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A New Jersey Mom Speaks Out About Her Son’s Overdose Death

I lost my son, Nick Rohdes, to a heroin overdose last week, Wednesday, February 12 at my home in Levittown, PA.  Nick was born on 12/12/89 in New Zealand and was raised in Colts Neck, NJ.  He loved New Jersey,  its shore, the Yankees, the Giants.

My son completed his rehab program at Seabrook House in Bridgeton, New Jersey sometime in early November last year. He was on probation for a crime committed to sustain his heroin habit.  The conditions placed on his probation did not permit him to leave the state of NJ and thus was not able to move in with me in PA.  I needed to find him a sober living house in New Jersey.

A week after he completed his rehab, I personally took him to a sober living home located in Trenton and placed him in the care of the house owner. He seemed to be thriving there.  He had found a job at a local gym as a Membership Consultant and had even managed to finance his own car.  He looked better than he had in months and seemed happy, humbled and at peace. He moved to another sober living home in Lambertville on February 2, 2014.  Ten days later he was dead.

Based on my son’s texts, sometime during February 4, or 5, he relapsed and started using heroin again. The folks at the sober living house found out about this.  All sober living houses require that its residents refrain from using drugs or alcohol.  Breaking this rule will cause them to be evicted from the home.

I don’t have a problem with this rule.  I do have a problem with evicting a person from a sober living home because he/she is using and no one is contacted and alerted about this.  Sober living homes are all about sharing responsibility and supporting one another.  The recovering addict goes there to learn life skills and get back on track. However, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is defined “as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors…The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible but also likely.”

After my son relapsed and was given the option to go into rehab or leave, he chose to leave.  According to his texts, he didn’t want to go into rehab because he didn’t want to lose his job and car, yet again.  This would have been his 7th stint at a rehab center in 4 years.  He also wanted more than ever to be sober, to be normal, to be happy.  He just didn’t have the will-power to do so.  The disease had pretty much taken control of his decision making skills.  An addict doesn’t make decisions.  The addiction does.  Perhaps NJ needs to institute the Marchman Act as they have in FL.  “The Marchman Act permits a person to be admitted for assessment or treatment for substance abuse against his or her will in various ways, according to specified procedures and criteria” ( Had NJ had this statute, my son would be alive today.

When my son was evicted, I was not informed.  My son asked to stay with me for one night.  The reason he gave me was that my home was closer to his job and he had to be in early the next the morning.  A storm was approaching and he didn’t want to chance it.  He also stated that he needed a break from the house.  When he came to my house, he did not look high, nor did he look agitated.  Although in hindsight, he was exhibiting signs of withdrawals:  constant scratching of his legs.  I attributed this to dry skin due to the cold weather we’ve had.  He kissed me goodnight and told me he loved me.  Something he rarely did.  I thanked God that my son was being affectionate again.   The next morning, I found my son dead.  He was blue and cold to the touch.  Apparently, as soon as he knew I was asleep he shot up and overdosed.  Seeing the lifeless body of your child is something I wish on no one!  This is the baby I brought into this world and nursed, wiped tears from his eyes, read him Goodnight Moon a million times, and hoped to someday watch him walk down the aisle, start his family, be a grandma to his children.

The reason I want to go public with this is that I want state legislators to take a hard look at these so called sober living houses or recovery homes. There is absolutely no oversight here. Kids who can barely manage their own addictions are made managers to manage the addictions of other kids. Once the kids break the rules by using drugs again, or becoming another statistic like one of the Faces of Meth, they’re being thrown out without any accountability. No one is being notified. No family member, no social worker, no parole officer, no one. Even a vicious dog who has bitten a person, gets taken to a pound, not thrown out like yesterday’s trash. These young men and women suffer from a disease call addiction. This disease cannot be cured by will-power and has nothing to do with antisocial behavior or bad behavior.

Saying that’s it’s an addict’s decision to use or not, is akin to saying that it’s a schizophrenic’s decision to hear or not hear voices. Heroin addiction is a very powerful addiction that takes control of the mind and body. When a person relapses, they need help, support, even if it means going against their will. They do not need to be left alone to their own devices. If a person threatens to commit suicide, 911 is called and that person may be committed if the medical authorities or social workers believe that that person is a danger to him/herself. A bartender can be held responsible for serving one too many drinks to a patron and that patron or someone else later dies because of his drunk driving.

So how is that different from sending a kid you know is high or very likely to get high to leave the premises unattended and get behind the wheel of a car. What if my son instead of waiting to get to my house and waiting for me to fall sleep to shoot up again, would have done it in the car? Perhaps another mother would have been mourning the death of her child. There has to be accountability. There has to be proper care put in place at these houses. They charge a lot of money:  $625/mo for the “privilege” of sharing a room with 2 or 3 other guys. Do the math.  That’s a lot of money these houses are raking in. They promise to help these kids get on the right path, but if the kid fall off the path or deviates from the path, then they wash their hands off the whole thing.

Who are these people who are opening these sober living houses? What is their motivation? Has any background check been done on them?   Please understand that I support Sober Living Houses.  They are an integral part of the recovery process. More often than not, the addict is better off there after being released from a rehab center, as going back to the “old neighborhood” might make him/her relapse again.  But there has to be oversight of these homes. Anyone can open up a sober living house in NJ.  No certification, training, or license is required.  Consider that a license is required for a hairdresser to cut your hair, yet nothing is required of a person who has decided to look after chronically ill people.  Please note that the Rehabilitation Act enacted by Congress states that  individuals who have a record of drug use or addiction are classified as disabled.

I want to raise awareness that the system is broken.  I blame the whole system for failing my son: the medical establishment, society’s penchant for stigmatizing addiction, the judicial system who punish the user instead of committing them to rehab and psychiatric care, the families (myself included) who practice tough love, instead of educating themselves on the disease and fighting to find a cure.  But I don’t want to point fingers.  I want to find solutions.  To cite NIDA again, “4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older had used heroin at least once in their lives. It is estimated that about 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.”  In PA alone, drug overdose have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of death.  This is a serious problem that we can no longer ignore.


Alba Herrera

Levittown, PA

If you have a story please feel free to share it with us. This is Alba Herrera’s story, and we want to know, what is yours?

We want to experience these things with you. We want to laugh and cry with you. Addiction is a a hell of a disease and no one needs to go through it alone. We want to be a part of these things and to help. Why? Because it is something we are all battling together. So share you experience, your strength and your hope. We want to hear from you no matter what it is. Don’t go through it alone. 

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