On Nov. 2, 2015, Adam Nuszen was in rehab for the second time, trying to kick an opioid addiction. He was having a tough time and his mother, Linda Nuszen, was talking to him on the phone, trying to lift his spirits by reminding him of words he’d often spoken to her and the rest of their family.
“I was saying, ‘Adam, you always remind us to look up even when we’re feeling down,’ ” Ms. Nuszen recalls telling her son.
It was the last conversation they would have. The next day, at the age of 32, Adam died of a drug overdose.
In the days that followed, engulfed in grief, Ms. Nuszen struggled to find the best way for people who wanted to send flowers or a monetary contribution to honor her oldest son’s life. That final conversation kept coming back to her.
That’s when Look Up For Adam was born.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing support for both individuals struggling with addiction and their families. Compassion, love and understanding for addicts are at its heart.
“As much as they hate what they’re doing to themselves, they hate what they’re doing to their families even more,” Ms. Nuszen said.
March 12, Adam’s birthday, is now recognized in the Congressional Record as National Look Up Day. The group hosted its fourth annual “Look Up and Rock On” benefit concert at 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue in February. On Adam’s birthday, family and friends of Adam encourage anyone who has lost a loved one to the opioid crisis, or knows someone struggling with addiction, to simply go outside and look up.
Ms. Nuszen and her husband, Paul, live in Patchogue and own a business, Windows and Walls Unlimited, in Southampton.
She smiles easily and often, and radiates warmth. Her blue eyes sparkle as she speaks of the oldest of her three children, the one, she points out, who “made me a mama.” Her infectious joy is like a quiet but powerful act of defiance, an embrace of hope and a rejection of what a grieving mother is expected to look like.
Eyes On The Sky
Ms. Nuszen said Adam was born with a natural inclination to look toward the heavens. She described him as a quiet, shy and sensitive child who developed a love of astronomy in his early teens, a fascination that stayed with him even as he became older and music became his primary passion. He wrote songs and played the guitar, starting a band with his friends. He loved Nirvana.
“He was curious,” Ms. Nuszen said. “He had this sensitivity, and that was how he could create, and connect with the universe. He knew much more than I ever knew existed.”
Ms. Nuszen recalls family vacations they would take every year — the entire family, including Mr. Nuszen; Adam and the couple’s younger children, Amy and Jonathan; and Ms. Nuszen’s parents.
“We’d be out for a hike, and we’re all looking down, and he tells us to look up,” she said, adding that he reminded them: “There’s so much you’ll miss if you don’t look up.”
A Fight For His Life
Parents of a child who has died from a drug overdose, or is in the throes of addiction, find themselves searching their memories for when it all began — the signs they missed, what they could have done differently to keep them off that path. The relentless scrutinizing of every moment, every memory, can be exhausting.
Ms. Nuszen recalls Adam’s graduation from kindergarten, when he stood on stage and cried the entire time.
“It was the first time I felt like, ‘I don’t know what to do for you,’ ” she said. “I learned a lot about him that day.
“The part, as a parent, that you never really know is, was that a sign or an indicator for what was going to happen?” she continued.
As he grew older, Adam had a good life, with all the trappings of normalcy — friends, interests, engagement with his family. After high school, things began to change.
At 22, Adam had what Ms. Nuszen said was his first delusional breakdown, leading to the first of many extended hospital stays. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In the months leading up to that day, he had been losing friends, becoming more withdrawn.
A few years earlier, at 18, he had experienced what his mother said was a “betrayal” by a close friend, which led him to start drinking. Before that, she said, her son had always been the “good kid,” the loyal friend, the designated driver.
“It was a 10-year fight for his life,” Ms. Nuszen said. “He was in and out of hospitals and psych wards, on and off medications. Here’s this kid who has this extraordinary intelligence and is connected with the universe in ways I’ve never seen before. The meds do quiet all the noise and demons and the painful things, but it also quiets the genius part of you. It puts you in a fog. So I understand the choice to self-medicate.”
An on-again, off-again relationship with various prescription medications ensued, which eventually included medications for pain management and headaches. When the doctor who was providing those medications was fired, Ms. Nuszen said, Adam turned to the streets and began using heroin.
He was dead less than two years later.
The Layers Of Addiction
From the time Adam was diagnosed with a mental illness until his death 10 years later, Ms. Nuszen said she was in a fight to try to help her son and keep her family together.
“You’re in a constant state of fear and panic, searching for answers,” she said. “And, along the way, everyone else is judging. And your family is falling apart.
“Everybody has to figure out how to love this person who’s not the person they used to be anymore,” she went on. “[The disease] takes everything down along the way, including trust. There’s manipulation, and all the other things that go with it. It’s just an ugly, ugly, ugly deterioration. It’s like a thread gets pulled out, and everything just comes apart.
“Addiction is like an onion,” she explained. “Every time you peel away something and you think you have an answer, there’s something else.”
In the year’s since Adam’s death, Ms. Nuszen has become a source of hope for an always growing number of people coping with the loss of a loved one to the opioid epidemic.
In addition to starting Look Up For Adam, she has found another way to connect and share messages of hope with people affected by the opioid crisis: starting Beading Hearts. The group, also inspired by Adam, began three years ago, when she strung together lettered beads with a message that said “Look Up For Vaughn” for a friend who had also lost her son to an overdose.
The idea came to her because Adam used to make beads when he was in and out of hospitals in his 20s. He made one for his grandmother with the word “smile” and another for his father that said “family and tradition.” For his mother, he chose “radiant light,” which Ms. Nuszen reveals with her wide grin.
Today, a support group 80 members strong comes together regularly to make the strings of beads, which can be hung from a car’s rearview mirror or on a keychain or anywhere they will be easily visible.
“People say that being part of the Beading Hearts was the first time they felt peace,” Ms. Nuszen said about what the group has meant to people who are part of it. “They never imagined they could smile or feel joy, and yet somehow we’re finding ways of being that, creating it, allowing it and not feeling guilty.”
Ms. Nuszen’s goal in staying connected to others who have gone through what she has, and the message she wants to drive home, is simple.
“You’re not alone,” she said. “Nobody is alone.
“I’m on the other end of it, trying to look at it through a lens of compassion, understanding, peace and kindness,” she added. “When you’re in it, it doesn’t exist. But if we can share anything from what we’ve learned, it’s to stay compassionate for yourself and people around you.”
Reinforcing that message of compassion is important to Ms. Nuszen. She hopes it’s something people can do every day, but especially on March 12.
She wants people to say the names of their “angels,” as she calls them, out loud. To vocalize who they are looking up for, what they hope to see more of in the world and in themselves. To begin, and continue, to heal.
“What is the Look Up message? What are we asking people to do on March 12?” she asked. “We want people to go outside, shoulders down, take a breath and look up. Just look up.”
Photo caption: Southampton business owner Linda Nuszen has found ways of coping with the death of her oldest son, Adam, (center in framed photo) who she lost to a drug overdose in 2015. She created “Look Up For Adam,” a nonprofit that helps individuals struggling with addiction, and their families.(Cailin Riley photo)
This article is a part of The East End News Project. Three East End news organizations — the Times Review Media Group
newspapers, the Press News Group and The Sag Harbor Express — have joined together with Stony Brook University’s journalism program in a unique collaboration that focuses on the opioid epidemic across the region. If you can help by telling your story, please contact us at [email protected].