After Loss, Family Fights Heroin Scourge

By Nicole Lockwood

Beverly Artz wakes up and walks down the hall of her suburban Long Island home, passing a wall of scattered photos of her childhood, her family, her husband and her two Yorkshire Terriers.

"Evan’s big thing was to help others. He felt so lucky that he had a chance to get sober, and it’s possible for others to reach the same point," said Beverly Artz.
“Evan’s big thing was to help others. He felt so lucky that he had a chance to get sober, and it’s possible for others to reach the same point,” said Beverly Artz.

At 68, instead of being warmed by the framed memories, she feels a pang of dread as she passes the doorway leading to the bathroom, the spot where she discovered her son Evan, motionless on the ground. On Feb. 10, 2016, Evan, 29 years old, had experienced a fatal heroin overdose after almost two years of sobriety.

“It’s just strange. You wake up everyday expecting to see him walking around the house and then it hits you. He’s gone,” said Artz, a retired schoolteacher who spent much of her career working at P.S. 327 in Brooklyn.

This unfortunate scenario is all too common for many families, tortured by the thoughts of a loved one who died young because of a life-consuming addiction. On Long Island, heroin, a habit-forming morphine-derived drug, is not just a problem, but an epidemic.

The "Big Book," a guide to recovery used in Alcoholics Anonymous, is read by all members of the Farmingdale-based program, "I Am Responsible," regardless of the addiction.
The “Big Book,” a guide to recovery used in Alcoholics Anonymous, is read by all members of the Farmingdale-based program, “I Am Responsible,” regardless of the addiction.

According to the Nassau County Police Department, the county recorded 36 heroin-related deaths in 2015, double the number from the year before. A new report released by the State of New York found that more people are dying in adjacent Suffolk County than any other county in the state, more than in the Bronx and Queens combined. From 2009 to 2013, 300 deaths related to heroin use were recorded in Suffolk County alone. This growing problem is representative of a nationwide trend.

On a national scale, as of 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths are up 286 percent since 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Aside from reported deaths, heroin use is also on the rise, and its primary users tend to be non-Hispanic white males 18 to 25 years of age. Of those users, most had previously, or simultaneously, used or experimented with other drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and opioid painkillers. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, users of opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.

“If that doesn’t spell epidemic then I don’t know what does,” said state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R,C,I-East Northport) in a recent news conference in Hauppauge. “This is an emergency.”

Like so many other affected parents who are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one, Artz and her husband, Billy Artz, have found solace in giving back to the drug-afflicted community. Through donations, speaking to those in similar circumstances, attending local meetings or starting foundations of their own, people are discovering ways to recover from great tragedies while attempting to avert future tragedies for others.

Beverly and Evan Artz.
Beverly and Evan Artz.

Since Evan’s death, Artz has found comfort in attending recovery meetings that her son participated in weekly. These meetings are open to addicts of all kinds, from heroin addicts to alcoholics, as well as affected family members looking to better understand the disease or searching for an outlet to communicate their thoughts and sorrows.

“You have to find something better than being high, and the only thing better is the steps to finding spirituality,” said Terry Porfyris, a close friend of Evan Artz and a member of the same recovery program.

Porfyris is part of “I Am Responsible,” a 12-step program with weekly meetings at Crossroads Church in Farmingdale run entirely by people looking to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. Members take turns completing different commitments each week that depend on one’s level of involvement in the group. A commitment may start with simply setting up or cleaning up before and after the meetings, and participants gradually work their way up to speaking or directing the entire meeting. A major goal that the program stresses is the idea of giving back to others once you feel as though you are comfortable and confident in your own sobriety.

“That’s a whole part of the commitment. Whatever sobriety you have you should share that with other people. Try to encourage that it is possible and success can be yours, but you have to follow the steps,” said Beverly Artz.

“The steps” both Porfyris and Artz are referring to are arguably the reason why the program has proved so effective. The steps begin with admitting that one is powerless to that which they are addicted to, progresses to reflecting on the mistakes one has made and that which they would like to improve about themselves, and finishes with finding spirituality and inner peace.

“We have a massive amount of success, but it comes in waves. The meetings don’t get you sober, they create an environment where sobriety can take place,” said Ray Conroy, 42, one of the five men who started the “I Am Responsible” meetings five years ago. Conroy, who struggled with addiction and has now been sober nine years, has sponsored over 35 people within that time.

“The goal is to recover and come out with a different mindset. People describe it as a spiritual awakening,” he continued. “I would love for everyone to have long-term sobriety, but if they don’t that’s their own story.”

“I Am Responsible” is one of many outlets on Long Island available to those attempting to combat substance abuse. It tends to be smaller than most, aimed at developing a sense of unity among participants; larger organizations on Long Island offer services such as family counseling services and one-on-one mentoring. The include the Long Island Center for Recovery, Long Island Teen Challenge, Addiction Intervention Recovery, Phoenix House and Nassau Alliance for Addiction Services.

While a fair share of options are available to the afflicted, some people feel compelled to take matters into their own hands. Beverly and Billy Artz, within just a few days of Evan’s funeral, decided to start the Evan Artz Foundation. Its purpose is to raise money that can be distributed to people and families, such as addicts who need treatment and don’t have insurance or people searching for educational services.

“Evan’s big thing was to help others. He felt so lucky that he had a chance to get sober, and it’s possible for others to reach the same point,” said Beverly Artz of her hopes for the future and faith in the recovery process as a whole.