The needle in the family tree

The opioid epidemic brings pain -- but also poems, events, podcasts

Last month the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette launched The Needle in the Family Tree, reflecting our ongoing coverage of the effects of the opioid epidemic on everyone from children to grandparents. We told the story of Keeley and the Vial, and outlined the effects of the crisis on the child welfare system.

We also invited families to submit their own accounts.

The responses we received had a common theme: The epidemic caused great pain, but also spurred action. We learned about a student journalist who launched a podcast, a convict who published a book of poems and a family whose 5K run/walk to raise money to fight the epidemic is set for Saturday.

Here are their stories, and their resulting actions, in their own words.


Stories submitted by readers

Running for a solution

Dave Zamule, of Oakdale, overdosed from heroin one year ago at age 33. We are Dave’s loving family.

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Podcasting for people with addicted parents

I grew up in an addicted family in Pittsburgh. Even though I am a journalist, a graduate student, and in my 30s now, I identify most as a daughter of addicts.

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A warning from the inside

My story is somewhat different from the stories of the Ashbaugh family, and many others that got caught up in the get-rich-quick scheme of selling drugs for money.

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Share your story

Reporter Rich Lord and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette want to hear how your family has been affected by the opioid epidemic.

Submit your story


Stories in this series

Keeley and the vial
Opioids swamping child welfare system

Share your story on the opioid epidemic

Reporter Rich Lord and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette want to hear how your family has been affected by the opioid epidemic. Your responses will be considered for publication. Email with any questions or concerns you might have before sharing your stories.

Running for a solution

Dave Zamule, of Oakdale, overdosed from heroin one year ago at age 33. We are Dave’s loving family.

During his teenage years Dave was an Honor Roll student, ran track and cross country, earned a black belt in karate, played baseball, participated in school musicals and triathlons, and loved to bike, ski and snowboard. He worked part time, saved and bought a car. During college he worked as a lifeguard and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a marketing and business degree. He was funny, kind and perceptive with an amazing ability in math and statistics. Dave always had a job related to his degree but would switch jobs about every other year for a “better offer.”

Dave’s addiction began in his late 20s, and he was able to hide it for years. We, his family — his mother and father, sister and step mom — didn’t realize that Dave had an opioid problem until he was 31. All have regrets that they didn’t recognize the signs of addiction. It wasn’t until we found a needle and a stamp bag that we faced the truth and helped guide Dave into a treatment program.

Dave said he started using opioids to cope with a stressful sales job a few years after graduating from college. When his little girl Evie was born in 2016, he tried even harder to get and stay clean.

At age 31 Dave checked himself into a rehab facility and convinced his family, counselors, and himself that he was “doing OK.” There were relapses in his recovery for two years. In the last 6 months of his life, he was in a highly-rated recovery program that seemed to be working: monthly Vivitrol shots with bi-weekly counseling. Continuing his work to support his new family was very important to Dave.

On May 27, 2017, the first time that Dave used again after six months of sobriety, he overdosed from a deadly heroin and fentanyl mix.

At Dave’s viewing in May 2017, many guests began sharing stories they had never told before, stories of addicted friends and family members. The stigma that goes with the words “heroin addiction” prevents families from talking, educating themselves and seeking help.

In the past year since Dave’s death we read and hear about the opioid epidemic on a daily basis. We continue to see the phrase “died suddenly” in the obituaries of young adults. Our immediate family struggled with acknowledging his addiction in Dave’s public obituary, but in the end we agreed to use the words “heroin overdose” in an attempt to open the conversation about his disease.

We think the solution is education in schools and education of parents. Children must learn that self-medicating for anxiety or despair is a dangerous path.

We decided to harness our grief and honor Dave by organizing and promoting a 5k event.

The family is holding a 5k run/walk to help stem the opioid epidemic in his memory. You can sign up at The 5K event is in Oakdale, on the Panhandle Trail, starting at 9 a.m. Same day registration starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 8:30.

Proceeds will benefit Power Forward with Familylinks, a partnership between former Penguins star Kevin Stevens, his Power Forward Foundation and Pittsburgh-based Familylinks, a leading nonprofit provider of opioid prevention and education programs.

Submitted by Leslie Evans, of Mt. Lebanon (Dave’s stepmother) and Liz Zamule Bruner, of Oakdale (Dave’s mother)

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Podcasting for people with addicted parents

Photo by José A. Giralt

I grew up in an addicted family in Pittsburgh. Even though I am a journalist, a graduate student, and in my 30s now, I identify most as a daughter of addicts.

Most of the addicts in my family struggle with multiple substances — alcohol, drugs, gambling — but two members of my family have been dependent on opioids off and on for many years.

Both of those members have nearly died a number of times: One close relative's heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated by paramedics at least once. He contracted hepatitis C. He nearly lost his arm to an infection on another occasion. He continued to keep using after these incidents.

Our family's story is pretty quintessential. Members had long, documented medical histories of severe addiction, but all of them first got hooked on opioids when physicians prescribed them in the early days of the epidemic. It was obviously a mistake to prescribe opioids to them, and it opened up a whole new level of hell for my family.

Dealing with their addictions and the reactions of non-addicted family members since childhood still has a massive impact on me, even though I barely speak to many of them. I was diagnosed with PTSD as an adult, and I know it has to do with the chaos and violence I dealt with as a kid.

It seems like in the wake of America’s current opioid crisis, more children than ever are growing up touched by the tragedies of addiction. But it’s really nothing new. From the crack epidemic in the 1980s back to the opium wars of the 19th century, history shows us addiction is a plague as old as civilization and countless generations have come of age in its tall shadow.

That’s one reason why I launched a pilot for a podcast with other episodes in production. On This House Too I interview other adults whose parents were addicted to drugs. We talk about the meaning they have made from their upbringings and what we can offer today's children and their caregivers. I believe that while there is nothing we can do to change people’s addictions, our experiences can offer hope and company.

My research has led me to conclude that the impact of addictive upbringings on individuals and populations is massive and intersects with culture, religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and historical era to shape the landscape of their lives. And I believe this population has a special take on what it means to be human and valuable insights into current events.

Some people I have interviewed are public figures, but most are everyday, anonymous citizens. Some are black, others are white. Some are the children of immigrants, others’ parents were born here in the U.S. Some were city kids, others grew up in rural areas. But what they all have in common is the trauma that persists long after the end of the violence, betrayal, and deprivation that are almost universal when a caregiver is incapacitated by addiction.

One man I interviewed said that preparing for war during Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island – a place infamous for its harsh conditions – was actually a breeze compared to the fear and abuse he experienced living with his addicted parents. He found himself being promoted to squad leader in a matter of weeks for his ability to function easily under extremely stressful conditions.

To me, this demonstrates that even after growing up and leaving home, children of the opioid epidemic will still be affected by it. As a friend of mine recently said, even if the epidemic gets solved tomorrow, the damage to these kids and families will take years to understand.

Submitted by Virginia Jeffries, Manhattan, N.Y.

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A warning from the inside

My story is somewhat different from the stories of the Ashbaugh family, and many others that got caught up in the get-rich-quick scheme of selling drugs for money.

From 2nd or 3rd grade on up, my friends and I were little baseball and basketball players, little cheerleaders and dancers. We went to church together. Sunday school. Sleepover birthday parties. Camp outs. We rode bikes all day every day in the summer. Growing up we sneaked a beer here and there and smoked marijuana when someone had it, got in a lot of trouble when caught, and got grounded when we abused it. But when we were all about 15 years old, one of our friends was murdered and then another one died in a car accident coming home from the wave pool. This was when the ride got to the top.

Our large circle of friends started reaching out for anything then. Parents with prescriptions were our first target and then when we got hurt, stitches, etc., we were even prescribed Vicodin, Valium, and we started using prescription pills on a daily basis after that. Oxycontin, Vicodin, Xanax: Some were stolen, some bought online. Then once we all got strung out, slowly each one of us turned to heroin. The pills got too expensive and harder to get. Heroin was offered in powder form first, “no big deal, just snort it like cocaine, you can’t get addicted unless you shoot up.” Lies!

In just a few months we started shooting up and getting it ourselves from the city. Hiding and lying to our parents. We were even robbed one time at gun point and had a literal shootout in the middle of Aliquippa with one of our girlfriends getting kidnapped. Our parents were upper-middle-class elite in town, and their kids were full blown heroin addicts, needles, tie offs, blood. We went from baseball and basketball, family vacations, mom’s pancakes on Saturday mornings after a camp out, church ….to full-blown, nodding, slobbering junkies. Robbers. Gun-carrying drug dealers, whose only goal was to make enough money to live on and get high. We were the people our parents saw on TV on the news, and we hid it very, very well.

Me? I refused to go back home. I lived from house to house. My parents had no idea where I was, and I met my first heroin connect so I could start dealing in large amounts to support my habit.

I remember waking up to another man in my cell saying, “I thought you were dead,” when I was first brought in. Then, when I realized where I was, I thought to myself:

Last night wasn’t a dream.

That really happened.

I killed one of my best friends.

Over heroin..

We fought.

He was so sick.

I didn’t have any.

I was in a panic, dope sick, couldn’t eat for days, inmates around me that I didn’t know. It’s your worst nightmare, the worst thing you could ever imagine. And you have to go from that immediately into a gladiator mode to save your life from other inmates.

The reason why I am writing my books is to focus on this horrific epidemic and what happens after your run ends, and you’re sent to prison. It’s not just incarceration, it’s what incarceration brings: The mental anguish, the utter sadness, the loneliness, the deterioration of your mental health. All the while never seeing your family again. Oh! And don’t let me forget the drug epidemic in the prison! I’ve seen inmates so high crawling in from the yard. I’ve seen people die in their cell from overdosing. Inmates prostitute themselves for drugs.

My book of poems, Cuzzo’s Conflicted Conscience, Volume 1, shows you where incarceration took me outside of serving time. One of the poems in my book describes what I did, what happened and how I got here. I really want to warn everyone to get help, when so much help is offered on the outside.

I pray for all of the addicted and the families of the addicted. You must ask for help! Do not come here, when you have so much support to help you become healthy again, and whole again. Reach out to your family, your church, your doctor, use what they have readily available to help you.

Submitted by Eric Arlen Costo, originally of Hopewell, now in the State Correctional Institution Retreat in Hunlock Creek, Pa., serving 5 to 11 years on charges including involuntary manslaughter, via his mother, Marcy Marie Asvestas, of Tampa, Fla.

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