he looked great, felt great and swore that he was “done with that forever.” We thought he was on the road to recovery, but we underestimated how serious and devastating this addiction actually is. We were under constant stress, and our lives were turned upside down.

For five years Matt’s drug problem was the main focus in our home. After his second time in rehab, we sent him to drug doctors, drug counselors, psychiatrists, therapists and put him in an outpatient program. His drug counselor told Matthew that the only choice he ever had was whether or not to try opiates in the first place. Matt never made that decision; he was prescribed pain killers and we gave them to him.

To gain a better understanding of drug addiction, my wife and I attended a seven-hour seminar given by the private rehabilitation facility that Matt was in. It was a packed house of parents and other relatives of patients who all had similar stories to ours. We were all going through the same thing, we had all made the same mistakes, and we were all terrified and desperate.

Just one of the rehabilitation programs Matthew entered cost $20,000 and they did not accept insurance. And while we would have spent any amount of money to see our son get well, this disease is aggressive, and in Matthew’s case, recovery was almost hopeless. The disease of addiction does not discriminate against financial status, race, gender or religion. We are all at risk.

A friend recently sent us an article about teenagers being at a higher risk for addiction than adults because of their immature brain development and about the heroin epidemic surging all across America. The leading cause of heroin abuse is a prescription-drug disorder, but today you don’t need a prescription. Matthew told us on more than one occasion that he could leave the house and walk in any direction and get any drug — morphine pills, Oxycontin, etc. — in five minutes. It’s everywhere and kids are being targeted.

We need to come up with solutions to stop the growing number of deaths among our young. We believe education will be a key component in battling this disease. Our schools need to take an aggressive role in this fight. We need to reach kids early before they move on to high school. Trips to rehab facilities and guest speakers visiting our schools to talk to our children would be a good first step.

Parents need to lock up all prescription medications in their homes. The selling of these drugs is a violent act against our kids and community and stiffer penalties are needed. We can’t let drug dealers walk free; they are nothing short of serial killers. Mental health issues need to be identified early by parents, teachers, family and friends. Kids who suffer from depression, anxiety or any other problems need to know they have sources to turn to other than opiates, other drugs and alcohol. Family, friends, religious organizations, doctors, etc., need to come together to form a safety net for our kids.

Unfortunately, Matt’s mental and physical health combined with his genetic predisposition to addiction made him the “perfect storm” for this disease. We think of him every minute of every day and we miss him terribly. My wife and I would like to thank the parents who have been in our shoes and have reached out to us in spite of their own grief. They are truly wonderful and brave. We would also like to thank everyone for their prayers, letters, generosity and support through this very difficult time.

Let us ensure that our sons and daughters who have died have not died in vain and are never forgotten.


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6 thoughts on ““It Won’t Happen to My Kid”

  1. My heart breaks for you. There are no words — only your brave ones and wishes for our community during your own grief.

    As a member of the newly formed Philipstown Communities that Care coalition, we/I personally promise you that we will strive to take care of our community’s children and attend to these challenges. We will not give up.

    For 10 months, Philipstown’s key leaders have been coalition building and engaging in this painful, complex conversation — struggling to make sense of it in order to determine what to do as a community. Youth and key leader surveys have been administered, analyzed and presented to the community while a young-adult survey (18 to 25) is underway and a parent survey is in development.

    There have also been Narcan trainings and cross county/cross Philipstown advocacy and now commitment of a Philipstown Medicine Return program (details TBD soon).

    On September 16, 43 Philipstown key leaders across all 12 town sectors came together and laid down an official mandate to the community — “continue this work — together — to protect all our children now.” We understand that it’s not enough to say “don’t do drugs” to our kids — our community needs to provide them and their families the tools in this new challenging landscape to manage a healthy life on every front — physical, mental and emotional.

    The key leaders are building this coalition to last, now we are encouraging every member of the community to join our movement — in honor of the Harris’ words, the seven young people who have died, and all our struggling children and families.

    To this end, Haldane’s Thursday evening film and discussion helped turn this corner — over 95 community members attended. The event and school programming has inspired countless Facebook, blacktop and group discussions.

    Let’s keep it going, Philipstown. Please consider being part of the community solution and attend our next Philipstown Communities that Care coalition meeting on Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. at the Desmond Fish Library or visit/like our Facebook page.

    And to Allan and Diane, thank you — your bravery, compassion and call to action today will propel us forward. Our community’s hearts and prayers are with you. And with them, this promise — we will not give up.

  2. Thank you for this — and for the response. Honesty and support are the best ways out.

  3. My heart is broken. I, too, lost my 22-year-old son on May 29, 2015. I have no words but I tell his story every chance I get in hopes of saving someone.

  4. So, so heartbreaking, this critical/fatal epidemic among our lives, in today’s world. We send out our thoughts, share your tears for your loss. Our prayers to have the strength to move forward and share your story, that this will mean a lot to others, awareness to others. Our blessings. Love and peace to everyone.

  5. According to responses in today’s New York Times OpEd section, 80 percent of our heroin users first became addicted to prescription opiate painkillers, as we can see reading this article.

    Learning to administer Naloxone for overdoses is important when facing this epidemic. But isn’t it time to start a discussion on how to stop this epidemic, now? We have to direct our sympathetic responses to a more active dialogue of how to prevent the addiction, not just focus on treating the symptoms. Time to change our sick care system, and focus on preventative care, both for physical disease as well as mental & emotional illnesses.