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Giving Grief a New Purpose

Tracy Carathanasis has a story to tell.

It’s a profoundly painful tale but the 20-year resident of Westchase tells it because she knows it could save another teenager’s life.

Telling it could save another mother or father the grief she has experienced.

Yet telling it doesn’t come easy. It some ways, it’s easier to tell it to sixth graders and high school juniors than it is to other adults. Carathanasis has read the cruel comments some people write under stories like this one.

She knows, three years back, that some Westchase folks spoke in whispers as her personal, painful tragedy played out.

She was even initially reluctant when WOW reached out to her. Her husband and children each deal with their grief uniquely – differently than she has chosen to express it. She worried about this story’s impact on them.

And yet there were lives that could be potentially saved, grief that could be potentially spared.

Late last year, two students from Robinson High School, which hosts Westchase’s IB program, were hospitalized after using a vaping product laced with fentanyl, the powerful drug that killed pop star Prince. One of the students traveled in the extended circle of friends of a WOW staff member’s daughter. He was a bright young man, a solid student, the son of good parents. In response, Robinson’s administration the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education (NOPE) Task Force of Hillsborough to speak to students.

NOPE’s presentation generally features a handful of speakers, including the school principal, the guidance counselor, the school’s resource officer and a parent of a local teen who lost his or her life to drug overdose.

Later the staffer’s daughter, Emma, spoke to him about it. She quietly broached the subject. “A Westchase mom spoke to us about her son, Dad.” Emma’s eyes reflected the profound impact the mother’s words had on her.

“Who was it?”

“It was the mom of the boy who died in the back of West Park Village.”

It was Tracy Carathanasis.

Most Westchase teens have heard about the boy who died in the back of West Park Village.

But they don’t know his whole story—the important parts.

His mom now travels with NOPE, telling that story, so that no other Hillsborough family experiences what she has.

His name was Drew Carathanasis.

A bright, mischievous yet remarkably kind-hearted boy, Drew grew up in The Greens, attended Westchase Elementary, Davidsen Middle School, Cambridge Christian and Alonso High School. A twin, Drew adored hockey and played on several competitive teams. He loved Halloween, scary masks and Hallowscream. He profoundly loved his family.

Drew’s blue bedroom walls are still filled with hockey trophies and posters of Iron Maiden and Ryan Miller, during his hockey career with the Buffalo Sabres.

On Nov. 11, 2015, after spending the whole day with his mom and going out for frozen yogurt and a haircut, Drew left his home. “At six o’clock he went to take a walk,” explained Tracy, his mom. “That was the last…” Her voice trailed off. “He walked over the bridge,” she finished, referring to the pedestrian bridge between Village Green and West Park Village.

At some point Drew took an overdose of Wellbutrin, an anti-depression drug. He wandered West Park Village with a friend. Hallucinating, Drew became convinced people were out to kill him. When his friend left, Drew dropped his phone along Tate Lane.

Drew didn’t return that night. He was last seen by a West Park resident around 8:20 p.m. The person spotted the teen, staggering, with his shoes in his hands.

His family frantically searched, finding his phone on Tate Lane at 9 p.m. “I walked hours and hours looking around there,” Tracy said.

The next day, Nov. 12, Drew’s twin brother Kyle discovered his brother’s body in the wooded area near the railroad tracks at 3:15 p.m.

Tracy said she tells Kyle there was a reason for this. “As traumatic as it was for you,” she said she has told him, “I think you were the one meant to find him.”

She stopped, thinking back on the moment, grief marking her face. “It was basically a nightmare.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 630,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between 1999 and 2016, and over 300,000 are hospitalized annually from overdoses. Eighteen percent of America, nearly one in five, self-report illegal or unprescribed drug use. A record number of Americans died from overdose in 2016: 63,632 in that year alone, or 174 per day. That number jumped ten percent last year to 70,000 Americans.

Overdose and addiction cross all racial and economic groups. They don’t discriminate, striking families in New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Town N Country and Westchase. 

They regularly strike “good” families. Tracy, now a small business owner, was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years, caring for her children, Drew, Kyle, Hannah, Ashley and Emily. She volunteered as homeroom mom. Her kids had great opportunities. Drew enthusiastically participated in club sports for years.

“Drew never got in fights,” she said. “He never got in trouble per se. He was in honors classes. His teachers liked him.”

Yet it happened.

While she struggles to use the term “addiction” to describe Drew’s problem, his is a story of repeated drug use and multiple stints in rehab, amid mental health struggles with depression. “There are so many layers to it,” Tracy said.

Two weeks before his death, he was prescribed the Wellbutrin for depression. Given Drew’s past abuse of prescription drugs, Tracy kept the pills locked up.

Drew first experimented with marijuana in middle school. Upon discovering his use, the Carathanasises shifted him to a new, private school through ninth grade.

In the short-term, Drew seemed to improve. Struggling to juggle five kids at four different schools, a few years later the Carathanasises shifted Drew to Alonso High School. The spring of his sophomore year, Drew’s experience with court-ordered drug programs began.

“He was arrested for having weed in the school parking lot,” Tracy said.

After his first outpatient treatment over four months, Drew would complete three stints in rehab, repeatedly triggered by failed drug tests. Initially, Drew was shocked at the behavior of the other teens in the programs.

Meanwhile Tracy was surprised by the number of other parents and adults that excused Drew’s drug experimentation as a normal rite of adolescence that they survived. To be fair, things weren’t all bleak even for the family. Throughout high school, Drew was a solid and involved student, completing his school assignments and enthusiastically participating in hockey. He insisted on being taken to school. During breaks at rehab, Drew retreated to a quiet table where he would study for the SAT. “Even though things were bad in one instance, other things were okay,” Tracy said, saying she herself found it reassuring. Yet, she said, many folks also didn’t take the matter seriously enough.  “Everyone told me I was overreacting,” she said. “They just didn’t understand.”

During his senior year, his dreams of finishing high school and studying engineering in college were at risk due to absences due to his stints in rehab and his ability to stay drug-free long enough to complete the court-ordered program. Meanwhile, Tracy felt overwhelmed. There were fights. She begged her son to stop. She took him to a series of counselors that Drew argued were ineffective. “It was such an ordeal to get him to agree to go,” she said. Meanwhile, with the rehab programs offering nearly nothing by way of family support or education, Tracy spent hours online researching how to best help her beloved son.

Ordered a final time to rehab after another failed drug test, Drew was asked to leave the program due to its inability to address his depression. Tracy picked him up on a street corner, where she found him standing with a backpack, pillow and comforter. The heartbreaking image is seared in her brain.

After speaking with WOW about the experience, she reached back out to the reporter. “I don’t’ think I really conveyed how awful it was to watch Drew struggle and suffer. He was ashamed and embarrassed and unhappy. I was worried sick about him,” Tracy wrote. “It broke my heart that I couldn’t help him. I spent every day making phone calls, doing Internet searches and doing everything I could to get ideas of how to help him. It greatly affected our whole family.”

In hindsight, what would she do differently or advise parents struggling with the same issues to do? “My biggest advice is definitely go to a Nar-Anon meeting. That is the best support out there. They know how to tell family to cope.”

Nar-Anon, like Al-Anon for families of alcoholics, is a 12-step program for family members, partners and loved ones of narcotics users. Its website, http://www.nar-anon.org offer,s educational resources and meeting schedules of families who have family members struggling with drug abuse and addiction.

Looking back, one of the most difficult parts was the way people Tracy had long known slowly pulled away as Drew’s struggles persisted. “All of the support I have, it really waited until after he died,” she said. She understood parents’ desire to protect their own children as his struggles became known but it added to her sense of despair.  “For family, it’s hard. You kind of get isolated.”

With Drew’s death, she said, the floodgates opened to folks who experienced the same struggles. “I’ve had a lot of people come and tell me their stories.”

It was when Drew’s counselor shared some of Drew’s final journal notes with her that Tracy decided to tell her story.

Some of Drew’s notes are heartbreaking. “If your parents knew how much drugs you consumed to be happy, do you think they’d still love you?” reads one.

But one, written on Sept. 5, two months before he died, proved the inspiration for Tracy to give voice to Drew’s story. “If I could, I would show kids or tell kids how to not live life; I wish someone had told me before it was too late,” Drew wrote.

When someone from NOPE reached her to see if she was interested in participating, that note immediately came to mind and she took a big risk.

She said yes.

She knew it would be more impactful to speak with students who were in school the same time as Drew, rather than wait until those same students were in their twenties.

Tracy gave her first presentation with NOPE in May 2016, seven months after Drew’s death.  She’s now done forty of them, touching thousands of kids in public and private schools, in small and in large settings.

She shares her story—and Drew’s own words—with sixth graders and twelfth graders alike.

She returned to Davidsen Middle School, where her story had a significant impact. Nathan Ring, currently a freshman at Alonso, heard Carathanasis share her story at Davidsen when he was in eighth grade. "It was intense. A lot more intense than the usual talks we get—which is a good thing." 

Ring added that the fact that she shared her own story made it more personal. More real.

Carathanasis speaks last, after the principal, the school counselor, the resource officer. She tells them that if Drew had made a different choice that first time, the arc of his life would be rewritten.

“It starts off, it’s all fun,” Carathanasis shares with students. “But then he just couldn’t get out of it. If he knew what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have started.”

“I really believe in the program,” said Tracy. She acknowledged the presentations weren’t going to change the minds of middle or high schoolers who were already in the depth of addiction. But she believes it can impact those who have just started or who are curious about experimenting. Most important, it educates all students to recognize the dangers of overdose so they can save a friend’s life.

She thought back on Drew’s last evening in West Park Village. She firmly believes the overdose was accidental, Drew’s way to cope with the compulsion to use but still pass an upcoming drug test so he could return to school. While a number of folks spotted him in poor condition after he started hallucinating, she firmly doesn’t blame them. Back then, she observed, she would have minded her business, done the same. “If I had seen someone staggering around, I wouldn’t have done anything. Now I would.”

She encourages the students she speaks to do the same. She tells them how to spot the symptoms of overdose. And she tells them, even if they are also drinking or taking drugs, the Good Samaritan 911 law protects them from getting into trouble if they contact police or emergency services with the goal of saving another person’s life. “There is a law that protects you,” she assures them.

She also emphasizes the extreme dangers of mixing common prescription pills with alcohol.

She emphasizes the program’s motto: “Be the hero. Tell someone.”

While there is nothing in human experience that compares to parent grieving the loss of a child, Tracy Carathanasis will continue to be the voice for her son, Drew, who still is very  much alive in her heart.

For she is the hero. She is telling someone.

If someone you love is struggling with drug use, Tracy Carathanasis can point you to valuable local resources for assistance. She can be reached at tracy429@hotmail.com.

Signs and Symptoms of a Drug Overdose

A person who has overdosed may experience one or more of these symptoms. If someone has taken drugs/alcohol and exhibits any of the following symptoms, dial 911 immediately.

Hallucinating
Staggered walking
Not waking when aroused
Not responding to painful stimulation
Cold, clammy skin
Blue lips, face or hands
Snoring, gurgling or struggling for breath
Complaining of elevated body temperature
Vomiting or nausea
Paranoia
Convulsions, tremors or seizures
Irrational behavior or appearing confused

By Chris Barrett; Photos by Pat Duffey

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