Updated: Oct 30
By Zack's mom, Debra
I would like to tell you about my son Zachary O’Brien. Zachary was born March 11, 1996 in Massachusetts. When he was around two, my husband and I divorced and I moved to Nashua, NH so I could work and have help with daycare. Zachary was a fun-loving kid who liked to make people laugh. He would find the most inappropriate time to crack a joke and make someone smile. Zachary loved bass fishing, dirt-biking, camping and something we called “redneck sledding.” He loved being around the fire spending time with family and friends or belting out the latest song on his playlist and breaking into dance. I remember I would give him half a day at school and we would go to the latest superhero movie together. I was blessed to be able to see Spiderman Homecoming with him when it came out. That was the last movie we got to watch together.
Zack started having some bad mood swings starting in first grade – temper tantrums that would last for hours. He would destroy his room or anything that was around. We started counseling and testing to see what was going on. By third grade, he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD, along with a list of learning disabilities. My husband and I were very honest with Zack about his mental illness and started the process of putting support systems in place at school, at home and socially. For years, we went and brought him to counseling and had neurophysiological testing done every three years. It was very hard on him and we had very little family support; because of the stigma, family would tell him that he was fine and that the doctors did not know what they were talking about. During this time, Zack would find comfort in music and his dog Murry. As he got older, sixth or seventh grade, he started changing. I believe it was during this time that he started smoking pot and drinking.
Zack was always hard to get to go to school, but by 15, he was talking about dropping out. The more counseling we seemed to go to, the more he lashed out; his peaks and valleys were so HIGH and LOW. He started stealing money from my purse or change jar and he would re-sell his birthday and Christmas gifts. We decided to move to Windham, hoping to disconnect from some friends and family that were not a good influence. When we moved, Zack lashed out more, so we placed him in the Directions Program. It was an after-school program that kids could go to and have counseling in a group setting. He met more friends that he got in more trouble with. Zack’s behavior became more unpredictable; by this point, I believe he was shooting up Percocet and doing other drugs. We sent him to the Phoenix House. Zack spent six months there; they got his meds right, and he stayed sober for almost two years, even holding down a part-time job at UPS.
During those two years, Zack was attending meetings, working and had a girlfriend. He thought he was doing alright and decided to go off his meds and start smoking pot again. Zack’s girlfriend broke up with him and got a restraining order against him. He was so manic by this point – delusional, really. He had a suicide attempt from taking all of his meds. I had to do an involuntary commitment into the psychiatric ward. They kept him for a whopping five days and when they released him, he went with one of the other patients who happened to be a heroin addict too. By this point, I had to kick him out of the house. He was 18 now, and I was hoping that would get him clean by getting him to hit bottom faster. I also had young children in the house, so I had to minimize what they were seeing. I knew that we were enabling the behavior, and I never wanted to be that parent who was part of the problem. By this point, Zack had started to become a chronic relapse, in and out of hospitals, detoxes and sober houses. He came back to live with us after one of these stays – he was doing well, and we were hopeful for the first time in our lives that he would make it through this. Until one night I heard someone fall in the upstairs bathroom. My son had overdosed. We finally broke through the door to see him on the floor and a needle on the bathroom counter. Just steps from his sister’s room. I was frantic calling 9-11. I had no Narcan at the time and was literally pounding on his chest. He woke up and refused to go with the EMT at first. But then I told him he could not stay at the house; we would not watch him kill himself.
For the next two years, Zack lost so many friends to overdose. He would say to me, “Mom, I do not want to be the next to go,” and he would use. He would be in and out of rehab and hospital sober living facilities. We spent a lot of money on deductibles and living necessities because every time he would relapse he would lose his clothes, toothbrush and coats. He was lucky that he had some people really in his corner. He got scholarships to facilities and discounts on rent. We did help with what we could, but we started running out of money. I even suggested to my husband that we start a funeral fund. I know what you’re thinking – why would I suggest that? I am in recovery myself and I saw so many young adults and children coming into the program when the norm was older people. And these drugs they were on had no mercy. They are so deadly that my hope quickly turned into despair and somewhat of a cruel acceptance that Zack could have the worst outcome of all.
On August 1st, 2017, I was babysitting my grandchild and my girls were watching Suicide Squad. 11:11 was on the clock and I said my usual prayer: “God, please let Zack find sobriety or find peace.” Not five minutes later, my daughter who was in the living room with full view of the front door said, “MOM. There is a police officer at the door.” If I close my eyes, I can still see that poor man’s face, doing a job that NO ONE would want to do. I knew, I did not even have to answer the door, I KNEW my son was gone.
Zachary died July 31, 2017. They had already ruled it an overdose because of the evidence that was found. I was somewhat thankful he was at least warm in a bed and not completely alone or out in an ally or a bathroom stall. When we got the toxicology back, his death was ruled accidental… acute fentanyl intoxication. He lays to rest by my mom who passed March 5th of that year, and his ashes were mixed with his beloved dog who was put down May 25th of the same year. My family and I do grief counseling and support groups; I go to vigils and try to put Zack’s story out there as much as I can. We miss him! He was only 21 and had a whole life to live… and now we have to live it for him, keeping him alive in our hearts while still teaching my children how to move forward. I feel blessed that God gave him to me for the 21 years. But call me selfish… I wanted more…