Manalapan family shares pain of losing son to heroin

Parents share story to help others from experiencing same tragedy


Staff Writer

Suzanne and Bob Scarpa, of Manalapan, lost their son, Brian, 24, to a drug overdose last year. The Scarpas want to help other families avoid the tragedy their family has suffered. Suzanne and Bob Scarpa, of Manalapan, lost their son, Brian, 24, to a drug overdose last year. The Scarpas want to help other families avoid the tragedy their family has suffered. When the members of the Scarpa family woke up on the morning of Nov. 6, they didn’t know the pain they would be feeling from that moment on.

It was on that day that the Scarpa family, a typical Manalapan family involved in school functions, sports, and church CCD classes, lost their son, Brian, 24, to drugs. “As a young child, Brian was sweet, loving and very much wanted to be with the family,” said Suzanne Scarpa, Brian’s mom, speaking recently to an audience of area residents at the Monmouth County Library Headquarters, Manalapan.

Brian Scarpa Brian Scarpa “Everyone enjoyed being with him. It’s so hard to foresee when your children are young what lies ahead for them. Certainly our family never imagined that this sweet, sensitive boy would turn to drugs.”

Over the years there were several families in the area who lost a child, and the Scarpas could never imagine the pain those families were feeling.

“Unfortunately, five months ago, our family began experiencing every ounce of [that] pain over the loss of Brian,” Suzanne said.

By paying close attention to your own children, Brian’s mom suggested that it may be possible to avoid a tragedy like the one her family suffered.

“I’m here tonight with a broken heart,” she said.

“Suzanne and I came here to share our experiences with our drug-addicted son, Brian, and perhaps motivate some to take an active role in dealing with this terrible problem,” said Bob Scarpa. “Brian’s death was the end of a very long … and difficult struggle for him and his family. His battle with heroin addiction became the overriding aspect of our family’s life for the last four years.”

Brian was a pretty normal kid who enjoyed a close relationship with his siblings, Bob said.

“He would make you laugh,” said Brian’s father. “He had the ability through word or deed, not just to make you smile, but to make you laugh out loud. But somewhere along the road, demons took hold of him.”

Brian constantly struggled between an outwardly beautiful, loving, engaging personality and an inner depression, self-doubt and a strain of unfulfilled expectations.

“We think he started doing some drugs around age 14,” Bob said. “Most likely marijuana. A lot of folks my age grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when smoking a joint was the newest rage in college. Now, it’s commonplace among grade-school kids.”

While many people may choose to smoke marijuana and take drugs, they can also choose not to, Bob said.

“There are those who progress beyond the choice, and as time goes on, the choice become less encumbered by guilt, less challenged by peers, and it starts to become routine behavior,” Bob said. “The quest for the next and better high becomes a compulsion and then physical and mental addiction.”

There was a daily struggle in Brian’s family, with constant anxiety, stress, tension and conflict, which tore up the fabric of the family.

“Brian spent nearly a year in jail at this time,” Bob said. “He was in various inpatient rehab facilities for about nine months. He went to countless outpatient meetings. He cracked up two of our cars, was not home for the last two Christmases of his life, and battled with his parents and siblings. He stole an unknown amount of money out of the house and generally kept his family in a constant state of tension.”

When Brian wasn’t home, the family members would jump every time they heard the phone ring or heard a police siren. They lost an uncountable number of hours of sleep waiting for Brian to return home at night.

“But through all of this, we always had hope,” Bob said. “We believed it would all work out. We, his parents, could make him better. We would get back to that happy, lovable, young man who everyone wanted to be with. Unfortunately, Brian is gone, and there is no longer hope [for saving him].”

Parents are presented with new challenges every day in raising children, whether simple or complex, Bob said.

“There are cell phones, sex, steroids, pornography, alcohol, and of course drugs,” Bob said. “The list goes on and on. We’re geared to teach discipline, advise, teach, protect and defend our kids, and we’re sometimes more aggressive in dealing with the simple rather than the complex. We question a teacher about a grade on a test or push the sports coach for more playing time. We check the homework, wash clothes, make sure they have money to buy something at the mall. We guide them in making their choices. Those choices are seemingly simple and they are life forming.”

Bob said young people today must choose between right and wrong, and they are constantly challenged. When they choose poorly and something goes wrong, parents react.

“We keep it in the family,” Bob said. “Perhaps we issue some discipline. Sometimes we make excuses: ‘It’s all part of growing up.’ ‘I did it too.’ Or ‘it’s all puberty.’ ‘We’ll take care of it.’ ‘We’ll solve our own problems.’ … ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ ”

Sometimes issues arise that are not solvable within the realm of the family.

“We tried on our own to get Brian to embrace professional help, control his behavior, change his ways, never exposing his drug abuse to family or friends,” Bob said.

When the family finally did bring the problem out into the open, Brian had gotten himself into the kind of trouble that could no longer be hidden.

“We found that the more people we talked to, [we learned] that the drug problem was more pervasive than we [had] ever thought it could be,” Bob said. “It seemed like everyone we spoke to had first- or secondhand knowledge of dealing with a person who had heroin addiction.”

The family reached a point when Brian became an adult that their ability to control him or force him to do anything to help the situation became impossible.

Both parents questioned what went wrong and asked themselves what they could have done differently.

“First we have to admit that there is a problem,” Bob said. “No problem was ever solved [by saying] ‘It’s not my kids’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ or ‘It’s not my concern.’

When a problem is found, Bob stressed that the family has to become informed. “Gather as much information as possible,” he said. “Talk to your kids about drugs when they’re young. By the time they’re in high school the opportunity may have passed. Don’t be afraid to invoke the old smell test: If it smells fishy, it’s probably a fish.”

He continued, “Get to know the parents of your child’s friends and don’t be afraid to talk to them about when things are fishy or something doesn’t smell good. Seek the advice of friends and family and any professional. If it’s a drug issue, you probably can’t solve it alone.”

Bob suggested that parents deal with every situation with love, compassion and strength.

“You may only get the chance once, and you must succeed,” Bob said. “Whenever a trauma or tragedy strikes, we have a tendency to ask why. It’s part of our humanity to try to understand things in troubling times. We want answers. With the death of our son, which is the most traumatic thing any parent can endure, there are no acceptable answers. I just search and ask why every single day.”

Brian’s dad said he struggles with understanding the purpose of Brian’s life.

“His death has brought us so much pain, I cannot come to grips with just what his purpose was,” said Bob. “But I do know this. Everyone who I’ve spoken to since Brian’s death has given us a better look at just who he was. To his friends, he was a real friend, a listener, a confidant, adviser — someone who was always there in time of need.”

Bob continued, “To those he met in rehab or in drug port, he worked at his recovery, supported others or made others feel at ease, even though it was a difficult environment. He was truly someone who everyone enjoyed being with.”

How does someone who has everything going for him end up as a heroin addict? Bob asked. Answering his own question, he said, “There is no answer that is acceptable for any parent.”

Brian’s dad left the audience with this message: Heroin addiction is not just a problem of the inner city. Addicts are not confined to abandoned buildings and back alleys. They are here in our community and may even be in your neighborhood. Addiction is not just spread geographically to the middle class suburbs, but also downward in age to early teens. Addiction is a chronic disease. Some treatments work, others don’t. There are relapses, remissions, good times and bad, and the battle never ends. It’s a lifelong struggle to stay sober, and it truly is a ride that never ends.

“But our case did end and ended tragically with Brian,” said Bob. “So here we are to offer our story our experiences, to call attention to the issue and maybe save a life. You too can make a difference, whether it’s a friend, neighbor, a brother or sister or a child. Your actions may save a life.”