'The first thing you deal with is the shame'

Lisa Cote Johns, founding member of Community Speaks Out, carries a sign Thursday night in memory of her son Christopher, who died of an overdose in 2014, as people gather on Parade Plaza in New London for the group's vigil to help call attention to the heroin crisis. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Lisa Cote Johns, founding member of Community Speaks Out, carries a sign Thursday night in memory of her son Christopher, who died of an overdose in 2014, as people gather on Parade Plaza in New London for the group's vigil to help call attention to the heroin crisis. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Lisa Cote Johns and Tammy de la Cruz are working their cellphones and their newly established contacts in the world of heroin and opiate addiction on a drab January afternoon.  

The two working moms, done with their paying jobs for the day, are laboring at the volunteer gig that has been consuming their free time for months.

A young addict is in danger of relapsing, overdosing and possibly dying. His mother has reached out for help.

Johns and de la Cruz, who have endured the same crisis in their own homes, sling street terms they never thought would be part of their vocabulary as they work to get help for the family.

"The kid detoxed at First Step," de la Cruz says. "He was told nothing was available for a month. He's struggling. There are no beds."

She goes down the list of treatment centers available to those covered by the state's Husky D healthcare program, Connecticut's insurance plan for its lowest income population.

"I'll just call every one of them until I get him in," she vows.

Johns of Montville and de la Cruz and her husband, Joe de la Cruz, of Groton are founding members of Community Speaks Out Inc., a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to working with families to get help for addicts.

The message on the back of the group's business cards — printed in purple to represent overdose prevention — says, "If we do not speak about addiction, no one will hear and nothing will change."

Community Speaks Out has helped get 22 people into treatment to date, according to its members. It runs two support groups for families of addicts.

Its members hand out business cards listing their personal cellphone numbers along with promises to do anything they can to help.

They have forged relationships with police departments in Groton and Stonington, attending roll calls to introduce themselves and their services to the rank and file.

Members have a treatment expert on speed dial and a grant writer on their board of directors.

They collaborate with another grass-roots group, Shine a Light on Heroin, and have given presentations at local schools.

They organized the vigil in New London Thursday night, after Lawrence + Memorial Hospital treated 22 overdose patients between Jan. 27 and Feb. 5, an unprecedented number, according to hospital officials.

Three additional overdoses locally resulted in deaths.

After learning their son, Joey Gingerella, was struggling with a pill addiction, the de la Cruzes decided to bring into the open the disease that is getting its hooks into an alarming number of young people.

"The first thing you deal with is the shame," Tammy de la Cruz said. "When we talked even to our closest friends and told them about our son, they said, 'Yeah, my son went to rehab last year.'"

Gingerella is in recovery and is doing well, his parents said.

Johns and her family made the ultimate sacrifice to the scourge that has gripped the region and nation. Her 33-year-old son, Christopher P. Johns, died from a heroin overdose on Oct. 2, 2014.

Meeting de la Cruz at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting gave her a chance to give meaning to her son's life by saving others. She said she hopes to open a rehabilitation center one day.

"I want to be the mom's face that is plastered all over Connecticut," Johns says. "I want to be the mom who says, my son is dead, and I'm not going to let it happen to yours."

She wears a locket containing some of Christopher's ashes. About halfway into his 13-year battle with addiction, he overdosed in the family home.

Johns, responding to an odd noise, found him passed out on his bedroom floor with a belt around his arm and a hypodermic needle nearby. He was foaming at the mouth and his fingernails had turned blue due to lack of oxygen.

Johns was able to revive her son, and as emergency medical responders removed him from the home, Johns' daughter, angry at what her older brother was doing to himself and his family, insisted on taking a photograph to show him later.

Now, his mother shows the photo when she speaks in public.

Rehab and relapse

Christopher Johns had aspired to be a doctor, but wound up a junkie, his mother says, after he succumbed to the allure of pain pills following a couple of surgeries in his teenage years.

He made the transition to heroin, the cheaper opiate alternative, in his early 20s.

His addiction landed him in prison at times and left him homeless at others. He was beaten up by drug dealers and, after several stints in rehab ended in relapses, he frankly told his mother, "I know you're going to live longer than me."

Johns never gave up her on her son. In 2005, after discovering Christopher was abusing pills, she and her husband spent more than $26,000 to send him to a seven-month treatment program in Oklahoma.

Their insurance would not cover the program.

Christopher came home looking great but three months later, when she was getting ready for work, Johns found him slouching on the couch, his head back, a needle nearby.

The cycle of recovery and relapse continued. Christopher "couldn't kick it" for good, his mother says.

He tried methadone, which Johns says is known as "liquid handcuffs" in the addiction world because the user has to show up at a clinic daily and drink their dose of the maintenance drug in front of a staff member.

He also tried Suboxone, another maintenance drug.

Christopher Johns had been released from his most recent stint and was awaiting a treatment facility bed when he had his fatal relapse.

Johns says her son didn't return her phone calls one day and she knew he was going to die.

Her longtime friend, retired New London Police Capt. Kenneth W. Edwards Jr., kicked down the door of a bedroom in a sober house on Rogers Street in New London and found him dead.

"I'm hoping to help people and save lives through him," Johns says. "It's rampant. It's disgusting. It's sad to see your child be who they don't want to be."

Edwards, who is an inspector with the Chief State's Attorney's Office, is on the board of directors of Community Speaks Out.

He had befriended Christopher Johns, writing to him in prison and helping him find a job upon his release.

Edwards says that even with his decades of law enforcement experience, it turns out he doesn't understand addiction. He thought Christopher was going to make it.

Addicts can withdraw physically from opiates within three to seven days, but the urge to use remains long after detoxification — maybe forever.

Long-term treatment is preferable, but not readily available in Connecticut, according to the members of Community Speaks Out, who say it's easier to find out-of-state placement for someone with private insurance.

Community Speaks Out is planning fundraising events, but for now members are reaching into their own pockets and relying on sympathizers within the community for financial assistance.

Attorney Eric Callahan from Suisman Shapiro drew up the group's incorporation papers pro bono.

Andy Levine from Levine Insurance donated the insurance policy for Thursday's vigil in memory of Madisen Vail of Stonington, who died Jan. 25 from an overdose.

President Barack Obama has proposed spending an additional $1.1 billion over the next two years on treatment, prescription drug monitoring and distribution of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. States would receive funds based on the severity of the epidemic.

Members of Community Speaks Out say southeastern Connecticut has been hit hard and financial relief can't come fast enough.

Meanwhile, they are patching together a network of resources from the legislative, law enforcement and treatment communities and doing what they can to help.

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN

Lisa Cote Johns speaks about her son Christopher, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, as she holds his photograph Monday in her Montville living room. On the table, background, are photographs and objects that serve as a memorial to her son. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Lisa Cote Johns speaks about her son Christopher, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, as she holds his photograph Monday in her Montville living room. On the table, background, are photographs and objects that serve as a memorial to her son. (Tim Martin/The Day)
A memorial to Christopher Johns, created by his mother, Lisa Cote Johns, Monday in her Montville living room. Christopher died of a heroin overdose in 2014. (Tim Martin/The Day)
A memorial to Christopher Johns, created by his mother, Lisa Cote Johns, Monday in her Montville living room. Christopher died of a heroin overdose in 2014. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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