American Carnage: Tragic Tale of Two Suburban Atlanta Teens
Too many families still don't know enough about the opioid crisis in our country — except that it happens to other people
They used to play on the same Little League team in their hometown of Lawrenceville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.
Over the years, Dustin Manning, 19, and Joseph Abraham, 18, drifted apart. Both battled alcohol and drug problems.
One drug — fentanyl — would bring them back together. And in the worst way.
Lisa Manning was in the gym when she got that call every parent dreads. It was from her husband, Greg. “I knew from the sound of his voice that it was really bad,” she said. “He was just saying, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Call 911.”
Greg discovered Dustin’s body on the morning of May 26. “I got up early to wake Dustin up for work,” he recalled. “When I cracked open his bedroom door, it looked like he was tying his shoes. But it didn’t take me long to see something was wrong, and when I grabbed his body, he was cold.”
When the paramedics arrived, not long after that 911 call, it was too late. Their beloved son was dead.
Within an hour of that tragedy, and only half a mile down the road from their home, another call was placed to 911. It was for same reason — but it involved a different young man. Joseph Abraham was found on the floor of his bedroom that same morning by his parents, Dave and Kathi Abraham.
Like Dustin Manning, Joseph Abraham had no pulse.
"I started yelling and yelling and yelling, 'Joe, Joe — wake up!' And then I realized there was something really wrong," Dave Abraham told CNN.
"As soon as I saw him, I knew and I just ran and I just started holding him and I could tell he was cold," said Kathi Abraham.
"Dave was on the phone to 911 and I said, 'It's too late. We can't fix this,'" Kathi added. Tears welled up in her eyes, as CNN reported.
The same scene played out in thousands upon thousands of households across America this past year and even before that. "Drug overdoses killed nearly 64,000 people in the U.S. in 2016, a rise of over 22 percent in 2015," The New York Times reported last fall. "And they're expected to remain the leading cause of deaths for Americans under 50, as synthetic opioids continue to push the death count higher."
The chief driver of the tragic rise in opioid-related deaths is fentanyl, even more than heroin, the report noted. "We've known for a while that fentanyls were behind the growing count of drug deaths in some states and counties," Josh Katz wrote in The Times. "But now we can see the extent to which this is true nationally, as deaths involving synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyls, have risen to more than 20,000 from 3,000 in just three years."
That, if you know the math, is a more than 560 percent increase. Add to that the nearly 15,000 deaths related to cheaper and more lethal forms of heroin from China that are making their way to the streets of America through Mexican drug cartels — and the table has been set for some horrible outcomes across America. Most Americans still don't know much about this epidemic — except that it happens to other people's families.
Add to that the nearly 15,000 deaths related to cheaper and more lethal forms of heroin from China making their way to the streets of America through Mexican drug cartels — and the table has been set for some horrible outcomes across America.
Some believe the problem is prescription drugs. But The New York Times reported there has been a downward trend in deaths from prescription opioids, and an uptick in deaths related to methamphetamine and cocaine.
"It's American carnage," Bill Bennett, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (where he served as the first "drug czar"), explained. He is now a senior adviser for Americans for Responsible Drug Policy, a group formed to address the opioid epidemic in this country.
"Think about the number of people who died last year from opioids," Bennett explained. "We could build the equivalent of one Vietnam Memorial Wall a year given the carnage we are wreaking on ourselves with drug abuse."
This epidemic, Bennett added, is killing more Americans than the AIDS epidemic did at its peak. There has been a fair amount of reporting on the crisis, he noted. But given the rising death toll — much greater than the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s — much more storytelling and reporting needs to be done.
Which is why the Manning family's story is so important. "We were perfect people to say it wasn't going to happen to my child," Lisa Manning told Our American Stories, a nationally syndicated storytelling show, about her family and her son, Dustin. "Look, he was popular, he was good-looking, he was an athlete, he had lots of friends, he was home-schooled, he grew up in the church, he was a person who told me at the age of six he wanted to be a minister. How could it happen to my kid?"
Greg Manning has been leading the charge, speaking whenever and wherever he can about the nature of this epidemic, and how the drugs are easy to get, and cheaper than ever. "Whatever a kid wants, a kid can get," he said. "Twenty dollar and 20 minutes — and they've got it. And a small amount can kill."
"He was popular, he was good-looking, he was an athlete, he had lots of friends, he was home-schooled, he grew up in the church, he was a person who told me at the age of six he wanted to be a minister. How could it happen to my kid?"
For people who think this is a problem that afflicts only poor white rural areas like Appalachia, the Manning story is a wake-up call to parents across America: The steepest rises in synthetic opioid deaths this past year occurred in Delaware, Florida and Maryland.
But not all the news is terrible. "We can beat this thing, and we can get the numbers down," Bill Bennett explained. "A lot of people don't know this, but we got the numbers down once before on the drug-abuse front in the 1980s — everything from heroin to cocaine to PCP. We cut the number of people using illegal drugs in half in the 1980s and early 90s, and we can do it again."
Bennett then went on to describe some weapons in the drug war that actually worked the first time. "If we are going to tackle the opioid issue head on, we must take illegal drugs head on, with strategies aimed at better border enforcement, better monitoring of international mail services, and a crackdown on cartel activity, both here in America and in source countries," Bennett said.
He also noted Americans need to get serious not only about better treatment options, but about the goal for youth on no use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or other drugs. "A good part of the equation should revolve around treatment," he said. "But in addition to our focus on recovery outcomes, we must work to dissuade people from taking illegal drugs or diverting legal drugs illegally in the first place, because that's where 90 percent of addiction starts," Bennett added.
This clear prevention message needs to come from parents, educators, political and religious leaders, the entertainment industry, and health care professionals — just as in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bennett pointed out.
For the sake of families like the Mannings and the thousands like them who are victims of this epidemic — it's time for the media to start covering this story.
Or the American carnage will just continue.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.