From left to right: Garrett Kassler, his mother, Lisa, his sister, Erica, and his dad, Lee.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new monthly column exploring the local impact of the national heroin and opioid crisis. Contact the author via elaikin@longislandpress.com

As a child growing up in Plainview, Garrett Kassler loved the Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once a teenager, it was water and the outdoors. He wanted to open a scuba diving shop, live on the beach, and enjoy a simple life.

His parents, Lee and Lisa, had moved to the upper middle-class suburb when Garrett was a baby, as it promised great schools, little to no crime, a good neighborhood and the perfect place to raise a family.

“We watched our children [including daughter Erica, now 24] flourish from pre-K through high school,” Lee says. “We were active in the PTA, we both coached soccer and Little League, we watched our children closely and made sure they stayed out of trouble.”

Garrett first had trouble dealing with stress while away as a college freshman. A campus doctor prescribed Xanax. His parents were comforted that it was a physician. But Garrett’s mood and behavior began changing.

He eventually told his parents he couldn’t stop taking the anti-anxiety medication. They brought him home, sent him to therapy and the “Xanax problem” appeared to be resolved. Then, oxycodone and, ultimately, heroin, replaced Xanax. For the next eight years, Garrett was in and out of rehabilitation facilities.

“This was our life now,” Lisa says. “We needed to accept the fact that our son was an addict and find help… . We were always proud of him, never ashamed. We learned he had a disease, and it not only affects the user but everyone in the household.”

Garrett seemed to improve and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. But a call came a few weeks into boot camp. Garrett, unable to meet the vigorous demands, was discharged. Home again, he continued to use drugs.

In 2014, Garrett’s doctor prescribed Vivitrol®, an opioid-receptor blocker that stopped his cravings and blocked him from getting high. It worked well.

Clean for 14 months, Garrett volunteered with Nassau County’s drug education and awareness programs, speaking at events and sitting on the Heroin Prevention Task Force. He helped launch the county’s “Shot at Life” (Vivitrol®) program and became a recovery coach. He planned to become a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor.

But he wasn’t in drug treatment. Months after stopping Vivitrol®, he relapsed, and the cycle of using and stopping began again.

“Never once did he deny being an addict,” Lee says. “He’d say, ‘I am wired just a little different then many of you. No rhyme or reason. I just have to deal with it.’”

On Feb. 4, 2017, excited after he passed a drug test and landed a new job, Garrett Kassler would use once more and overdose in his Plainview home at the age of 26. It was Fentanyl, and powerful painkiller often added to heroin, that killed him.

Garrett was one of 195 people to die from opioids in Nassau that year, including another Plainview man his age. The other 194 came from Massapequa, Long Beach, Manhasset, Floral Park and Oceanside. No area is exempt. Suffolk County’s fatal overdose numbers are even higher than those in Nassau.

“Remember, if it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone,” Lee says. “The drug crisis is real. Addiction is real.”

Weeks later, the Kasslers started a nonprofit in his name: The Garrett L Kassler Memorial Fund. Their goal: “to make recovery possible – one person, one family, one life at a time.”

Garrett’s high school principal wrote on the foundation’s and school’s website about the student he knew well at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.

“His tremendous smile and great laugh were infectious, and his wonderful sense of humor could brighten the darkest day,” Principal James Murray wrote. “He was friends with everyone; no peer group was excluded from his kind and welcoming heart.”

On Feb . 3, 2018, Lee posted on the memorial fund’s Facebook page.

“Tomorrow- One year. Our lives were changed forever. Every day is a rollercoaster of emotion. The sadness, loneliness and heartache, I wish on no one… We miss our boy terribly. Hurt beyond imagine… Life and health are precious. Do not take one moment of it for granted.”

WHERE TO FIND HELP

Long Island Crisis Center
24/7 Crisis Hotline (Call or Text) (516) 679-1111

NAFAS
Nassau Alliance for Addiction Services Helpline: (516) 481-4000 nassaualliance.org (community treatment providers)

Information & Resources
heroinprevention.com L.I.C.A.D.D. 24/7 Hotline for Info & Referrals (631) 979-1700

For those affected by a loved one’s Substance Use Disorder:

Nar-Anon (516) 318-6134 nar-anon.org
Al-Anon/ Alateen (516) 433-8003 alanon-nassau-ny.org
• Families Anonymous (516) 204-3202 familiesanonymous.org

For Free Naloxone (Narcan) Training Community Calendar of Opioid Overdose Trainings
health.ny.gov

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