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May 25. 2013 9:52PM

Sons' overdoses spur father to share his story with others


Boxer Charles "Chucky" Rosa of Seabrook is in the fight of his life -- against drug addiction, after losing two sons to overdoses. He speaks to students and hands out dog tags reading "Chucky's Fight" to educate youngsters about the dangers of drugs. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)

On a rainy Thursday evening, a dozen well-dressed adults are sitting in a circle in an upstairs classroom at Concord Hospital. They could be attending a book club or financial seminar.

But this is Families Sharing Without Shame, a weekly support group for family members of substance abusers. Most here have children in their 20s who are drug addicts.

"We're here to share our faith, strength and hope," says founder and facilitator "Donna M" of Concord. Her son just celebrated five years of sobriety.

Parents "never know the truth about our children," she says. "They lead amazingly secret lives.

"If you met my son, he was very collegiate, very preppy. A nice kid. But he was a heroin addict, and he was dealing."

There is pain in this room, and guilt.

One woman worries she didn't do enough to warn her children about drugs. "I know as a kid, I was too afraid to try anything," she says. "And I don't think I put that fear in my own kids."

Another mother talks about how hard it is for parents to watch their children's self-destructive behavior and be unable to change it. "If we could do this for them, we would take that burden on," she says.

The guest speaker is Charles "Chucky" Rosa, a boxer and former business owner from Seabrook. "I'm not a licensed counselor. I'm not a doctor, not a cop, not a teacher," Rosa tells the Families group. "I'm a guy that lost two sons."

Rosa tells his story, how two of his six children died of accidental drug overdoses. For Dominic, it was heroin; Vincent used a Fentanyl patch just once and never woke up.

Rosa described the call that brought him to a hospital, where he ignored a nurse's warning and entered a room where Vincent, his second-oldest, lay unmoving. "He was on a table with his arms folded, with this tube coming out of his mouth."

"What's the matter with him?" he asked.

His son was dead. "I tried to wake him up. I was screaming at him, 'You can't do this.'"

His oldest son, Dominic, overdosed nine months later.

Rosa started a program he calls Chucky's Fight, visiting schools to warn children that drugs can kill them. "I couldn't save my own kids, so I try to help other kids," he says.

And every day, he walks into the ocean where his sons' ashes were poured, to remember and to raise awareness.

The parents listen intently, some with their arms wrapped tightly around themselves. His story is their worst nightmare.

A video depicts Rosa's handsome, healthy sons at family gatherings: birthdays, First Communions, high school graduations, holidays. "They're hard for me to look at because they made some very unhealthy choices, and they broke a lot of people's hearts by doing that," Rosa says.

One of the other fathers can't take his eyes off the TV; he looks haunted. "It's obvious this is an epidemic and we're all fighting against it," he says.

Then he asks Rosa whether there was any substance abuse in the family that could have influenced his kids. It's the first question, and it cuts deep.

"I live with that guilt every day," Rosa says, before recounting his own history of alcohol abuse.

Some of the parents try to console him. "Every kid's different," one mom tells Rosa. "There are plenty of parents who don't drink and don't do anything, and their kids fall that way. I think we just have to do the best we can."

It's true, Rosa agrees. "I know people that are like Ward Cleaver: perfect family, two-and-a-half kids. And their kids are a mess."

There are tears shed in this room. But there's rueful laughter, as well, as when these parents share complaints about lawmakers who vote in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, but cut funding for the social workers, school counselors and treatment programs that could save their kids.

"I just wish all our legislators could have a relative who's an addict," one woman says.

Another mother pleads for advice in dealing with her addicted son. "I am no help to him," she says. "I'm his trigger."

"How about some separation?" Rosa asks.

"He's 17. There's no place for him to go," she replies.

It's another mother who offers advice: "Stop talking. Let them know you're there for them, and stop talking."

It worked with her own son, the woman says. "We just got out of the way. Sometimes they have to fall on their faces."

Rosa tells the parents he has no magic answers, but he thinks addicts have to decide for themselves to seek help. That's what happened with his third son, who also used drugs but is now in recovery.

"I think he realized it was breaking his mother down," he said. "I think when he did it on his own, it really made a difference."

"Donna M" says she learned the same hard lesson. "Every time my son went to rehab, I thought they were going to perform a miracle on my child."

"Within the last year, it dawned on me: None of them are going to heal our children. All they are going to do is give our children tools."

A father talks about his 23-year-old son, who went to a private rehab facility in Vermont and worried about coming home to Concord. "He told me he had a fear he was either going to die or was going to end up in jail."

He reassured his son that treatment had given him the weapons to fight his addiction. "He's been home and sober quite awhile," he says. "He's not dead and he's not in jail."

Rosa says he believes the real answer lies in educating children at a very young age. If you can teach them not to touch a hot stove, you can teach them not to touch the drugs that killed his sons, he says. "Teaching them this stuff is poison, maybe we won't get to where we are today."

Donna M. says adults also need to be educated about the danger of having addictive prescription medications in the medicine cabinet. "Any one of us could be a drug dealer and not know it," she says.

As the meeting ends, the group stands in a tight circle and prays the "Serenity Prayer," for serenity, courage and wisdom. Rosa has brought along some of the blue dog tags that he gives away to those who would join his fight.

The parents take them home for their children, a talisman against a common enemy.

swickham@unionleader.com


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