When A Youth Died Of A Heroin Overdose, His Words Lived On To Help Explain
By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER, Courant Staff Writer
December 16, 2007
Talk to those who knew Justin Parent, and the same words come up again and again: Outgoing. Driven. Funny. He was the class clown who seemed to own a spot on the honor roll at Glastonbury High School, a pre-med student at Penn State who could lighten a room with an almost defiant ability to make people laugh. He was the kind of kid who knit himself into his friends' families, who showed a tough front to the world but still spoke to his family's pets with silly voices, who seemed to achieve whatever he set his mind to.
Not the kind of kid who dies of a heroin overdose two months before his 20th birthday.
If there were warning signs, no one saw them leading to this. Justin had a good life in college, a girlfriend he adored, good grades and, it seemed, no demons to numb.
It's not an unprecedented story — high achiever from a close family and an insulated suburb gets pulled in by drugs, leaving few answers and a world of questions.
But in Justin's case, there was one clue.
And it came from Justin himself.
Two days before Justin died, his mother, Wanda, came across it accidentally. During his freshman year, nearly 10 months earlier, Justin had written a paper for an English class describing his summer before college.
In the paper, Justin wrote about trips with a friend to a sleazy apartment in the North End of Hartford, where they would buy bags of heroin, return to Glastonbury and bask in the euphoria of the drug, even as it made Justin vomit.
He called it "my beautiful, binding, self-destruction."
It ended that summer, he wrote, saying he hadn't touched the drug since August 2005.
For Wanda and Brian Parent, parents who considered themselves on the nosy side, who talked to their kids about drinking and drugs and kept an eye on their friends, finding the paper that October day was a shock. Justin was coming home in a few days for a visit, and they planned to talk to him about it then.
Instead, two days later, on Oct. 25, two police officers and a grief counselor showed up at their door. Justin had been in cardiac arrest in his apartment near the Penn State campus when emergency workers reached him. He died soon afterward — an accidental overdose, according to the county coroner.
In some way, Brian Parent said, the essay has brought a measure of solace. Instead of being left to wonder, they now have something of an explanation, answers to the questions they can't ask Justin.
"He filled in all the blanks," Brian Parent said.
But some questions haven't been answered.
Did Justin continue using heroin after that summer?
An autopsy showed no signs of long-term drug use, according to the county coroner, Scott Sayers. Justin had just one needle mark on his arm, and another mark that might have come from a needle, Sayers said.
And why — or when — did he go back to using the drug?
By all accounts, Justin was thriving in college. He had rushed a fraternity and built a group of friends, earning a reputation as an outgoing kid, nicknamed "J-Rent," who took tough science classes, loved the Red Sox and The Weather Channel, and had musical tastes that ranged from rap to country to even the stuff his parents liked, like Foreigner and the Eagles.
This semester, he started dating a classmate he'd met the year before named Kayla Wells. They hung out and watched movies, text-messaged each other throughout the day, and stayed up into the early morning talking. He told a friend he was in love, and likened their relationship to the romance movie "The Notebook."
At least to those around him, Justin's world looked very different from the one he wrote about in the essay his mother found.
In it, he described in vivid detail what he was really doing the summer before he left for college. He'd sleep late, then drive with a friend to the North End of Hartford, and walk up two flights of rickety stairs to the apartment of the man who sold them heroin.
The man was usually high off crack, Justin wrote, with a woman passed out in his bed.
They bought four to six bags, then drove back to the friend's house to get high and watch TV.
"On this drug, you could be doing absolutely nothing but you feel so good and euphoric that nothing else matters," he wrote. "Granted I would have to get up every hour or so and vomit outside his back door and come back in casually because we were used to getting 'dope sick.'"
Hardly anyone knew what he and the friend were doing, Justin wrote. "They didn't know we shared a habit, and at that time in my life, that was a stronger bond than friendship."
He imagined how his parents had interpreted his sleeping late into the day. "'Hey, this is his last summer before he goes off to college, he's done very well, and let's just let him relax until he leaves,'" he wrote. "Looking back on it now, I wish they did just the contrary."
But by the time he wrote the paper, Justin wrote, heroin was a thing of the past, hard to even write about. "The only reason I am speaking about this tragic point in my life on paper now is because I know that part of my life is over and will never come up again," he wrote.
"I am stronger now and have been through it and know that I am too good for that garbage."
Justin wrote that he felt privileged to be in college, not in jail or dead. His death would devastate many people, he wrote, "but what would hurt the most is that no one knew or even thought that would be the way I would go out."
On college campuses, drug use has increased considerably over the last decade or so.
But heroin use — while going up as well — has remained limited to a relatively small proportion of students, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
According to the study, the portion of college students who said they used heroin in the past year increased from 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent between 1993 and 2005, and focus groups of students indicated that very few knew any classmates who used heroin.
Among high schoolers in Connecticut, a 2005 student health survey indicated that 4.3 percent of students had used heroin at least once, nearly double the national rate of 2.4 percent. More broadly, illegal drug use among suburban students is equal to or higher than that of urban students, according to a 2004 analysis by the Manhattan Institute, which examined data on national adolescent behavior.
Justin's father, Brian Parent, said he and Wanda aren't naive. They've heard the statistics and the stories about teen drug use, but he figured his family was different. Justin knew right from wrong, and he didn't have a history of trouble or a delinquent streak that might put a parent on alert. Brian and Wanda didn't think there were kids using heroin in Glastonbury, a town they chose for the good schools and involved parents.
Looking back, Brian Parent said, he can't see any warning signs he should have noticed. All the signs of drug use were masked in typical things teenagers do.
The summer after high school, Justin was out a lot, Brian Parent said, but Justin often spent time at friends' houses, becoming almost a part of other people's households. The Parents knew Justin's friends and many of their families.
That summer, Justin slept late. But what teenager doesn't when he gets the chance? Brian Parent wondered. And Justin would still get up at 7 a.m. if he had to.
One sign, though, that something might have been wrong was a plea Justin made that summer to his longtime best friend, Ross Malara: "Ross, no matter what, promise me that you'll keep calling me, please."
Malara didn't quite get it, but he called — even if Justin didn't answer, even though Justin kept blowing him and their other friends off, even if the others didn't understand why Malara kept trying.
They'd been best friends since third grade, and he wasn't going to end a friendship over a missed call or text-message, Malara said recently. He and Justin were so close they finished each other's sentences. They'd think of the same thing out of the blue at the same time. Their families vacationed together and held a combined high school graduation party for them.
He only now has an idea of what the request was about: a plea for a lifeline back from the dangerous world Justin had gotten into.
"I understand now that he'd probably see my phone call and then it'd be 'Oh, I need to stop this,'" Malara said.
As they went off to separate colleges that fall — Justin to Penn State, Malara to Florida Atlantic University — it bothered Malara how they'd grown apart. So for Christmas break, Malara visited Justin at Penn State, and the two drove back to Glastonbury together. Malara figured a long car ride would help them reconnect.
Not long after that, Justin told Malara about his heroin use the summer before. He told him he was writing an essay about it for class.
Justin didn't go into detail — he was probably embarrassed, Malara said. And he said he was done with it. "He said he never had an addicting character, so I kind of believed him with that," Malara said.
Still, Malara told Justin he had to stop. If something happens, it would devastate your family and friends, Malara said he told Justin. You have to do this for yourself. But also for your family and friends.
They had other conversations like it since then, Malara said, but he never really knew when or if Justin was using. For the most part, he believed Justin was done with heroin.
Justin had told Wells about the drugs too, during one of their nighttime conversations. As he did with Malara, Justin described heroin to Wells as a piece of his past.
"It wasn't part of him, because of his family and because of his friends and because of himself," she said. "He knew that it was something that he couldn't be a part of, and he didn't want to be a part of."
Things seemed routine in late October. Justin was looking forward to a trip home for Thanksgiving and a family vacation to Florida. He was anticipating the upcoming new movies, like "Saw IV" and "I Am Legend"; he and Wells already had plans to see "National Treasure 2" when it came out on his birthday, Dec. 21.
But he still talked about heroin, at least occasionally. The Saturday before he died, Justin told Malara he was staying clean. He said Wells made him so happy, he didn't even feel like using drugs anymore.
A few days later, Malara said, Justin seemed to be struggling a bit, but nothing about it struck him as alarming.
"Somewhere along the lines, something went wrong and he drifted back into it," he said.
On Oct. 25, Justin wasn't feeling well and slept in, Wells said. But they spoke on the phone and text-messaged into the evening; nothing, she said, seemed out of the ordinary. Justin also talked to his mom on the phone during the day about plans for his trip home. Later in the day, she missed his call while she was in Stop & Shop; when she called back, he told her he was carrying food back from Panda Express and would call her back.
By 9 p.m., Justin was dead.
Malara still wonders what pulled his best friend into drugs. "He didn't really have pains," Malara said. "He had good grades. He had good friends, a good family that loved him."
That was yet another question Justin's essay didn't explain. At the bottom of the paper, Justin's professor, who gave him a B-plus, wrote a series of suggestions and questions.
"Why did you get into heroin in the 1st place?" was one.
Another was, "Did parents ever find out?"
Wanda Parent was really looking for an essay Justin's younger brother, Josh, wrote. Josh was preparing to apply for college, and Wanda, who saves her sons' schoolwork, figured she could find the paper Josh wanted to use for his applications.
But in the room where she keeps their work, Wanda found Justin's essay. He called it "Addiction Without Dependence."
It was a shock. But nothing in the essay made the Parents think they should rush to campus for an intervention. If there was one thing Justin tried to make clear in his writing, it was that he was done with heroin.
The Parents believed him. Justin was so resolved, he did anything he put his mind to, Wanda Parent said. They planned to talk about it with him when he came home in a week and a half. They would have done anything to give him whatever help he needed, they said.
"You think you have some time, because reading it, it didn't end with 'I'm still fighting it,'" Brian Parent said.
They have to admit, they do wonder if Justin's professor said something to him, or suggested he get help. They wish she had told someone, perhaps even let them see the essay back then, so they could have done something.
But they're not focused on that.
"We lost the most treasured thing you can lose," Brian Parent said. "Blame doesn't do anything for me."
What they want is for something good to come of Justin's death.
Soon after Justin died, the Parents gave the essay to their sons' friends, figuring it would have the most effect on kids who knew Justin. If it would keep one person from trying heroin or another hard drug, Brian Parent said, it would be worth it.
Then they sent it to co-workers, and it spread by e-mail. They now get calls from teachers and professors who want to use the essay in classes, and they hear from people whose relatives have struggled with addiction, people who, like Justin, didn't fit the stereotypical image of a heroin user.
They don't plan to give speeches or become crusaders; Justin's death is still raw.
But they want people to use it any way it helps — to reconnect with their kids, use it as a way to start a conversation, understand the power of drugs and the demons of addiction, realize drugs can affect even the kids you might least expect.
It's also a way to show the world the other side of Justin, the parts that don't come through as a statistic or a headline about a teenager dead from drugs.
"He shared something with the world, what his struggles were," Brian Parent said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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