Jason was the kind of person people were drawn to. He made friends easily and had a great sense of humor. He was a caring person and a loving son who respected his family. He was helpful around the house and in the winter he always shoveled our neighbor’s walk. He loved kids, he was active in his youth group and he often volunteered for various community projects – he even worked for my organization, a community-based group in Middlesex County, New Jersey that works to prevent substance abuse.
When Jason was a little boy, he’d lie about little things. When he was seven years old and swore he had taken a shower, even though the tub was completely dry. He got caught in lies like that all the time, but as he grew into a young man we talked about it and he said he realized how silly it all was. I was convinced he had outgrown it. In December of 2003, I realized he had not.
Jason was finishing the first semester of his second year as a pre-pharmacy major at Rutgers University. Since his dorm was only 45 minutes away, he came home frequently on weekends, often to work at the pharmacy where he had a job since high school. On Sunday, December 14, I remember saying goodbye to him at our front door. As I often did, I put my hand on his cheek. I loved the scruffy feel of his stubble – it reminded me my little boy was growing up. I caressed Jason’s cheek and told him I loved him.
The morning of December 17, 2003, my husband called me at work to tell me the hospital had called to say Jason was brought to the emergency room and we should get there as soon as we could. We met near the turnpike and drove to the hospital together in silence. We couldn’t image what had happened – my husband had spoken to Jason the day before and said he sounded fine.
When we arrived at the hospital emergency room, the first thing I remember is being referred to as “the parents,” and being ushered into a private office. I used to work in hospital administration and I knew what that usually meant – but I wanted to believe something else. We asked to see Jason, but were told we had to wait to speak to the doctor. Again, it was a sign I knew, but could not accept.
I have relived that day in my mind so many times, and while I really can’t tell you exactly what the doctor said, the message was clear – my beautiful son was gone. Apparently, Jason had been abusing prescription drugs and had overdosed.
I thought to myself that this couldn’t be possible. I work in prevention and Jason knew the dangers. We believed that he was not using drugs — we talked about it often. I was so convinced that he was not using, it became a sort of joke between us – as he would leave home at the end of a weekend, I would frequently say, “Jason, don’t do drugs.” “I know, Mom,” he would say, “I won’t.” But he did.
In speaking with dozens of Jason’s friends after his death, we learned his abuse of prescription drugs may have started after he began college, and apparently escalated the summer before he died. I know he believed he was being safe. Apparently he used the internet to research the safety of certain drugs and how they react with others. As a pre-pharmacy major, maybe he felt he knew more about these substances than he actually did, and had a “professional curiosity” about them. We also learned that he had visited several online pharmacies and ordered drugs from one Mexican pharmacy online. We found indications that this pharmacy automatically renewed his order each month.
I think back to the last several months of my son’s life, trying to identify any signs I might have missed. I remember that sometime during his first year at Rutgers, I discovered an unlabeled pill bottle in Jason’s room. I took the pills to my computer and identified them as a generic form of Ritalin. When I confronted Jason, he told me he got them from a friend who’d been prescribed the medication. He wanted to see if they would help him with his problem focusing in school. I took that opportunity to educate him on the dangers of abusing prescription drugs and told him that if he really thought he had A.D.D (Attention Deficit Disorder), we should pursue this with a clinician. He promised he would stop using the drug; he even called the counseling office to make an appointment for an evaluation.
The only other sign I can remember is that one weekend when Jason was home I passed him in the kitchen and noticed that his eyes looked odd – his pupils were as small as pinpoints. I confronted him right there and then, asked him if he was on something. He said, “No, what’s wrong?” and went over to a mirror to see what I was talking about. He said that he didn’t know what was wrong – maybe it was because he was tired. I was suspicious, but his behavior was perfectly normal, so I let it go.
I can think of no other signs until we got that horrible call on December 17, 2003.
My son Jason made a difference in the world for 19 years, and I want him to keep making a difference. By continuing to share his story, I hope we can help other families avoid the kind of tragedy my family has suffered. We all need to do everything we can to keep others from suffering the kind of heartache we have endured.