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by Linda Lajterman

On February 23, 2014, the happy, peaceful life I knew was over.  After breaking down the bedroom door of our youngest child, we found 19-year old Danny dead in the chair at his desk.  We were in shock, screaming, and clueless what to do.  Danny and I had coffee and a nice conversation together just hours earlier that morning. What happened to my son?  The police arrived and the investigation began.  We weren’t allowed in his room, but after pleading with the officers to give me information, they told us that drugs were found in his room.  Initially they were treating this as just another teen drug death, but some information was obtained and it quickly turned into a crime scene.  Local police and DEA officers were in and out of the house collecting evidence for hours.  As soon as they had enough information to report, they explained that Danny had used a drug sold to him by a drug dealer who mixed and cut drugs with a deadly substance.  We wouldn’t know what that substance was for weeks later.  That day, my family was hit with a triple whammy:   our beloved son was dead, we learned he was using drugs, and we found out the drug dealer was the father of three who lived in the next town over.

Our family is intact and loving.  My husband and I have been married over 31 years. We have two older children who love and adored their younger brother. We spend every birthday, holiday and special occasion with our large, very close, extended family.  Danny had many friends, a girlfriend, goals, interests and hobbies.  There is no family history of addiction or alcoholism on either side. There were no obvious “risk factors” in Danny’s life that would lead us to believe he would go down the wrong path and get involved with dangerous drugs.  He had two parents and two older siblings watching over him and giving him speeches and warnings about the dangers of drugs.  Even with four of us watching him, he still managed to hide his drug use very well.  We will never know what really happened to our son because he is not here to tell us.  We pieced together what we could from the information offered by scared teenagers who shared only what they wanted. At this time, almost 10 months later, we are over the drugs and just focus on missing our Danny.  Our hearts are broken and our lives are changed forever. The trauma and shock of losing Danny has devastated all of us and we will never be the same.

Recognizing that if this could happen to us, it could easily happen to other families,  I posted a letter to parents on Facebook hoping to warn the local families who thought like us, “Drugs and my kid, never!”  I hoped to wake everyone up so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.   My family had no idea the U.S. and many parts of the world are in the midst of an opiate addiction problem of epidemic proportions until our son died.  Danny was the 8th young person to die from drugs in Bergen County and we were only 7 weeks into 2014.  The letter went viral and I received thousands of messages not only from parents in the U.S., but also from people in South Africa, Australia, and many countries in Europe and South America.

Many of the messages I received had one common theme, the shame and stigma of addiction caused many parents to deal with their child’s drug problem behind closed doors.  They felt they had no one to talk to, no one to share their pain.  So many messages I received included a heartfelt “Thank You” for opening up their eyes.  We learned the hard way that this could happen to anyone, even in the best environment with minimal to no risk factors for excessive drug use.  I just wish someone would have done that for me so I could have had a better chance of knowing what my son was doing before it was too late.

What I did learn about my son was that like most teens, Danny never thought anything bad would happen to him.  He thought he was in control and just partying.   Danny did not exhibit any signs that would be considered out of the ordinary for a 19-year-old.  He was our usual funny son who greeted us with hugs and told us he loved us every single day.  Danny was not a back alley junkie; he was a stupid kid who still watched cartoons.  He made some very bad choices and paid the ultimate price for his naivety.  As naïve as he was, I will admit we were as well.  Trying to make sense of what happened to my son, I began to educate myself on what is going on with this epidemic of young people becoming addicted to drugs and dying.  I will also admit that I was not equipped to raise a teenager in this day.  I thought it was the same as when my two older children were teenagers.  I didn’t think I needed to know anything new as I had already been down this road twice!  Boy, was I wrong!  The changes that occurred in just a few years are unimaginable. I’ve watched documentaries, read the stories of other families, and spoken to many teens as I tried to figure out how I missed my son’s drug use.  I realize now that I had no idea what to look for when you would never think your child would use drugs other than maybe experiment with weed, and you would never put drugs and your kid in the same sentence.

As I continue to mourn my Danny, writing has become a therapeutic activity.  Although I am a registered nurse, I have no particular expertise in drug abuse, treatment or rehab facilities. What I do possess is very real expertise in what my son’s death from drugs has done to my family. I know our experience is shared in one form or another by every family I have spoken to, read about, and talked through online support groups. I do not want another loving family to feel this pain, and I don’t want another young person to struggle with addiction for the rest of his or her life.  I recognize that like my son, most kids start out experimenting with drugs thinking nothing bad will ever happen to them.  This mindset prompted me to write a book for teens hoping to reach even just a few to never start using drugs or stop experimenting before they become addicted. No one starts out wanting to become an addict, it can happen to anyone.  Young teens don’t want to die; they just want to fit in.  The world is different now and the drugs and drug dealers can be lethal.

My book, “Life after You, What Your Death from Drugs Leaves Behind” (available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com and Kindle) is a cautionary tale meant to shock and hopefully deter young people from using drugs. I hope the message of my book will be used as a tool in the drug education and awareness programs.  The book is not about Danny, there are many kids just like my son who think this will never happen to them.  It is also not about any one type of drug. This can happen with any type of drug.  I will walk your teen through their death and what happens to the loved ones left behind.  It is too late to help my son, but it is not too late to help yours.  The target age for this book is age 13 and up.  The book is designed for teens as a quick and powerful read full of thought producing questions and statements.  Parents are encouraged to read this book first, then give it to their teens to read and re-read.

My mission now is substance abuse prevention and the evilness of drug dealers.  The drug education offered in schools focus on the types of drugs out there and what they do.  DARE programs try to teach kids early.  However, in fifth grade, kids usually do not socialize without their parents.   The influence of peers now supersedes parental influence by the time most kids are in eighth grade. There needs to be cultural change where getting “wasted” is no longer cool.  That will be the challenge and it may take years to accomplish.  The tactics presently used in the drug education and awareness programs are obviously not working.  Things are getting worse instead of better. We need to end this epidemic and make the world a safer place for the next generation.

Linda Lajterman

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