By Marion Lynch October 8, 2015
Lisa and Rick Stavola sat in the comfortable den of their riverfront home in Middletown last Saturday morning. Over the fireplace is a portrait of the eldest son, Richard J. Stavola Jr., known as Tigger to his family and friends. He looks like a typical young man in a blue-checkered button-down shirt, head tilted slightly down, looking into the camera with the faint touch of a smile.Two years ago this month, Tigger lost his seven-year battle with addiction and died of a heroin overdose at age 25.
A tragedy for the people who loved him, Tigger’s was one of 557 heroin deaths – more than 10 each week – in New Jersey that year. In 2014 the numbers were worse, with the state medical examiner reporting 664 heroin deaths statewide, 68 in Monmouth County alone, a staggering 51 percent increase in the county. And there’s every indication that those numbers are continuing to climb in 2015.“It’s an epidemic hiding in plain sight,” said Rick. “If someone went into a school and killed 15 people, it would be all over the news all over the world, but yet, just in the Middletown, Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver area, 20 kids died from opiates in 2014.”
Even with so many people dying from opiate addiction, “It’s hard to believe because you don’t see it.”
The couple sees it when they open a newspaper and read the obituary of a young person who “died peacefully at home.” They know the stories, the years of cycling through addiction and arrests to detox and rehabilitation back to addiction, because they lived through it and fought it for seven years of their son’s short life.
“LARGER THAN LIFE”
Lisa described Tigger as a “big-hearted human being” who loved animals and people.
“He was always standing up for the little guy,” she recalled. “He had compassion for everyone, but not for himself.”
He struggled in school, first at Rumson Country Day and later in Marlboro, where he eventually was transferred to an alternative school run by the Freehold Regional school district for teens who have difficulty in school.
Those problems in school led to struggles with his self-esteem, his parents believe.
“He didn’t feel good about himself,” Lisa said.
Outside of school, he loved the outdoors; whether it was the woods near their Marlboro home or the woods of Vermont, where the families often spent their time off.
“He was a larger than life kind of kid,” Lisa says. “But drugs made him a different person.”
Low self-esteem is a familiar theme that she’s heard from mothers of other addicts, she said.
“When they take these drugs they feel good about themselves. They don’t feel shy. They don’t feel intimidated.”
FROM PILLS TO HEROIN
Lisa and Rick say their son began using drugs when he was 17, and like most heroin addicts he started with prescription drugs. Rick described the assorted opioids that are readily available to young people.
“They all tend to start with pills: Oxycodone, Roxycodone, Percocets,” he said, and others, all highly addictive drugs that kids get a hold of through their own doctors or by taking them from family members and friends.
“It only takes a couple to get addicted.”
It’s an all-too-familiar story: When access to the pills they need runs out, heroin becomes a cheap and available alternative. With prescription pills costing around $30 on the illegal market, heroin costs between $5 and $10 a dose, and it’s easier to get.
When it became obvious that Tigger had a problem, Lisa said, “We didn’t have anyone to guide us.”
“You can’t help and you don’t know how to help,” she said.
They took their son to doctors and psychiatrists trying to find answers and get help.
When addiction tightened its grip on Tigger, they became more desperate to save their son’s life. They sent him to rehab facilities all over the country, from well-known programs frequented by troubled Hollywood stars and wilderness programs – any place that gave the family a glimmer of hope that they could help.
They begged a local hospital to admit him to the psychiatric ward. They asked a judge to have his rights taken away so that they could transport him to a rehabilitation facility.
They took him out of the country for experimental treatments that aren’t available in the U.S.
The only way to get Tigger the help he needed was to call the police.
“There is no system in place,” Rick said. “The only way you can get help in New Jersey and particularly in our area is to be arrested. You have to be arrested – and go through drug court – before you’re eligible for any kind of help.”
With few or no detox facilities for addicts, the small number of spaces available are for those who are mandated by the courts, he said.
In detox, addicts are admitted for a few days so they can withdraw from the drug in a supervised setting. Detox is supposed to be followed by rehabilitation.
The court mandated that Tigger enter a sober living facility, but there were no spaces available for him.
“We couldn’t find an Oxford House,” said Rick. Oxford House is a network of more than 2,200 sober living houses, with 19 houses in Monmouth County. Each house is self-governed and holds approximately 10 people.
“It was mandatory, and he couldn’t get in,” Rick said. “So we opened one in Middletown.”
He started to rebuild a property he owned in Middletown for use as an Oxford House for Tigger and others in need of a place to recover.
“Unfortunately, my son passed away before it opened.” In early October that year,
the family had sensed that Tigger was doing better. He was working. He had a
girlfriend.“We thought he had turned a corner,” Rick said.Lisa felt a “kind of a lull”
from the usual tension in their family life. He was living at home, on Thursday night, Oct. 10, and after he watched a football game on television he told his parents he was going to bed. That was the last time they saw their son alive.
Sometime that night Tigger received a phone call from a 50 year-old man he met in a recovery program in Middletown. They went to a bar in Paterson, and later that night Tigger was dead from a heroin overdose.
Oxford House in Middletown opened two months later, and the 12-bed facility has been at full occupancy ever since.
INCREASING AWARENESS, HELPING OTHERS THROUGH TIGGER HOUSE
In the two years since Tigger’s death, the Stavolas have turned their family’s tragedy into a mission to save the lives of other people’s children.
They established the Tigger House Foundation to increase public awareness about opiate addiction and to help others struggling with addiction. Additionally, the organization has established relationships with law enforcement and hospitals to strengthen the services for those who need help.
This Friday, Oct. 9, Tigger House will hold its first fundraising event at Edgewater Beach and Cabana Club in Sea Bright. The sold-out clambake will raise funds to help addicts in need of treatment and to launch a public awareness program.
The Stavolas know the statistics all too well, and they want everyone else to know that heroin is a deadly epidemic. They know that New Jersey lies at the epicenter of the nation’s heroin crisis, with a death rate that’s triple that national average.
“This is where a lot of heroin comes in,” Rick said. “More heroin is transported up and down the New Jersey Turnpike than any other highway in the world.”
Cities like Paterson and Newark are at the heart of a multibillion-dollar industry run by organized gangs, he said. And heroin in the Garden State is the most powerful in the country – 60 percent pure compared to about 20 percent pure in other areas of the U.S.
Through Tigger House, the couple wants to spread the word about the crisis of opiate addiction and to help families through the recovery process. Through its website and social media the organization disseminates information about opiates and resources for those looking for help.
As part of his goal to increase awareness, Rick would like to see electronic billboards on area roads and highways illustrating the growing death toll from opiates.
It takes an average of two years to beat the addiction, they said, and addicts usually have to cycle through detox and rehabilitation multiple times before they are successful. Tigger House is working with a number of community-based recovery organizations so there is a solid network of available resources when people need help.
The Stavolas are not without hope. They know that their efforts will help others who suffer like Tigger did.
“It’s a curable disease,” he said. “We need to work harder to have a better system.”
“If we can prevent some families from going through what we went through it will be a success,” Rick said. “We’re hoping to save some lives.”