YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Anthony Rizzuto looked around the room and wondered out loud.

“We’re in the midst of an epidemic,” he said. “We have a record number of overdose deaths. Why isn’t this room full?” 

Rizzuto, executive director and founder of Families in Support of Treatment (F.I.S.T.), a non-profit organization created to help the families of struggling addicts, was part of a drug forum co-hosted by state Sen. Terrence Murphy and F.I.S.T. at the Crompond Intermediate School last Tuesday, April 19.

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The idea behind the event was to get everyone from the town’s myriad organizations under one roof in order to jump start a community conversation on the regional heroin problem.

As co-chair of the senate’s Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, Murphy is an avid advocate for those suffering from addiction, and seeks to end the stigma associated with it. He admitted, however, that when he first got involved he didn’t know too much about the issue. That’s changed.

“Traveling through New York State and seeing what’s going on, it rips out my heart sometimes,” he said.

The senator referred to the forum as one step in the crusade he and the community’s other organizations are on to help those who suffer from addiction and to “pass meaningful legislation designed to get dealers off the streets.”

Topics of discussion included how drug addiction begins; the stigma of drug abuse; the impact of addiction on families; and prevention signs and symptoms and treatment options. Speakers included Rizzuto; Murphy; Yorktown Schools Superintendent Dr. Ralph Napolitano; Sgt. Mike Dowd from the Westchester Police Department; guest speaker Victoria Friszell, who spoke on the impact of addiction on family; Kym Laube, executive director of HUGS; Patrice Wallace Moore, CEO and vice president of Liberty Care Management; Steven Dodge, the S.L.A.T.E. Project Founder and CEO; and Ira Costelli, legislative liaison for F.I.S.T.

Many of the speakers emphasized the commonalities that addicts share that make them vulnerable to addiction, such as emotional issues, environmental factors, drug availability and gateway drugs.

“One hundred percent of the people I’ve treated with addiction to heroin didn’t start with heroin,” Rizzutto said. “It’s really important to understand that.”

Laube agreed. She explained the notion that there are four “walls” of protection around a young person that encompass a different aspect of the person’s life: Individual/peer, school, family and community. Once any of those lines are broken, she said, it allows drugs and alcohol to permeate.

“When we have the conversation about this it’s really important to identify where it begins,” Laube said. “Not necessarily just where it ends.”

A major focus of the forum was the toll addiction takes on families.

Even when someone receives treatment individually, Rizzutto said, families don’t get the same treatment and members should consider that even if they aren’t suffering from the addiction. Often when someone gets sent for treatment, it’s counterproductive for them to return to the same environment if that environment hasn’t changed as well, he said.

Attendees were also challenged to rethink their ideas about addiction when Moore said treatment is a circular experience, not a linear one. She said someone can get on and off at any point in the cycle and individuals and families need to understand all the options available to them at any point in the cycle. She went on to discuss both in-patient and out-patient options.

“We can no longer be providers,” Moore said. “We have to be partners. We all have to be in on it together.”

Rizzutto agreed and said the issue requires more attention than just those directly involved.

“A friend of mine always says that if there was a word out that there a black van going down the block that drives really slowly…everybody and their mother would come out to talk about ‘what are you doing about that black van?’ That black van is called heroin,” Rizzutto said. “That black van is addiction.”