A mother fights the opioid war after her son’s overdose death
JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT on July 10, Judy Rosa woke and saw the light and heard the TV still on in the finished basement of her Seabrook Beach, N.H., home. She called to her son, Philip, to turn them off. But something made her go downstairs herself, where she found Philip dead of a drug overdose.
Yet his obituary a week later was unusual. It did not say Philip died “suddenly” or “unexpectedly.” No, the obituary read:
“Philip J. Carnovale, 32, of Boca Raton, Fl., lost his courageous battle with addiction Tuesday, July 10, 2018.”
Explaining the choice to reveal Philip’s addiction, Rosa said, “It’s about awareness.’’
“People say, ‘not in my family,’ ” she explained in that same Seabrook Beach home, so close to the ocean that you can smell salt and hear waves hit shore. She wants people to know: “The epidemic is everywhere now. It does not discriminate. Good kids die. I can’t understand how it got to the point where there are actually people on the street selling drugs that kill and getting away with it. It’s like people walking around with guns.”
Philip, who’d fought addiction for 10 years, had been living in a Florida sober house. “Doing well,” his mother said. “He was going to fly home the next day, a 12:40 flight out of Logan. When I saw him, I thought maybe I could wake him.” She called his name and held him. She could not wake him. “It was awful. He had already passed.”
In some ways the death of Philip Carnovale is painfully familiar in this dark opioid plague that kills up to 175 Americans, mostly young Americans, every day.
But he had more help than many, and a family that understands addiction well. Two Rosa cousins died of overdoses in their early 20s, Vincent in 2003 and his brother Dominic 13 months later. Their father Chucky, Judy’s brother, started the nonprofit Chucky’s Fight to combat addiction. Judy Rosa has been a foster mother to the babies of addicts. Her other children know young people dead from drugs. Since Philip’s death, she’s learned of three more opioid deaths nearby. Two mothers who lost children have spent hours telling her their own sad, desperate tales.
Rosa said her family spent tens of thousands of dollars to keep Philip in treatment facilities that send patients packing when insurance runs out. When there were no beds, she managed to convince a judge that Philip was a danger to himself. “There is nothing worse than seeing your child in handcuffs and shackles. Your child hates you. But you do anything to save him.”
She also wants people to know how hard her son tried. “They say heroin’s a monkey on your back. This is a gorilla, 24/7. Always running after the next high, their body screaming for it,” she said. “As crazy as it sounds I’d have the army, the police, the National Guard, everyone patrolling. We talk about wars in other countries. I have a war right outside my front door. I can’t understand how can we send a man to the moon but not get this poison off the streets.”
Philip Carnovale wanted to come home to Seabrook for the Rosas’ annual July Fourth celebration: cookout, fireworks, Hampton Beach arcades, fishing (his passion), his family all around. Philip had worked deep-sea fishing boats. He dreamed of a captain’s license.
“Did he know he was dying? I don’t know,” Rosa said. “But I know he didn’t want to die.”
On the morning of July 11, Rosa had expected to have coffee with her son, then drive him to the Newburyport bus to Logan. She pointed to an urn on the table inside her front door, beneath the mirror with Philip’s picture at the wheel of a fishing boat at sea. “Those are his ashes,” she said.
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”