Medinah mom copes with son's heroin death by saving others

  • Felicia Miceli lost her son Louie to a heroin overdose in 2012. She keeps his memory alive in this memorial display at her Medinah home.

    Felicia Miceli lost her son Louie to a heroin overdose in 2012. She keeps his memory alive in this memorial display at her Medinah home. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Felicia Miceli raises consciousness about heroin addiction at the LTM Foundation's Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run last August in Addison.

    Felicia Miceli raises consciousness about heroin addiction at the LTM Foundation's Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run last August in Addison. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Participants in the LTM Foundation's second annual Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run in Addison sported "Stand up to Heroin" shirts to show their support last August.

    Participants in the LTM Foundation's second annual Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run in Addison sported "Stand up to Heroin" shirts to show their support last August. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Felicia Miceli gets a hug from a participant in the LTM Foundation's second annual Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run in Addison.

    Felicia Miceli gets a hug from a participant in the LTM Foundation's second annual Walk-A-Thon and Fun Run in Addison. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Kristen Gutierrez holds a picture of her brother Louie Miceli during the reading of names at an Overdose Awareness Week ceremony in Schaumburg in 2013.

    Kristen Gutierrez holds a picture of her brother Louie Miceli during the reading of names at an Overdose Awareness Week ceremony in Schaumburg in 2013. Bob Chwedyk/bchwedyk@ dailyherald.com

 
 
Updated 4/20/2015 12:45 PM
Editor's note: Heroin has taken hold in the suburbs, and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines the heroin problem through the eyes of those it affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we take a look through the eyes of Felicia Miceli, a Medinah mother who has coped with the death of her son by forming the LTM Heroin Awareness and Support Foundation.

Louie Theodore Miceli's smile lights up his mother's dining room.

The large black-and-white photo of Louie is the centerpiece on a crowded table, surrounded by dozens of mementos that tell the story of his short life.

 

A Driscoll Catholic football jersey lies near snapshots of the handsome young man playing sports, having fun with friends and vacationing in Italy.

"He was the kid to be around," says his mother, Felicia Miceli.

Two worn, handwritten letters on notebook paper, addressed to his mother and brother, reflect more difficult times.

In them, Louie apologized for his past mistakes and thanked his family for sticking by his side as he struggled with heroin addiction.

Perhaps most poignant is his white and blue baby blanket, folded next to a prayer, engraved in glass, titled "Remember Me."

Louie died from an overdose on Aug. 7, 2012. At age 24, his battle with the drug was over, but his family's path to healing -- and finding a constructive outlet for their grief -- was just beginning.

"I miss him so much," Felicia said, her voice shaking, "and I don't want him to ever be forgotten."

Spreading the word

Three months after Louie died, the family, who live in Medinah, used Louie's initials to name the LTM Foundation, created to raise awareness about heroin and provide support to others affected by addiction.

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"I don't want another mother to ever feel this pain, this incredibly horrific pain," Felicia said. "We all knew something had to be done, and we had to be verbal and not ashamed by what happened. People are embarrassed or ashamed or feel guilty. I was not going to let that happen."

Since the foundation began, Felicia estimates she has shared her son's story with more than 30,000 people at dozens of schools, churches and community centers throughout the suburbs.

The foundation's aim is, through education, to diminish the use of, and demand for, heroin. It also provides support to those affected by the disease, whether it's providing a shoulder to cry on or referring family members to resources like rehab and therapy.

"In the beginning, we just wanted to be able to tell Louie's story to anybody who would listen," Felicia said.

But when she first went to Louie's former schools, however, many did not want to acknowledge the problem.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"They don't want to be singled out," she said. "We fell on some deaf ears sometimes."

Heroin deaths kept increasing -- up to a record 46 in DuPage County in 2013 -- and Felicia noticed people "finally realized they had to listen." That's when she partnered with the DuPage County state's attorney, coroner and other county officials to spread the word through heroin awareness forums.

The forums still draw small crowds, she says, and there's still plenty of apathy. But, Felicia says, if the foundation helps save "one precious Louie in someone else's life, we're doing what we need to do."

'Can't believe this'

In grammar school, Louie won an essay contest writing about the DARE drug prevention program.

Years later, when addiction entered his life, he told Felicia, "I can't believe this happened to me, Mom, of all people," she says.

In eighth grade, Louie wrote a paper describing how he wanted to become an NFL player and marry a beautiful sportscaster. By high school, it was even more clear that the stocky, clean-cut teen had two loves: football and girls.

"He was quite the charmer," Felicia said with a smile.

He was obsessed with his appearance, always taking time to do his hair just right and put on, in his mom's opinion, a "little too much cologne."

"You would not look at my son and say, 'That kid's a heroin addict,'" Felicia said.

Louie was popular -- more than 3,000 people attended his funeral -- and he liked to socialize with friends, which sometimes involved drinking and smoking marijuana.

Felicia didn't think much of it. She, like many parents, felt it was just "a rite of passage."

It's a decision she struggles to live with.

People ask her if she saw signs Louie was on drugs, and Felicia realizes she did but turned a blind eye.

"My house was the house to be at, and I wanted it that way," she said. "I thought the kids were safe at my house."

That wasn't the case. The teammate who got Louie hooked on drugs, Felicia later discovered, was a kid she welcomed into her home with open arms and big plates of pasta.

"I think you need to be really aware of who your kid's friends are, really what they're about," she said. "Don't trust people just for trusting's sake. Their friends are a vital part of this."

'People are dying'

There's a saying from Al-Anon, a support group for families of alcoholics, that Felicia often repeats: "You didn't cause it, you can't control it and you can't cure it."

Forming a foundation has been helpful for Felicia, allowing her to feel like "maybe that was the purpose of my son's life, to save other lives." Because of him, she has helped people get into rehab and comforted countless parents and children who are living with a heroin addict.

"It's hard for me to get up some days and face the day, but LTM really channels a lot of that grief for me," she said. "It allows me to think his death wasn't in vain."

Felicia initially worried how Louie would feel about being "a face of this disease." After some soul-searching, she decided he was "a natural protector" -- someone who would have tried to save the lives of other addicts.

The foundation helped put Felicia in touch with other parents who have started their own heroin prevention groups after losing a child. Having such people to talk to has been extremely helpful, she says.

"So many of us are just angry," she said. "It's frustrating that it's not all over the news. The reality of the situation is something we really want to strive to get across. People are dying."

Felicia also joined a group called GRASP, Grief Recovery After Substance Passing.

One of its goals is simple: "We don't want anyone else in our group," she said.

When it seems like no one else could understand their pain, the parents are there for each other. The group members also visit a rehab facility together once a month to show recovering addicts pictures of their kids and tell them "not to waste" the opportunity they have in front of them.

No shame

When Louie's drug use became more widely known, Felicia started losing friends. They judged her, she said, and asked hurtful questions.

"'What happened? ... Didn't they educate their kids enough? Didn't they love them enough?' I know people think that. I've heard it," she said, fighting back tears. "And I made mistakes. I don't know any mother that probably wouldn't want some do-overs.

"But I think as a whole, I loved my kids with every fiber of my being and I think I was a pretty good mom. So I have to reassure myself about that and not let that get the best of me and that's how I'm able to put it out there."

When she speaks on behalf of the foundation, Felicia emphasizes that "if this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone." She also says that helps parents feel less inhibited in talking about their children's problems. That's evidenced by the number of people who ask to speak with her in private after presentations.

"That's a proud moment for me, when a parent can stand up and say, 'I'm facing problems,'" she said. "I think that's what needs to be done, so we can start the dialogue to talk about it. It is a disease. I think LTM is giving people the opportunity to take the shame out of it."

Felicia said she's especially proud the foundation "brings a face" to the problem.

"I see the kids relate to that more, instead of police shooting a statistic, or a coroner," she said. "They can see Louie's face or see the addict and hear about their day-to-day struggles of living as an addict. Kids respond to that way more."


• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries

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