The last time Susan Cyr saw her son Eric alive, he was dressed for a job interview and asking which cologne he should wear “because he wanted to smell right.”
When the 32-year-old did not return home, his mother enlisted a friend to help scour Raynham and Taunton for her son. The police found him the next day in the parking lot of a Taunton CVS, his body slumped in his mother’s Toyota Camry.
“That day he left my house, he was my wonderful son. He was happy, very energetic, talking about going to college again,” Cyr said. “He wasn’t expecting to die.”
Heroin, laced with the drug fentanyl, killed him five weeks ago, his mother said.
Cyr’s grief, like that of Suzanne Howard of Sharon and Louise Griffin of Lowell, attaches a name and a face to a scourge often reduced to a numerical tally of suffering. Each of the women had a son who was seduced by heroin, which has claimed at least 185 people in Massachusetts in the past four months. Each of them is speaking publicly about the addictions that their sons battled until their deaths.
The sheer size of the death toll — coupled with the passing of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had a potent mix of drugs, including heroin, in his system — has cast the narcotic into the public spotlight as a burgeoning public health crisis.
In the shadow of that debate are mothers like Cyr, Howard, and Griffin.
They want addiction treatment to be easier to get, and the stigma attached to substance abusers erased. They also talked about cracking down on drug dealers, helping the public understand that addiction is a disease, and stopping the flood of painkillers manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry and prescribed by doctors.
Griffin said she does not “want my son to die in vain. . . ,” adding, “I want others to live.”
Griffin said her son, Zachary Gys, got his first taste of Percocet — which contains oxycodone, an opioid pain medication — after a friend offered it to him when he hurt his ankle playing hockey for Lowell High School. He abused OxyContin during his senior year and became a heroin user at 20, she said.
“He used to say it made him feel good. It made him feel better and it made him feel good about himself,” Griffin said.
Once Griffin became aware of her son’s addiction, she tried to get him help. He attended group therapy at Boston Children’s Hospital and underwent inpatient treatment in Massachusetts and Florida. The first time he went to Florida for treatment it was because no beds were available in Massachusetts, Griffin said.
When he died on July 19, Gys, who was 21, was living at a sober home in Florida, where he had managed to go two months without taking drugs.
“He had 60 days. It was good. He was proud of himself,” Griffin said. “He called other friends from Lowell and the next day he was dead.”
Gys’s death was blamed on an overdose of the painkiller morphine, his mother said. At Gys’s funeral, Griffin included information sheets about addiction in mourners’ programs.
Griffin has taken action since her son’s death, lobbying federal regulators to tighten restrictions on painkillers and establishing a chapter of a support group called Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing — GRASP — in Lowell.
Still, Griffin said she believes some people stayed away from her because of the stigma attached to drug addiction.
“If my son had cancer, people would line up outside my door with casseroles,” Griffin said. “When people found out that he had an addiction, they couldn’t run away fast enough.”
She has felt so shunned, she said, that she gave up shopping at her regular grocery store.
“I live in a nice neighborhood with a lot of nice people. The people that I usually talked to stopped talking to me,” Griffin said. “My son was a son. He was a brother and he was a friend. He did not want to be an addict and that’s what people fail to understand sometimes. They think he chose this lifestyle, and he didn’t.”
Like Griffin, Howard said she turned everywhere she could to find help for her son, Daniel Cook.
Cook was 16 when he tried a painkiller for the first time at a party in high school. He had progressed to smoking heroin by the time he died at 18, Howard said.
She recalled waiting in hospital emergency rooms for up to six hours before the insurance company would approve sending Cook to detox. Once he got there, his case worker battled daily with the insurer so Cook could stay, his mother recalled.
Treatment is also expensive, Howard said. She said one program she researched charged $50,000 a month. Further, when a treatment stay ended, Howard braced for her son to relapse and the cycle to begin anew.
“He wanted to beat this. He did not want to die. He had dreams. He wanted to do things,” Cook’s mother said. “He just had a really bad addiction problem, and we hadn’t found what was going to cure him yet.”
Cook’s battle ended Nov. 24, when he was found dead in his bedroom. Remnants of a white powder were found in the room, but Howard said she has not been given an official explanation of his death.
“It has been the worst nightmare,” Howard said. “They say a parent’s worst nightmare is losing a child, and it truly is.”
Cyr also struggled to get help for her son. Many times, she said, the length of inpatient stays was tied not to a patient’s progress, but to how many days an insurer would cover. Treatment beyond that had to be paid out of pocket.
“It’s very hard to get a bed in these places,” Cyr said.
A week before Eric died, Cyr said, she tried and failed to convince a judge that her son needed to be civilly committed to get treatment.
Another time, he went home from a treatment program after 11 days because that was all the insurance company would cover, Cyr said.
“We weren’t poor enough to get help, and we weren’t rich enough to afford it,” she said.
Now that her son is gone, Cyr said she plans to attend court hearings for a man she believes sold drugs to her son.
Drug dealers, Cyr said, should be held accountable if they supply a drug user with a fatal dose.
“They’re selling poison,” she said.