This article is part of a three-part series, "When Heroin Hits Home," in which The Herald-News takes a closer look at Will County's rise in heroin overdose deaths, the families scarred by the opioid epidemic and how local and state officials are attracting much-needed attention to the crisis.
Day One takes a look at a New Lenox family's journey through relapse and recovery; Day Two focuses on another family's struggle with the loss of their son as a court case in connection with his death drags on; Day Three will look at Will County's upcoming opiate education forum and the Heroin Crisis Act, a game-changing state law designed to address the epidemic.
NEW LENOX – The lobby of Peace Lutheran Church is quiet.
Tom Moore writes the words “Opiate Recovery Group” in black marker onto a dry erase board that points recovering addicts down a brightly lit hallway, to the right, and to a classroom near the back of the church.
A small circle of fold-out chairs wait. And then, one-by-one, they share their stories. Of addiction. Of loss.
But also of hope.
“We could fill up all the churches in New Lenox if everyone came out,” Tom said minutes later as he greeted about a dozen regulars and newcomers – either addicts or family members of addicts – as they entered through the church doors on a recent Tuesday night.
The 52-year-old father is usually the first to arrive the nights meetings are held. Armed with personal experience to aid parents struggling with a child’s addiction, Tom leads the group.
It’s a role no parent wants.
“As a parent, when people say kick your child out, or tough love, all that kind of stuff, it makes absolutely no sense because it goes against every parenting instinct that you have … to just abandon your child,” Tom said. “So you struggle with that for a long time until it makes perfect sense and that’s what you need to do to try to save them.”
He tried to save his son.
Jake – who was a senior at Lincoln-Way Central High School when he died – struggled from an early age with substance abuse, experimenting with prescription pain medications, ecstasy, acid, various sedatives and heroin.
After stints at rehab in Rockford for his use of heroin and other drugs, Jake returned home to finish his senior year. But peer pressure, coupled with the allure of drugs, led to a relapse.
When he died March 5, 2014, the 17-year-old had seven drugs in his system – but not heroin. None were reported at lethal levels.
“My son’s body could take no more,” Tom said more than a year after Jake’s death during an opioid abuse education forum at Lincoln-Way West High School.
‘He could have disappeared’
After Tom’s son died, and before he created the weekly meeting in New Lenox, the grieving father made the 45-minute drive to Naperville to attend a support group hosted by the nonprofit A Man in Recovery.
That’s where he met Tim Ryan, a controversial but well-known anti-heroin activist who lost his own son to heroin in 2014.
“I can remember Tom. Half the time, he would just sit there and cry,” said Tim, who heads the nonprofit and helped Tom get his group off the ground. “Tom had two choices. He could have disappeared and buried his grief, or turned that grief into a positive by helping other parents.”
Tim – a recovering addict – said attending nightly meetings, helping others get access to treatment and spreading the word about recovery keeps him sober. Fellow recovering addicts should do the same, he said.
“It’s easy for an addict to go back and use. That’s our nature. ‘I’m having a good day so I’m going to get high. I’m having a bad day, I better get high,’ ” Tim said. “The hard thing is to change. And once you start changing ... you don’t ever want to go back to that old way.”
Tom refuses to let his son’s death be in vain. He has his daughter Ali – who is deep in her own recovery – to think about.
“When I found out that heroin was in our town and it was how kids started dying, I would tell people my story,” Tom said. “And people would say, ‘Oh, I have a brother, I have a nephew, I have a neighbor, I have somebody at work whose son or daughter is struggling with the same thing.’ But yet no one would talk about it. And that made me mad.”
There’s only one way out, he said, and that is to talk about it.
“Parents say, ‘Not my kid, not my neighborhood,’” he said, speaking to that small classroom of recovering addicts and parents. “And I always ask them, ‘Well, what if you’re wrong?’ ”
‘A Man in Recovery’ opiate recovery support groups
• 7 p.m. Tuesdays — Peace Lutheran Church, 1900 East Lincoln Hwy., New Lenox
• 7 p.m. Thursdays — Wheatland Salem Church, 1852 95th St., Naperville
• 7 p.m. Mondays — Town Square Center, 101 W. Second St., Dixon
Find a meeting near you at www.chicagoaa.org/find-a-meeting