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.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Startling numbers from the CDC this week - deaths from heroin overdose have quadrupled since 2002. Many of the dead are young people, young people whose families suffer alongside them and are left behind after a fatal overdose. We sent Rebecca Hersher and Carla Javier to meet with some of those family members this week. Carla, where did you go?
CARLA JAVIER, BYLINE: We went to a support group in a town south of LA, and they were in this room in a community center. And there were about 50 people there who talked over the course of the night.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi. How are you?
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Arun, it was mostly moms who came, although not all. And most of these people have been through just terrible things. A lot of them have lost children under 30 to heroin, to opioid pills like Vicodin, like Oxycontin. These are gateway drugs for heroine.
HERSHER: They were really open with us - moms, dads, siblings. And they told us some really personal stuff.
ALICE: My name's Alice. My son, Joey, died of a heroin overdose April 5, 2012.
PHYLLIS: My name is Phyllis, and I lost my son. He was 25, and he died of a heroin overdose.
CHELSEA: My name's Chelsea. I lost my 26-year-old brother to a accidental heroin overdose. He had been sober for over a year and relapsed and passed away. And, yeah, that's it.
JAVIER: It takes about an hour to go around the table. Almost everybody had a really sad story. Here's a mom named Cindy.
CINDY: I found him. He died on a Saturday, and I found him in my ex-husband's garage on Monday.
JENNY MARALETOS: My name is Jenny.
JAVIER: That's Jenny Maraletos. She came to the support group to talk about her son, Dimitri. He overdosed on heroin at least 10 times.
MARALETOS: He's fought addiction for several years - multiple overdoses, multiple arrests, and...
JAVIER: And she's talking about him and all his troubles, and then she says something that totally shocked me.
MARALETOS: I'm glad to say that he's in recovery today, and he's here. He's over there.
HERSHER: Her son, Dimitri Zarate, is 37 now. He's sitting next to me, and as a recovering addict, he brings some hope to this support group.
DIMITRI ZARATE: You know, if I have a bad day, all I have to do is - you know what? I have a warm bed and a shower. Because I was homeless, and my life today is just absolutely amazing.
HERSHER: The group is open to anyone who's been affected by addiction, including current addicts. Dimitri takes a moment to give advice to one addicted man who came tonight and is clearly struggling.
ZARATE: To the gentleman over there, just don't lose hope. All I can say is don't lose hope because I know what it's like to be hopeless.
HERSHER: Michael Martin Wage is listening. I see him start to cry. A few minutes later, he has something to share with the group.
MICHAEL MARTIN WAGE: I can tell you right now that there's nothing that you could have done - nothing - to save those kids. And I know because there's nothing that has changed me. It's me. It's my decisions, and it had nothing to do with how I love someone. You guys be strong, and everything will be OK, you know? Your kids love you, too, and they wish they could tell you that right now.
JAVIER: Around the table, people are nodding. The meeting goes on for another hour.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's getting late, so we're going to wrap it up.
JAVIER: As people are leaving, I talked to Patty Leavitt. She's a cofounder of the support group. Her son, Travis, died of a heroin overdose five years ago. She says she sees a definite trend of heroin use.
PATTY LEAVITT: It's pretty shocking to me when we have one young person after another saying they're addicted to pills - opiate pills, to heroin, heroin, heroin. I was telling her, when drug court participants come, almost 100 percent now it's heroine.
HERSHER: Diana Presta-Selecky has been in and out of drug court with her son, Andrew. Just as we start talking about him...
DIANA PRESTA-SELECKY: Speak of the devil. I've got to take this because I don't get to call back. It's Andrew. I don't get to call him back, so...
HERSHER: Andrew is in jail right now.
PRESTA-SELECKY: Are you clean? You haven't used at all?
HERSHER: Diana has five other children. Andrew's addiction is exhausting and expensive for the family. He has been in and out of rehab for 10 years.
PRESTA-SELECKY: All right. I'll talk to you tomorrow. All right, love you, too. Bye.
Yeah, so, you know, he calls. He was calling every day, but he's in jail. Nothing new is happening in his life. It's like - and I can only come up with - you can have a 45-minute call, but I can only come up with so much conversation, you know?
HERSHER: She said she worries about Andrew when he's behind bars, but in some ways, jail is a godsend for Diana.
PRESTA-SELECKY: 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 somebody to tell me that he's dead. I'm not waiting for the knock on the door.
RATH: Wow, Becky. That is intense.
HERSHER: Yeah. And as we were leaving, Diana said something that really stuck with me. She said she feels powerless, and you can hear that in her voice. But she also hopes that the CDC report and more awareness will somehow draw attention and hopefully find solutions.
RATH: Wow. That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher. She reported this story with Carla Javier. Carla, Becky, thank you so much.
JAVIER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.