Tune in for "State of Addiction," a special week-long investigative series beginning on Monday, Dec. 11 on News 4 New York.
Carter Stone was as Jersey as they come.
A Jets fan who spent every summer on the shore wearing out his beloved old beach chair, it was easy to gravitate toward the popular, gregarious guy who just wanted to go with the flow and have a good time.
“Every weekend was phone calls from Carter: ‘Let’s go to the beach, let’s go to the beach,’” said Jordan Gale, Stone’s best friend since high school.
“He was liked by everyone. He was very popular,” his mother Wendy Galbraith said, describing his upbringing in Red Bank. “Lots of friends – very social, very athletic. Always on every sporting team.”
A college stint in South Carolina couldn’t keep Stone away from home. He returned to the Garden State, working in jobs as far north as Jersey City and as far south as Atlantic City, but frequently meeting his old friends, going to Yankee and MetLife stadiums -- and always, always returning to the beach. For years, Stone would go to Sea Bright to hang with his pal Gale, who worked at the popular Donovan’s bar.
In the last year, Gale didn’t see much of Stone.
“I had a hunch something was going on,” said Gale, recalling how Stone called once looking for money. Stone’s own mother, who was living in Vermont, didn’t realize there was a problem until things just started to nosedive.
“He lost a job, a big job,” said Galbraith. “He always needed to borrow money, borrow money, borrow money. He couldn’t seem to get the bills paid. He just wasn’t himself.”
“I thought he was just depressed because of not working. I really didn’t know there was a problem until there was a DUI,” she said. “And then still, I didn’t know, because he would tell me, ‘Everything’s fine. Don’t worry, Mom, everything’s fine.’”
It wasn’t until Labor Day that Gale learned that his best friend was in rehab, recovering from an addiction to heroin and painkillers. Stone’s family was feeling optimistic by that point, relieved that their son and brother had finally emerged from the dark, destructive hole that caused him so much misery in the last two years.
“I remember saying to him, my last conversation with him, was ‘You’re doing this. You’re literally putting the pieces of your life back together,’” said his older sister, Lauren Wright. “Everything was coming into place for him. He felt happy.”
Twenty-four hours later, Wright received a phone call: her brother was dead.
THE START OF ADDICTION: PRESCRIPTION OPIOIDS AFTER CAR CRASH
Stone started taking OxyContin after a crash in September 2015, when a woman who was texting while driving rear-ended him, according to Wright. He was experiencing back pain from the accident, but soon became dependent on the pills.
Stone lost his job and depleted his finances from the addiction, and he soon turned to the much cheaper heroin to get high. Wright recalled her brother describing how deeply and instantaneously heroin hooks into the system, once telling her, “You don’t do heroin to get high, you do heroin to never get low. Because once you do it, the sickness that comes from it is so devastating that you can’t handle the withdrawal of it.”
“It’s a brain disease. Your brain changes, possibly forever. And the way your brain processes pleasure is totally changed,” said Galbraith, equating addiction to a hijacking of the brain. “And until you’re clean for at least a year, your brain won’t rest. It’s focused totally on the drug.”
Wright still doesn’t know when Stone transitioned from painkillers to heroin: “I think for many families, they don’t know when that transition happens, and that’s when things really start to get scary.”
Wright recalled seeing her brother high only once: “He wanted to come by and say hello and I remember feeling scared that if I didn’t let him come, that I would never see him again. I remember when I saw him it was really upsetting because it was not who my brother was.
“I could tell he was struggling and not himself, and it scared me,” she said. “It really, really scared me. I remember when he walked out that door, I was terrified that it was going to be the last time I ever saw him.”
Galbraith felt overwhelmed, so desperate to help her child but unsure as to how. “As a mother, you just want to want to help your kid and you want to fix it, but I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Because I wasn’t educated in this problem,” said Galbraith.
Stone lost several jobs, and got into trouble with the place he was living, according to his mother. Wright’s family got a phone call that there were people looking for Stone, and that he owed them money. Things were falling apart.
The family, terrified, begged Stone to get help. He agreed, entering a three-week inpatient program in Vermont, where his mother was living. Looking back now, Wright said, it wasn’t enough time.
“I think he came out of that and thought, ‘I got this,’” said Wright. “And what he later shared with us is that he relapsed within 24 hours.”
Stone was gripped by addiction for at least another six months. He lost more jobs, and by spring of 2016, his family wouldn’t hear from him or couldn’t find him for days at a time. They again encouraged him to get help – and finally, he did come around to it. He told them it was exhausting living with addiction.
“To be a heroin addict, someone once said it’s like a woodpecker pecking at the window all day long, and it’s draining,” said Wright. “This wasn’t who my brother was. This wasn’t the life he had ever lived. He knew he deserved more out of life. He wanted to live life.”
This time, when Stone entered a treatment facility outside of Atlantic City, he stayed for three months. Wright believes it saved her brother’s life at the time.
“It was really what he needed, long-term treatment. Those months gave my brother back,” she said. “He was vivacious and living his most authentic self -- alive and happy and so proud that he had overcome this darkness that was in his life.”
Stone was “100 percent clean” and genuinely happy after getting out of treatment, according to Wright. He rented an apartment near the facility, where he lived with a couple of other young men in the same treatment program – “good, good guys” who were in it together, looking out for each other, said Wright. Stone got a job in the car industry and was working the 12-step program and stayed in close contact with an “incredible” sponsor.
“He felt like he was on top of the world. With every fiber of his being, never wanted to touch that drug again,” said Wright. “I remember saying to myself, ‘He’s not going to be part of this epidemic. We’re going to beat this.’”
“I really thought we were doing everything we could within our control to help him,” said Wright. “I’ve now learned that I think he was struggling a lot more than he verbalized. I think they’re in their own state of hell a lot more than they verbalize. And they’re constantly fighting and constantly trying to get out. And when they’re good, they’re good, but it’s always in the back of their head.”
“We never believed he would use again,” said Galbraith. “It took one time, and he died.”
THE PHONE CALL: ‘YOU GO INTO SHOCK. IT IS PURE HORROR.’
The day that Stone died, he spoke with his sponsor in the morning and then his mother in the evening. He watched a game on TV with his roommate and then went up to his bedroom.
His roommate was the one who found him.
“To get a call 24 hours later that your brother had died was like – I literally thought someone did this to him,” said Wright. “I literally thought somebody put a needle in his arm and shot him with heroin, a lethal dose of heroin and killed him. Because that’s how jarring the flip side of this was, because it wasn’t what I was experiencing 24, 48 hours ago.”
Stone had become one of the 91 or so Americans who, according to the CDC, die every day of opioid-related causes.
“I remember feeling angry. I felt like my brother never really had the opportunity to fight. He never had the opportunity to wake up in a hospital and say, ‘Wow, this is no joke, this disease,’” Wright said. “My brother was on top, he wasn’t on bottom at this point of his life.”
Galbraith wondered: “Why did that that have to happen? What could I have done? What did I miss? What was he feeling at that last minute that was so sad that he couldn’t tell me? Or was his brain totally hijacked that he thought he was OK?”
“That’s what I struggle with. We thought he was OK. I talked to him that afternoon: ‘Everything’s fine, Mom. It’s gonna be a great week at work,’” she said. “Why did he do it that night?”
Stone’s family wanted to be very honest that he’d died from heroin, and Wright wrote an obituary describing his struggle with addiction. And she wanted to make very clear that the opioid epidemic does not discriminate.
“How my brother died does not define who he is, or who he was for 32 years of life. And I wanted other families to know that they’re not alone, and I wanted them to keep fighting the fight,” she said.
She acknowledged how difficult the battle can be: “I really feel like I am up against Goliath. Between the pharmaceutical companies and the doctors and the laws, it’s like, where do you start? It’s really overwhelming and you see kids dropping like flies. And you don’t know what to do or how to help.”
Galbraith has gotten involved with local advocacy groups in Vermont, campaigning for change in the way addicts get treatment, especially at a state grassroots level. She envisions long-term recovery centers and campuses, where people can stay and get extended treatment.
“We need treatment centers that take people for detox and then put them into rehab and then get them into 12-step and then put them into a sober living situation, always supporting them and guiding them to get back into society,” she said. “They’re still so vulnerable at that point. To have to infiltrate back into society where there’s so many pressures and they have to face all the mess they made; they’re having to look at rebuilding relationships and look at all the bills that are sitting there still. There’s so much that needs to be addressed.”
She wants parents to be aware that the epidemic could hit their own families, and encourages more dialogue around it so that people who are suffering can go to their loved ones and admit having a problem without fear of rejection.
“Parents need to be aware that this can happen them. Don’t be surprised, but also be prepared – and be prepared to act quickly if this happens to your family,” she said. “It’s that widespread. It can happen to anybody.”
“Sometimes they say you need to wait until they hit rock bottom. But rock bottom is dead,” she said.
Wright recalls feeling, on the day of her brother’s funeral, how amazing it was that “your heart can be breaking yet so filled with love at the same time.”
“The things that were said about my brother were beautiful. There were hundreds of people sitting in the church, and I just remember leaving there and being like, ‘He really touched so many people’s lives,’” said Wright. “He’s not just my loss, he’s truly everyone’s loss.”
It’s hard for Galbraith to come to terms, still, with the finality of her son’s death. She knows she will struggle with her loss for the rest of her life; already, she anticipates being "a mess" on his birthday, December 16.
“I don’t want other families to go through this,” she said. “I have so many friends who also have children suffering, and it breaks my heart. I understand how they suffer, because while your kid’s suffering, you are already grieving their loss and the loss of who you knew them as. You’re in constant fear that you’re going to get a phone call either from the jail or from the morgue. And you don’t sleep and you wonder and you worry and you lose weight and you’re sick and you can’t function.”
“And when they die, it’s like someone just shut the light off. As horrible as it is, it’s different. It’s a different kind of finality,” said Galbraith.
Gale still chokes up when thinking about his best friend.
“Carter was the guy that was always there,” he said. “It’s impossible to replace him.”
In tribute to Stone, Gale had a 400-pound rock engraved with his name and placed it on the beach in front of Donovan’s, their old hangout spot.
“It’s one of the places he enjoyed being the most,” said Gale. “And it allows all of us to sit back and have another drink with him.”