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For Families Of Heroin Addicts, Comfort Comes In Sharing Their Stories

Andrew Presta, 25, is currently in jail, but he has been in and out of court for years. His mother, Diana Presta-Selecky, attends the support group.
Courtesy of Diana Presta-Selecky
Andrew Presta, 25, is currently in jail, but he has been in and out of court for years. His mother, Diana Presta-Selecky, attends the support group.

In a community center just south of Los Angeles, upwards of 50 people pack into a room to offer each other words of comfort. Most of them are moms, and they've been through a lot.

At Solace, a support group for family members of those suffering from addiction, many of the attendees have watched a child under 30 die of a fatal drug overdose — heroin, or opioids like Oxycontin or Vicodin that are considered gateway drugs to heroin.

And they're not alone. This week, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered some startling numbers: Heroin deaths have quadrupled since 2002. Many of those deaths are young people, whose families have suffered alongside them — and who are left behind to cope with the loss.

The family members at Solace begin their meetings by introducing themselves. On this night, it takes them about an hour to make their way around the table and complete the introductions.

Among them is Jenny Maraletos. She came to the support group to talk about her son, Dimitri Zarate. He has overdosed on heroin at least 10 times.

"He fought addiction for several years, multiple overdoses, multiple deaths," Maraletos begins. "And I'm glad to say that he's in recovery today, and he's here."

Zarate, 37, sits across the room from his mother. The support group is open to anyone who has been touched by addiction, including current addicts; as a recovering addict himself, Zarate brings some hope to the others there.

"You know what, I have a warm bed and a shower," he says to the group. "I was homeless, and my life today is absolutely amazing."

Zarate takes a moment to give advice to one man who's clearly struggling with addiction.

"I would say, 'Don't lose hope,' " he says to the man. "I know what it's like to be hopeless."

The man, Michael Martin Wage, listens and begins to cry. A few minutes later, Wage lends some thoughts of his own.

"I can tell you right now, there's nothing you could have done — nothing — to save those kids," he tells the parents in the group. "And I know because there's nothing that has changed me. It's me! It's my decisions, and it has nothing to do with how I love someone. And you guys be strong. Everything will be okay. Your kids love you too, and they wish they could tell you that right now."

The people around the table nod, and the meeting continues for another hour. They discuss announcements, reflect on death anniversaries and discuss how addiction affects family members.

Afterwards, some of the moms remain, chatting.

Patty Leavitt is a co-founder of the support group. Her son Travis died of a heroin overdose five years ago. In the time since the group began meeting in 2012, she says she sees a definite trend of heroin use.

"It's pretty shocking to me when we have one young person after another who says they're addicted to opiate pills, heroin, heroin, heroin," she says. "It's almost 100 percent now. It's heroin."

Diana Presta-Selecky has been in and out of court with her son, Andrew Presta, who is now in jail for heroin use. She has five other children, and her son's addiction is both exhausting and expensive for the family.

"He was calling every day, but he's in jail," Presta-Selecky says. "Nothing new is happening in his life."

She says that she worries about her son when he's behind bars, but that, in some ways, jail is a godsend for her.

"To be honest with you, when he's in jail, it's when I get my most sound sleep, because I'm not waiting for that phone call of someone telling me he's dead," she says. "I'm not waiting for the knock on the door."

Presta-Selecky says she feels powerless to save her son. But she hopes that all the deaths — including those mentioned in this week's CDC report — will raise awareness, draw attention to the problem and hopefully find solutions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Carla Javier

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