Caroline Kacena never felt as alone and embarrassed as she did while her son, John Kacena, battled his heroin addiction.
Less than a week after losing her 20-year-old son to the addiction he fought for nearly a year, she's determined to never let another parent feel the same way.
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"Addiction is a disease that we are ashamed to talk about, especially when it affects our own children. I know. I was there," the Naperville mom said. "But we need to blow the lid on that way of thinking. No one would ever be embarrassed because their child has cancer, so there is nothing to be ashamed about with addiction."
Naperville police Sgt. Gregg Bell said officers were called to Kacena's home in the 2200 block of Flambeau Drive at 8:13 a.m. July 23 for a possible overdose. The first arriving officer assisted Caroline Kacena in performing CPR, Bell said, "but the young man was no more."
Bell said toxicology reports likely won't be complete for four to six weeks, but police believe Kacena's death will be the second related to heroin this year in Naperville.
"There was drug paraphernalia nearby in his room that is commonly associated with the abuse of heroin," Bell said. "The young man was also known by family members to be battling a heroin addiction."
Caroline Kacena said she and nearly all of John's friends and family learned of his troubles in December when he was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance.
"He was battling it by himself and trying to clean himself up before the arrest, but it's hard to clean up in Naperville," she said. "It's so easy to get it here."
After the arrest, Caroline began the tireless task of attempting to help John and the first step was to try to get some kind of understanding of the "dragon" she was "trying to slay."
"John told me he was hooked on heroin for a good six months before he even knew he was addicted to heroin," she said. "He was at a party and was given a substance he thought was cocaine and it ended up being heroin. So for months he was getting this stuff and thinking he had a cocaine addiction. But my son was hijacked by heroin."
She said she has been overwhelmed by the support from family, friends and the community in the wake of her son's death.
Ultimately, it was the longtime friends, recovering addicts from his Narcotics Anonymous program and others who attended Thursday night's memorial service for John that inspired her to not let anyone else's son or daughter get hijacked.
"This is the turning point. We need to stop sweeping this disease under the carpet and drag it into the open," she said. "We, as parents, need to stop worrying about who is passing judgment on us and start saving our children."
She said the movement already has begun on Facebook with a newly formed group, "Open Hearts Open Eyes," that formed and gained 4,350 members since John's death. On it, members pledge to support each other and "create a movement that provided awareness, support, as well as prevention techniques."
Parents of young addicts need a network of each other and of their children's real friends, she said, because it's impossible to keep your eyes on your children around the clock.
"I couldn't sleep because as soon as I did, John would take that one last hit. I couldn't leave him alone to go to the grocery store without him taking a hit," she said. "So I'm telling parents that if they need me to sit at their home so they can go to the grocery, call me. If you need an adult to sit on your kid to keep him from going out to get that score, call me and I'll come sit on him or I'll have a network of 10 of his friends show up to sit on him."
Police data would indicate there are Naperville families that would be in need of such help. Just last year the city was rocked by 10 known overdoses that resulted in six heroin-related deaths. So far this year, police are aware of five overdose cases and one death, not including Kacena.
Megan Miller, an 18-year-old Neuqua Valley High School senior, died Jan. 29 in her parent's Naperville home as a result of a combination of heroin and ecstasy.
John Kacena, who graduated from Neuqua, is also survived by his father, John, and sister, Lindsey.