I'm sitting in my restaurant in Sicklerville not long after my son Tony Luke III dies, and an elderly gentleman comes in and he says to me: "Hey, Tony, I heard your son passed away. I just want to tell you how incredibly sorry I am."
"Well thank you. I appreciate it."
"Do you mind if I asked you how he died? Did he have cancer, was he …"
"No," I said, "he died of a heroin overdose."
"Damn it, these kids, the choices they make."
I didn't get upset with him. I just thought: "Wow. This is the view. This is why no one talks about it."
Yes, my son was absolutely responsible for his actions. But when there's an addiction — and I believe it's a disease — those are not the actions, the choices, of a rational, thinking person. Those are the actions of people who are in absolute survival mode.
When that survival mode kicks in, when it's live or die, take the pain away or don't take the pain away, you're scared to death, and you'll trample over people to get what you need.
Every day I saw my son, he had the look of being ashamed, as if he was losing, as if he was weak. Because that's what he hears. You're weak. A strong person could get out of this.
Tony had fallen into partying when he was young, marijuana, pills. That was their version of alcohol. You never think it's going to lead to anything more.
But he was always athletic and he was a wrestler in school. When he got into a car accident and hurt his back, the doctors put him on Percocets. But one wasn't enough to take the pain away, so he's taking two, three, four. But he was still hurting and got his prescription refilled and before we knew it, he was addicted. He had to have them. He couldn't function without them.
After a while, the doctors figure you're better and they cut you off. So then you start buying them on the streets. But pills are super expensive — 25, 30 bucks a pop. You can keep that going for a while if you have a job and money, but as he got older, Tony lost his job and he had lost his health care. Then he had a car accident that complicated the pain and back issues. He was taking so many Percocets and they didn't do much for him because he'd been using them for so long.
So what do you do when there's no money and nowhere to turn? You go to heroin. It's ridiculously cheap. Anyone can afford it.
No one wants to be an addict. No one wants to feel like crap every single day of their life when they get up. They don't want it. Tony had been to rehab twice, and each time he came out, he was better. He was trying, he really was trying. He was really working his butt off to be better.
But this is a disease that takes over your whole body. It ravages your body. You don't have any control. It gets into your mind, your body, whatever the illness is. You fight, you fight, you fight. My son Michael calls it the Monster. It's a great term because it is a monster. It's so big, it's so large, and it's so scary that you can't fight it. You fight it but — it would be like me literally fighting a great athlete, who was 6-foot-11 and 400 pounds of solid muscle. If I fight him every day, I just get tired. I can't beat him.
Tony was a good kid, truly he was. But the Monster took over, made that kid do things, say things, act in a certain way that he never would have, ever, ever. But the Monster has to feed and nothing matters then. You lie, you manipulate, you say whatever you need to do to take the pain away.
And that's the road he traveled. That's the road he fought for eight years, nine years. It was ridiculous to fight. Go to rehab, come out. "I got this, Dad." Go to the pastor, go to the church every day, go to meetings. "I got this, I'm trying." And he did. He tried and tried and he tried. And then, on March 27, he had a moment of weakness and made a decision, and the Monster beat him for good.
The day before, Sunday, he was sweeping and mopping the floor of the store in Sicklerville, and he said: "Dad, I can't stand it anymore. My back. Do you mind if I go home?" And I'm like: "No, we're done. I'll finish the rest. We're good."
He said: "Dad, I've been humbled. I just, I want to take care of my children, I want to …"
Then he kissed me, and as he left, I said, "Tony, I'll see you on Wednesday," because we were closed Monday and Tuesday. And he died Monday.
I like to feel that he died with some hope in his heart, that there was something. And I can't imagine the pain he was in to shoot up again, knowing that there's something here, maybe. So he had to be in, physically, so much pain.
After the guy said that to me in the store I thought, "Man, if I feel this way, how many families are feeling this way?"
At the same time, everywhere I look in the news I'm hearing about opioids, and I hear 3,000 dead, and 4,000 dead, and I'm thinking to myself: "This isn't about numbers. My son is not a statistic."
But he is if the media don't connect those numbers to real people and the families who love them. And too often they don't connect the dots because families are silent, because they're ashamed of what people will say about them or their addicted kids. So I finally said: "You know what? I'm not ashamed. I don't care what anyone says about me. My son was not a number. My son was not somebody to be thrown away. My son was not weak."
I wanted to get this story out, but I wasn't sure how to do it. I didn't think we needed another charity or a foundation. And in the meantime I'm researching heroin, and seeing the terms brown and white everywhere, and then I finally think, well what about an initiative? What if we find a way to encourage people to talk about the people they love? To promote conversations between survivors and the public? To remove the stigma?
I thought, if people see me taking the heat, they'll realize there's nothing to be ashamed of. That it's OK to talk about addiction and their loved ones.
Next I get a call from Fox29, and they said, "Would you come in to talk about your son?" And I said, "I will."
And then boom, it exploded.
So, keep it going. Go to Twitter and put pictures of your loved ones there. Get those faces out, those names out. Put a name to your story. Send it to your congressman. Tell them: "I am not a number. Brown and White. I am not a number." Let them know that this isn't a statistical problem to be solved, these are people to be helped.
Tony Luke Jr. is a local entrepreneur and media personality. Follow him on Twitter at @tonylukejr.