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At WAR on Addiction rally, tales of the fight against opioids

Authorities say as many as 600 people on Long Island died last year from opioid overdoses.

Lou and Madel Mazzella of Coram embrace one

Lou and Madel Mazzella of Coram embrace one another during the War on Addiction Rally at The Amphitheater at Bald Hill in Farmingville on Saturday. The Mazzellas lost their son, Anthony, to an overdose in January 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

As with so many others addicted to opioids, Billy Reitzig’s dependency began with a prescription to relieve pain.

It ended on April 22, 2016, when the Miller Place man died at age 25 of a heroin overdose.

Hundreds Saturday gathered in Farmingville for a “WAR on Addiction” rally — WAR are the initials of Billy’s full name: William Arthur Reitzig — organized by his father, William Reitzig.

The rally at The Amphitheater at Bald Hill, which featured speakers and training in the use of the overdose antidote naloxone, raised more than $33,000 for Port Jefferson-based Hope House Ministries, which offers free drug counseling and treatment, said William Reitzig, 60.

Authorities say as many as 600 people on Long Island died last year from opioid overdoses, up from the record high of 555 in 2016.

Reitzig said his son began taking the opioid OxyContin after he hurt his shoulder while playing baseball and couldn’t stop after the prescription ran out. He had been drug-free for four months, but on April 22, 2016, “he had a dark moment and reached out to an old friend and asked if he had pills,” Reitzig said.

The Rev. Francis Pizzarelli, executive director of Hope House, said he had recommended residential treatment of at least a year to Billy Reitzig, but “he couldn’t commit to a year,” which, among other things, would have meant quitting his job. Instead, Reitzig chose outpatient treatment.

“He thought with counseling he could do it, but the cravings can become overwhelming,” Pizzarelli said. “And there is temptation everywhere.”

Hope House is free, but most recovery centers are expensive, and speaker after speaker railed against insurance companies that, Pizzarelli said, will only cover residential treatment if outpatient efforts fail, and then refuse to pay for inpatient coverage that lasts longer than, in some cases, 11 days.

“That’s a sentence of death that no family should have to cope with,” he told the crowd.

Stephen Hernandez, 32, said he tried support-group meetings to combat his addiction and they worked for a while — until he relapsed. He’s now spent 18 months drug-free living at a Hope House residence in Mount Sinai.

He said the intensive treatment — which for months meant little contact with the outside world and even today means he can’t have a cellphone — has transformed him.

“That’s why we’re having this — because guys like me are dying, and because guys like me don’t have the opportunity to get into treatment,” he said.

As addiction took over his life, Hernandez gave up on his dream of becoming a teacher — a dream reignited now that he’s drug-free. He’s taking master’s degree classes in special education.

Hernandez freely admits that during his years of addiction he didn’t treat others well.

“I didn’t think I was sick,” he said. “I thought I was a horrible person. I didn’t think I deserved to go back into the community.”

Anthony Rizzuto, executive director of Islandia-based Families in Support of Treatment, said the stigma surrounding addiction makes people reluctant to talk about it and is a barrier to increasing awareness and knowledge.

“Addiction is a disease that is centered in the brain,” he said. “We need to be able to combat the stigma.”

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