We thought we knew drug addiction. Then our nephew died in our house

Mary Anne French & Tom Wega, Guest Columnists Published 5:35 a.m. ET Oct. 10, 2019

Published in the Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY

In the early morning hours of Aug. 26, our young nephew, Derek John Gerlach passed away at our house, two days before his 29th birthday. We discovered his body in bed that morning.

Derek John was such a special person. He was very smart, good looking, suave, debonair, humorous and very, very funny. He was college-educated and hailed from a loving family, but Derek picked up some demons in his young life, and in the end the demons took him down.

When he came to stay with us in February, we knew he was fighting addiction. We were determined to help him get past this bump in the road. He had come on hard times while living in New York City, including losing at least one important job. His family brought him back to Rochester to get him back on track in a less frenetic, demanding environment.

Derek John Gerlach, 28, died during an overdose in August.

Derek John Gerlach, 28, died during an overdose in August. (Photo: Photo Provided)

With his parents living on Honeoye Lake, we brought him into our house in Pittsford, so he could study for the license examinations in his field of choice. Our house was closer to the tasks he needed to perform and thereby it took a long, daily commute off the list of barriers making his work harder.

He had worked hard to get cleansed of the substances he was abusing. Or, so we thought. We thought we knew a drug addict when we saw one. But we were bowled over by the ignorance that had misinformed us. Derek was abusing drugs under our noses, in our house, possibly daily, for who knows how long..

We had no idea what to look for. Our society depicts drug addicts as depressed, disheveled, down trodden, foaming at their unshaven mouths, losers. But Derek John was none of that. He was clean cut, not a bum. He cared for people, things and life. He had thousands of really good friends. He made every friend believe they were his favorite. This unique talent was evident at his memorial service, where friends came from every part of the world to share how much he was loved.

The Gerlach family

The Gerlach family (Photo: Photo Provided)

He was not withdrawn, sullen, or depressed. He passed drug tests and fooled therapists, parents, family and friends. He passed the professional license exams on his first attempt, which would have been quite an accomplishment if he were clean and sober. The fact that he was not makes it even more incredible.

What we now know is he lied. He became very adept at covering his activities, as addicts will do. He lied to survive lest he be exposed. His deceit was not fear of our wrath or even that of his parents, it is just what drug addicts do to keep on using. The need to use is beyond our comprehension. A former user told me it is all consuming. You are scheming to get your next supply, your next use, and all the while lying to cover it all up.

Mary Anne French, Derek John's aunt

Mary Anne French, Derek John’s aunt (Photo: Photo Provided)

We are learning from this horror. All the information we have now is too late for Derek, so we as a family have decided to dedicate ourselves to educating others to the dangers and realities of drug abuse. And we are very angry with big pharma for developing these opioids that are killing our friends, family and neighbors at alarming rates. Were it some tainted lettuce on a taco that caused an outbreak of diarrhea, it would be frontpage news.

One of the deputies who responded that morning said the coroner was delayed, needing to respond to a similar case prior to getting the call for ours. Another deputy said he responded to two other probable drug overdose deaths over the weekend. Well-off, middle-class suburban families, not skid-row bums. A total of 82 people died of overdose in Monroe County from January through August. It is pretty heartbreaking to see Derek’s red dot on the Monroe County Sheriff Department’s map of drug-related fatalities.

Tom Wega, Derek John's uncle

Tom Wega, Derek John’s uncle (Photo: Photo Provided)

Derek’s brother Bill began developing an app last year, HereNOWHelp,  a peer counselor platform, that will allow people to anonymously speak one-on-one with a trained peer counselor, 24/7, 365 days a year. Derek’s death has added an urgency to make HereNOWHelp go live.  If the app can connect people to get the help they need, all of Derek’s family will feel some sense of peace and satisfaction. A GoFundMe in memory of Derek Gerlach  has been set up to get the app up and running. We hope you will consider contributing, and sharing Derek’s story.

Just a word of advice, if you know someone who is using and they say they can handle it, do not believe them.

Mary Anne French is retired from the Monroe County Health Department. Tom Wega served in nonprofit management and real estate before retiring in 2013. The couple live in Pittsford.

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