Joanne Peterson, a football mom with a well-adjusted teen, a lovely home and a horse, would find her life turned upside down and inside out overnight.
Her nightmare began after her son attended a party where the father of the child hosting the party provided OxyContin to her son.
When the mirror was passed around, her son tried the narcotic drug. When her son woke the next morning, he needed more. It was that fast, she says now.
"My son just graduated high school — and the following summer ended up an addict," she recalls.
For Rachel Edelman of Gloucester, the impact of prescription medicine addiction of her son, now 18, was more of a slide.
"He was a junior in high school and I thought he was only using pot. He blamed his friend when medicine was missing from our home," she said.
But after an emergency room visit, it was a wake-up call. Now he's in his third rehab for treatment of a co-existing addiction and mental health issue. It was a slow dissent, crossing more boundaries each time," she said.
Her son began attending Recovery High School in Beverly.
"He was so bright and so artistic but I watched it all fade away," said Edelman.
The stories from these two mothers represent just the tip of a growing problem, local health officials say.
They are among the hundreds, even thousands of families, across Cape Ann and the commonwealth struggling to cope with their drug-addicted children, with no where to turn and seemingly little help when they reach out.
Last November, the Massachusetts OxyContin and Heroin Commission released its report in which it noted that 3,265 residents statewide died of opiate-related overdoses, while, by comparison, 78 soldiers from the state died in two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the same time period.
Peterson, in the depth of her despair, formed her own group in 2004 called Learn to Cope — a family support group she started in Brockton where there are now 100 members.
Shortly thereafter, a group formed in Salem, which now has about 40 members.
Now, a Gloucester Learn to Cope group was formed in June by the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative — a coalition of city Health Department officials, Gloucester Police, alcohol business owners and others — and there are already close to 20 members.
"We want people to know that they're not alone and there doesn't have to be a stigma," said Joan Whitney, a director within the Gloucester Health Department and head of the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative. "This group is about families helping families in a peer model and bringing in information to help answer questions."
Peterson, of Raynham and now executive director of Learn to Cope, said the support group so far has helped 1,680 member families at the various sites, with another group having formed this fall in Lowell.
"I was a parent in crises. I did it out of desperation because I needed help," said Peterson, who left her job as executive secretary to create the organization. "I started Learn to Cope because I found brick walls wherever I went."
The groups have especially started in response the growing reported use and abuse of OxyContin.
When the drug was first approved in 1995, the label contained several warnings. By 2001, the FDA had required the pharmaceutical company to add a black box warning — the highest level of warning — about its danger and addiction potential.
Peterson noted that, when the drug first came out, it was prescribed for conditions such as broken bones and wisdom teeth.
"One thing I say to parents who are not in this mess — ask for non-narcotic pain medication if you child has any procedure," she said.
Peterson's son had dreams and aspired to be a state police officer.
"He was in top physical condition, and he went to that party where there was OxyContin and he became an addict," she recalled.
"He looked awful," she said. "He had a greasy look and he was picking at his skin. He didn't shower and slept all day, all which are common signs of addiction. It's like someone took my son and replaced him with someone else."
Many users of prescription narcotics like OxyContin also turn to heroin, figures show.
"The problem is right here in Gloucester and that's why this group is so important," said Edelman.
"We understand the crisis. I was almost hysterical when I went to my first meeting," she recalls. "But I received so much compassion and information. I had 40 people helping me and I went out of there in such a different way than when I walked in. If you can just get yourself in the door, help is there. It's safe, it's reputable and anonymous. You can be with people who are struggling with the same issue."
Whitney said education goes a long way, especially when many parents don't know the symptoms.
"You get tools beyond the 12-step peer support groups," said Peterson. "We teach about overdose prevention and many other things.
"This is not about bad parenting," she emphasized. "It's a health epidemic. But there's hope. Once parents start getting peer support, they get stronger and can motivate their kids into treatment. We understand that it's easy to pretend it's not happening. We're the people down in the trenches."
Help is here in Gloucester, every Tuesday evening.
"We're not bad people or parents," said Edelman. "When it first hits your family, you think what did I do wrong?"
"But after talking to people in the group, you understand that it's not your fault and you didn't cause the disease," she added. "Learn to Cope is very empowering and there is no judgment on the part of anyone there."
The people at Learn to Cope understand about the lies and thefts so common to this addiction and the fear of what's going to happen next.
"Learn to Cope instills hope that there can be a story of recovery in the end," said Whitney, adding that the group draws both men and women. The group also has a discussion board on its website. For more information, visit www.learn2cope.org or call 1-866-964-4602.
Peterson said she attended 18 funerals from drug-abuse deaths last year. She said those parents continue to attend Learn to Cope, and two grief groups that have sprung up.
Peterson, who grew up in the '70s, said she lived with drug addiction and alcoholism.
"But it was nothing like what's happening today," she said.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-700, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn to Cope
What: Support group for parents, families dealing with addiction.
Who: Parents' group working in conjunction with Healthy Gloucester Collaborative/Gloucester Health Department.
When: Tuesdays, 7 to 9 p.m., at Addison Gilbert Hospital
Call: For More, visit www.learn2cope.org or call 1-866-964-4602.