‘The only person he didn’t care about was himself’

An addict’s parents try to save other people’s children

Ryan Harrington with his grandmothers on his 16th birthday.
Ryan Harrington with his grandmothers on his 16th birthday. –Harrington family photo

Ryan Harrington’s parents tried everything to help him kick heroin — begging, yelling, sprinkling him with holy water while he slept, kicking him out, letting him back in, calling around to recovery programs, calling the cops, getting him involuntarily committed.

“Sometimes you’d be real forceful, and sometimes you’d honestly be so tired,’’ said his mother, Cathy. “We would go to work every day and then we’d deal with him. There’d be nights I’d be waiting for him to come home, sitting at the window til three o’clock in the morning, get a few hours sleep, get up and then have to go to work.’’


His parents thought he was depressed, and self-medicating.

Ryan (holding the football) at 8, playing in Somerville’s Pop Warner Football League. —Harrington family photo

“Every minute of the day you worried about him, every time you heard a siren you didn’t know if it was something happening to him,’’ said his father, Dave. “You’re on pins and needles. Not just us but anyone who goes through this is on pins and needles 24/7, wondering when he goes out if we’re going to get a call or whether he’s going to live or die. On a daily basis.’’

Addiction didn’t take away Ryan’s kindness. He gave his brand-new mattress and box spring to a woman he met in recovery after hearing that she and her child were sleeping on the floor. He dressed up as Spider-Man for a nephew’s birthday party. He was the best man at his brother’s wedding, and his speech brought many in the room to tears.

“He had a big heart and he cared about people,’’ Dave said. “The only person he didn’t care about was himself.’’

The battle ended May 4, 2011. Ryan overdosed four months before his 27th birthday. Now his parents invest all the effort they once poured into Ryan into trying to save other people’s children.


A year after Ryan’s death, they and Ryan’s two siblings created the Ryan Harrington Foundation. In the last three years, it has donated about $45,000 to children’s causes around their native Somerville — hoping to give other kids the chance to enjoy the things that theirs once did. On Wednesday night, the Foundation will hold a free “Night of Hope and Awareness’’ in Somerville High School’s gym. The speakers will include Cathy and former Celtic Chris Herren, who is in recovery.

The setting is grimly appropriate. Ryan’s addiction began when he was a freshman in high school, his parents said, at a school dance.

“Someone gave him an OxyContin and he was off to the races,’’ said Dave.

Soon he was asking his mother for money to buy lunch at school, which his parents believe he saved to buy more Oxys. As the addiction progressed, Oxys became too expensive, so Ryan switched to another opioid-based drug.

“If you develop a habit and you’re taking six to eight Oxys a day at $80 each, the easiest way out when you can’t afford that is to get a $40 bag of heroin,’’ Dave said.

Ryan, right, just before a family vacation in 2002 with (from left to right) his mother, Cathy; father, Dave; brother, David; and sister, Eileen. —Harrington family photo

It’s a sadly familiar trajectory. Ryan’s death came at a time when opiate painkiller overdose deaths were starting to level off and heroin overdose deaths rose exponentially — the rate almost tripled between 2010 and 2013.

Ryan was the youngest child of a close-knit family. Photos of him in his sports uniforms and on family vacations decorate the Harrington home. His kindergarten teacher told his parents that she used to turn away so other students wouldn’t see her smile at his jokes.


“He couldn’t lie to save his life,’’ Dave says. “Until he got addicted.’’

After trying OxyContin at a different school, Ryan transferred to Somerville High, hoping to enter its trade program and learn to be a carpenter. He dropped out when he was 16 as the addiction took hold. He went to the Cushing House, a recovery home for people 16 to 20, and got his GED. But struggled to stay clean there and was asked to leave.

Once he became a legal adult, getting him help got harder.

“He was very secretive when it came to us calling the detox and asking for information,’’ Dave said. “He wouldn’t sign off to allow us to speak to counselors.’’

He tried to get clean, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under a court order. Sometimes he’d stay clean for a while — he made it nine months, once. Other times he’d go right back to using.

“In and out of detoxes I don’t know how many times,’’ Cathy said. “He’d go do the spin dry for a few days and then after that a lot of places would say, ‘So what’s your plan?’ Well, these kids can’t make plans because they’re too sick to make decisions for themselves. So they send them home and then they just start all over again and it’s almost like a vicious cycle.’’

The Harringtons’ efforts to help Ryan took them all over the state: Detox in Danvers. A holding facility in Tewksbury while they looked for an open bed in rehab. A sober house in Framingham. Bridgewater State Hospital. Home for a few days. Then a relapse. Back to Somerville for detox. And then the search for an aftercare program began again.

Addicts and their families know the cycle well.

Ryan (far right) in 2010 with his cousin, Shaun, and brother, David, during the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. —Harrington family photo

“It’s grown worse every year, but more people are talking about it,’’ said Joanne Peterson, founder and executive director of the support group Learn to Cope, which will have a table at the Wednesday event. “Ten years ago, no one was talking about it.’’

Peterson founded the organization in 2004. Like Ryan, her son struggled with a heroin addiction that began with OxyContin. But he is now in recovery.

In 2014, then-Gov. Deval Patrick declared opioid addiction a public health emergency. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he will keep up the fight, and established a Opioid Addiction task force soon after he took office. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has promised to improve Boston’s services, but a recently-released report said the current treatment and recovery system is “complex, overburdened and in need of reform.’’

This is especially true after the sudden closure of the bridge to Long Island, home of several programs for addicts and shelters for homeless people — services Ryan often needed, and used several times. The island had room for 225 people in addiction treatment services, according to the report. Seventy-five new beds in a Mattapan facility only partially replaced them.

At one point during his addiction, Ryan’s mother said to him: “Ryan, I don’t think you’re going to live a long life.’’

“Don’t worry, Mom,’’ Ryan said. “I’ll be here to take care of you when you get old.’’

Ryan spent his last Christmas in jail. He was using again, and his parents called the police on him, hoping it would help.

“We asked that he serve some time only to save his life,’’ Dave said. “Our intentions were good but were we doing the right thing? Who knows. It was the best we could do. We loved him.’’

When he got out, he was so much better. He got clean and got a job.

“He seemed like he really wanted to do well,’’ Cathy said.

“He looked awesome,’’ Dave said.

But about a month into his job, he was caught using and sent home. A few days later, he was gone. His parents believe the second time he used was the one that killed him.

Fatal overdoses often happen shortly after a relapse. An addict uses the same amount he used before rehab, but his body doesn’t have the same tolerance.

Ryan’s parents hope Wednesday’s event won’t only draw people who need help, but also people who don’t.

“The people we need are the people who aren’t suffering or who don’t have a family member who is suffering from addiction and have formulated a different, rather negative, opinion about heroin users,’’ Dave said.

“After Ryan passed we didn’t really want to see people go through what we went through,’’ he said. “It’s just too heartbreaking. And the waste of a wonderful life, a person with great potential, is awful.’’

Ryan Harrington’s family photos