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As heroin crisis escalates on North Fork, one man fights back — in memory of his brother

Paul Maffetone, who lives in Laurel, remembers every detail about the night of February 9, 2012 — the hours when his brother Michael, a heroin addict, overdosed and he and his parents found him, blue, in the bathroom.

His brother came home, saying he’d buy dinner for the family — a seemingly ordinary night. “He came home from work and put his Reese’s Pieces on the counter. He talked to my mother and me for a second then went into the shower,” Maffetone said.

When his father had a question for Michael, he knocked on the shower door and got no response. “My mom was frantic, screaming,” Maffetone said. “I was in the basement apartment with my girlfriend, who was an EMT. The first thing I thought was, ‘He’s a drug addict, something’s not right. We should kick the door in.’ But we didn’t know where his head was, so we picked the lock.”

Once inside, the scene was unimaginable: “He was so blue and gray; there was no color at all in his face. He was slumped over the bathtub.”

Maffetone’s girlfriend began chest compressions, he said. “My mom was in the front yard, screaming ‘Help! Help!’ A neighbor, a retired New York City police officer, did chest compressions, and gave him Narcan.”

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they found a heartbeat, and Michael was rushed to Peconic Bay Medical Center.

But having gone so long without oxygen, Michael suffered a herniated brain stem, and his decline was steady, despite his family’s fervent pleas to hold on. “We kept talking to him, telling him not to worry, we would get him help — just please, to wake up,” Maffetone said.

Holding his hands and murmuring words of love, his family kept a sad vigil at his bedside.

On February 12, his family was faced with the unthinkable: His parents made the heart-rending decision to remove Michael from life support. “I watched my brother’s life leave his body, watch him die in front of my eyes. Nobody should have to witness that. It was horrible. When they turned off the machine, that’s a moment that’s burned into my mind forever,” Maffetone said.

Michael Maffetone
Michael Maffetone

Michael Maffetone was just 29 years old.

Later, at home, Maffetone found three glassine bags of heroin and a hypodermic needle, hidden in a DVD case on the bathroom sink, the last remnants of a dark road marked by drug abuse, arrests, and a life destroyed by the grasping tentacles of heroin addiction.

Describing the agony of loss, Maffetone’s voice breaks. “When you lose somebody, the thing you miss the most is their physical presence. I can’t hug my brother. I can’t shake my brother’s hand. My brother never said ‘I love you’, but when I went to visit him in jail, he said ‘I love you’, loud enough to let everyone know he loves me, and not to follow his path.”

And that’s why Maffetone has taken up the mantle, starting a new, not for profit organization, “Michael’s HOPE,” which, through a Facebook page, is spreading the word to raise awareness about the rushing tide of heroin addiction that’s crippling a generation — not only on the North Fork, but in communities around the country.

Wearing T-shirts, hats and bracelets that rage “I Hate Heroin,” supporters are coming together to help Maffetone in his efforts.

Down the line, Maffetone, a warehouse manager, hopes to embark upon mission of hope full-time, speaking at schools and rehab facilities about his own story, a story that’s echoed in countless homes where an empty chair speaks to shattering grief.

Michael Maffetone's brother has started a not-for-profit organization, "Michael's HOPE" to raise awareness about the growing heroin addiction on Long Island.
Michael Maffetone’s brother has started a not-for-profit organization, “Michael’s HOPE” to raise awareness about the growing heroin addiction on Long Island.

He and two friends have begun filming a documentary, “Killing the Stigma: The truth of opioids on Long Island,” interviewing individuals in recovery and families whose lives are defined by loss.

Heroin addiction, Maffetone says, is a disease, and needs to be recognized as one; it’s his goal to get that message across.

While he’s never suffered from an addiction, Maffetone said he’s seen firsthand how heroin, an insidious enemy, can creep into a family.

Brothers Paul and Michael Maffetone in happier days.
Brothers Paul and Michael Maffetone in happier days.

“I watched my older brother deal with this disease. My brother was my hero, my best friend, my mentor, my protector. I watched how his life was taken over by this drug. I watched him lose everything. Visits in jail, the day to day struggles when he was home, the withdrawals, the lies, the stealing — the pain in my parents and myself. And then, the ultimate consequence. The pain of losing my brother, and my parents, losing their child. This is something I never want anybody to go through.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley confirms that heroin is a growing presence locally: “Heroin seems to be surpassing cocaine as the drug of choice just about everywhere, including our community. We have seen an increase in its usage and have also been trained to respond to the overdoses associated with it. Heroin is always accessible to users just as cocaine and other illegal drugs are, through the age old supply and demand concept.”

Flatley said police participate in the Suffolk County District Attorney Office’s East End Drug Task Force, which handles the majority of enforcement of heroin use. “However, there are instances where our patrol officers are making arrests for heroin possession, mostly through traffic stops”.

When asked if certain areas are more rife with drug dealing, Flatley said, “It can be just about anywhere, in any of our hamlets. We really don’t have a single location where drug dealing is in the open air market and dealers hang out on street corners.”

Hoping to take a stand, Maffetone has poured all his love for his brother into the new group, Michael’s HOPE. “I do this to keep his memory alive. I do this to hopefully prevent at least one family from having to go through this pain, sorrow, anger, sadness, frustration, confusion.”

Heroin, Maffetone said, is a crisis nationwide. “This drug has no bias. It’s attacking the middle class, poor, white, black, yellow, men, women, doctors, teachers — it affects everyone. You have to kill the stigma about what addiction is. Stop looking it as a low-life, drug addict’s problem. It’s a disease and you have to treat it that way.”

Michael, he said, was a graduate of Mattituck High School, a young man who loved the Jets, music, dogs and his family, and who never so much as smoked a cigarette and who disliked marijuana.

Until a work-related injury when he was 17 led to excruciating pain in his hand, and he was prescribed pain killers.

Key to battling the epidemic is facing the truth: Heroin is a fact of life in every community, even on the North Fork, Maffetone said, where his brother’s dealer lived in Mattituck and his friends used heroin regularly.

Maffetone believes many are in denial. He thinks some fear the image of the North Fork and the East End as a bucolic vacation area could be dispelled forever if a spotlight was focused on the growing epidemic on sleepy small-town streets.

“Who’s going to spend thousands of dollars to rent or buy a home, knowing there’s potentially heroin next door?” he asked. “We’re trying to kill the stigma of addiction.”

When he was 18, Michael won a lawsuit related to his injury and was suddenly young, flush with cash after the settlement, and courting a new addiction to pain pills, Maffetone said.

In 2006, Maffetone said his brother started experimenting with other drugs. “I found out through classmates that he was starting to get involved with heroin. I was like, ‘Not my brother.’ I told my parents and they said the infamous words, ‘Not my child.’ Those are the three most dangerous words anyone could say.”

Soon, his brother was arrested for the first time in Riverhead on possession charges, Maffetone said. “Then, it became reality to us. We thought, ‘Hey, Michael may really have a drug problem.'”

What followed over the next years was a high-profile arrest and incarceration. He was released from state prison early on a technicality, and while it was a homecoming very close to Christmas, Maffetone said the grim truth is that at least, while he was behind bars, his brother was off the streets.

“While it was great, because my brother was back in my life, we weren’t ready, because he was an addict,” he said.

His brother returned in December, 2011. “He got right back into hanging out with his old crowd, all Mattituck and Southold kids,” Maffetone said.

For awhile, Maffetone thought his brother might be clean: Michael got a job working in masonry. “He never showed signs of drug use then,” he said. “When he using, he couldn’t hide it if he tried. He’d nod out. So he might not have touched it, not right away.”

But later, after his death, Maffetone was able to track down the alleged dealer, a local Mattituck resident, and the three bags of heroin spoke to a long trail of addiction and despair that ended in tragedy.

Wearing a T-shirt that says “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer,” Maffotone says he’s caught the attention of police officers outside 7-Eleven who wanted to know about his plans for the organization.

“I want to catch people’s attention, to talk. I know I’m reaching for a star, but if I can singlehandedly change this epidemic, kill the stigma, that’s what I want to do. If someone had diabetes and ate a Twinkie, would you put him in jail? Addiction is a disease and needs to be treated like one. Insurance companies and the criminal justice system need to see that.”

For his family, however, it’s too late.

“My mother had to bury her firstborn son at 29 years old. You don’t ever get better; you just learn to maintain life,” Maffetone said.

Holidays, Maffetone said, have forever lost their magic. Celebrating as they did in the past, he said, “is way too hard.” Now, he works on Thanksgiving and his parents Penny and Michael spend Christmas, as they do regularly throughout the year, in hospitals and rehabs with their pit bull therapy dogs, helping others and sharing Michael’s story.

Despite the heavy veil of sadness, Maffetone said there is a certain sense of finality.

“He might have struggled for the rest of his life, become disconnected from his family. We might not have known where he was, if he was alive or dead. At least now, we know now he’s at peace and not suffering from addiction. He’s with me, spiritually. And he’s not dealing with that toxic physical body. He was trapped,” Maffetone said.

And yet, there are so many what ifs.

Maffetone, who wears his brother’s ashes on a chain around his neck, said he longs for the impossible.

“If I could just hear him say ‘I love you’ one last time, I would give anything. But I can’t.”