Amy Caruso, a nursing student at Boston College, was about to turn 21, with a bright future ahead of her. To her mother, it seemed like things were going fine.
Then she died of a heroin overdose.
Next week, Caruso’s mother, Melissa Weiksnar of Carlisle, will speak to parents and caregivers at a forum devoted to getting the word out about the dangers of drug abuse.
The “Just Listen” event is called “The Real Deal: Substance Abuse in Andover, 2013” and promises to enlighten the Andover community about adolescent substance use.
Bill Fahey, executive director of Andover Youth Services, which is cosponsoring the event with the Andover Police Department, said all too often the responses he hears when he tries to talk about substance abuse among local teens are “not in my town” and “not my kid.”
But Fahey said the problem is indeed here, according to local police and youth workers.
“There probably isn’t a street in town where a drug deal hasn’t gone down,” Fahey said. “Residents need to know the latest trends and take recommended precautions. Families aren’t getting the message about the dangers of prescription drug misuse. The pathway from opioid painkillers to heroin is all too real.”
Sgt. Greg Scott of the Andover Police Department’s Narcotics Unit said opiates like Percocet and Oxycontin are the gateway drugs on that pathway to heroin.
“Young addicts don’t start with a needle in their arm,” he said. “It’s usually a sports injury and a pain medication is ordered. These opiates are how it all starts. ... We just want people to come and learn about the dangers of opiates. We want to help and we plan to have a question-and-answer session where we will talk about the resources out there. Most people are not aware of the help that is out there.”
This year, two young people in town have died from drug overdoses, police have said.
In May, a 25-year-old Andover resident died of an overdose, according to Commander Charles Heseltine, who formerly worked on the drug unit in the detectives division and is now second-in-command under the new police chief, Pat Keefe.
In early July, an 18-year-old resident also died of an overdose.
Former Police Chief Brian Pattullo told the Andover Townsman in an interview on his last day in office that heroin use is a big issue in Andover.
“If you’re looking the other way because of heroin, it’s too late,” he said, adding that heroin and prescription drug use in Andover has become a “huge, huge problem.
“Heroin is used by a wide spectrum of people. We have had people die of heroin overdoses who live in million-dollar mansions,” Pattullo said.
The problem of drug abuse is nothing new, say police and other experts. But recently, it has grown more acute, particularly in affluent suburbs, where young people have access to drugs like Percocet, Vicodin and Oxycontin.
Issues arise when people stop taking the drugs for fun and take them because they have to, police and others say.
“It starts with prescription drugs,” Pattullo said. “You find some Oxycontin in the medicine cabinet used for back pain for mom, but you can’t get it in the street, so you turn to heroin, which is cheaper.”
Cheaper, and much more addictive. “Once they start on heroin, there’s no getting off,” Pattullo said.
The addicts steal from family members and friends to pay for their habit, and may eventually get kicked out of the house.
“Entire families deal with the problem,” he said. “A lot of people just force their kids out and let them fend for themselves. They live on the streets. It’s not a good situation.”
Heseltine said that while heroin goes for around $40 a bag, enough to get high for a day or so, a Percocet or Vicodin pill costs $70 or $80 apiece on the street.
“The cheap alternative is heroin,” he said.
Weiksnar, who studied at MIT, has written a book about the heroin addiction that led to her daughter’s death. She said her daughter admitted she was an addict in November 2009 and voluntarily entered treatment.
“Five weeks later, just shy of her 21st birthday, she died from an overdose at the treatment facility,” Weiksnar writes in her book, “Heroin’s Puppet.”
“I wrote this book so parents, educators, clinicians and young people can learn from my daughter’s six-year battle with substances,” Weiksnar wrote in a press release.
Weiksnar, a frequent speaker on teen substance abuse, also has a son who graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover.
“Despite my undergrad from MIT and two master’s degrees, four years ago, I was clueless about the extent of this epidemic,” Weiksnar said. “Now, I am determined to educate families based on my experience.”
In addition to Weiksnar, a probation officer, a school guidance counselor and parent support advocates with Learn2Cope will also attend next week’s forum, Fahey said. The forum is open to students, parents and residents of Andover and surrounding communities.
“The Andover Police Department and Andover Youth Services see firsthand that America’s No. 1 public health problem, adolescent substance use, is on the rise in our community,” Fahey said. “We want to raise public awareness and offer solutions at the forum. Everyone needs to know what’s happening today, from grade school to the elderly.”
Staff writer Bill Kirk contributed to this story.
IF YOU GO
What: “Just Listen: The Real Deal: Substance Abuse in Andover, 2013,” a community forum hosted by Andover Police Department and Andover Youth Services
When: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m.
Where: Old Town Hall, 20 Main St.