After Their Teenage Sons Overdose Houses and Hours Apart, Parents Fight to Prevent Other Deaths

INSIDE EDITION InDepth - CAITLIN NOLAN

Dustin Manning was in high spirits the night before he died.

The 19-year-old, who was getting ready for a weekend away with his girlfriend, was in the midst of deciding what he wanted to do in life after getting his GED.

He was also working hard to battle his addiction to opioids. He'd been attending meetings between three and four times a week, committing to spend time with his new sponsor and was working on improving his diet.

In fact, the random drug test his mother and father made him take on the night of May 25 came back clean.

“I think part of both of us was surprised; we were really thinking it would come back positive, but Dustin was extremely happy, [saying] ‘I told you! I told you!’ It was just a really good evening,” Dustin’s mother, Lisa Manning, told InsideEdition.com.

Before going to bed, he spent quality time with his brother and parents.

“He had asked me beforehand, ‘I want to fix something a little better for lunch [tomorrow] before work, mind waking me a little bit earlier?’ I said ‘Sure, I’ll get you up around 5:30 [a.m.] or 6 and we’ll go from there,” his father, Greg, said.

Dustin said goodnight to his father around midnight and called his girlfriend. They chatted until about 1:30 a.m.

The timeline after that becomes less clear, but officials said Dustin had probably been dead about four hours when Greg found him in his room the next morning.

“I had woken up at 1:41 [a.m.] that night — I think that’s when he took his last breath. I believe that,” his mother tearfully recalled.

Dustin had taken a lethal mix of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid so strong that even coming into contact with the substance can prove deadly.

“It was the equivalent of three grains of salt,” Lisa said. “So potent, within 20 seconds he was gone.”

Greg attempted to save his son by using two doses of Narcan, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose if administered in time, and called Lisa, who was at the gym. He dialed 911 at 6:09 a.m.

Paramedics rushed to the scene, but Dustin could not be saved.

“The EMTs left the house... and we had two policemen outside,” Lisa said. “I was talking to the policeman when the second one said, ‘There’s been another one.’”

Half a mile down the road in Lawrenceville, a suburb outside Atlanta, another young man had overdosed.

***

Like Greg Manning had done less than an hour earlier, Kathi and Dave Abraham found their son slumped over in his room during the early hours of May 26.

And like Dustin, 18-year-old Joseph Abraham had spent a blissfully normal night, devoid of any drama or setbacks, at home before his death.

“He worked all day doing landscaping, came home... I went up [to bed] at 11 o’clock and he was just sitting there watching TV; I just gave him a hug, told him I loved him and he asked me to get him up for work the next day,” Dave Abraham said.

But Dave knew immediately that something was wrong when he opened his son’s door that morning.

“I went into his room and it was a pretty bad situation,” he said. “I could tell there was something wrong right off the bat. I started yelling his name and I didn’t see any movement.”

Kathi, who had been in the shower when the commotion started, ran out in her bathrobe as Dave tried to rouse Joe.

“I said, ‘This is real bad,’” Dave remembered.

They called 911 at 6:53 a.m. Police arrived almost immediately.

“Within 30 seconds, there’s a cop at the door,” Dave said. “I said, ‘Wow that was quick,’ and the officer said, ‘You know Dustin Manning?’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘Well, he’s in the same condition.’”

Like Dustin, Joseph suffered a fatal overdose. Kathi noted her son’s autopsy found methamphetamine morphine — and the deadly substance, fentanyl — in his system.

“Our boys didn’t have a chance.”  

***

Dustin Manning and Joseph Abraham had a lot in common.

They grew up in the same town, played on the same Little League team and came from supportive, loving families.

And they both started down the path of addiction at a very young age, their parents said.

Joseph was first exposed to opioids as a preteen, while recovering from a painful wisdom teeth removal and separately from two major ear surgeries, Kathi and Dave said.

“Even before he got into eighth grade, he had to have his ear rebuilt and had two, three-hour-long surgeries,” Dave said. “After that, [doctors] gave him liquid hydrocodone.”

Around the same time, Joseph lost two close friends in tragedies no middle schooler should have to endure.

“A girl who lived in the neighborhood died from a brain tumor, and soon thereabout another friend at school drowned,” Kathi said. “It was just a lot for him to take on emotionally. He was very sensitive and I think he had begun to question God in his life.”

It wasn’t long before Joseph began drinking, smoking marijuana and buying pain pills off the street. Then, he turned to heroin.

Dustin also struggled throughout his youth.

When he was 12, he told his parents he was depressed, and soon after turned to alcohol and drugs — first marijuana, then prescriptions stolen from his family — to help with the pain.

Their son was about 16 years old when Lisa and Greg realized he had a problem.

“That summer, we were going to a family event and my husband... he suspected Dustin was maybe on something,” Lisa said. “Greg confronted him and he finally admitted it. He had been doing stuff for years and we didn’t know it. He was really good at hiding it.”

As a teen athlete with a full social calendar, much of Dustin’s time was taken up at either baseball or football practice. But he managed to juggle afterschool activities with a deadly hobby.

“We just thought he came home worn out from practice,” Greg said. “We didn’t see the signs.”

The boys hadn’t remained close as they grew older, but they occasionally commiserated over their shared struggles.

“Dustin, he would tell me, ‘Joe kind of understands where I’m at... Joe kind of understands what I deal with on a depression basis,’” Greg said. “’Joe really kind of understands.’”

And it appeared they may have bought the drugs that killed them from the same dealer, they said.

“The packaging was so similar,” Lisa said.

She noted that authorities are confident they know who supplied the drugs, but there is not enough evidence to make an arrest.

“We still don’t know when they got it,” Lisa said. “That will never be answered.”

***

Both the Mannings and the Abrahams set out to help their children fight their addictions.

They sought help from treatment centers and held their breath when their children would return from month-long programs meant to undo years of substance abuse. They drove their children to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and watched closely for signs of relapse. And through it all, they kept their sons’ battles quiet.

“That was part of the problem,” Dave said. “We should’ve probably walked down [to the Mannings] and teamed up and come up with a solution. Instead we kept our doors closed. That’s not going to work. There are too many kids dying.”

One in 10 kids from the ages of 12 to 17 currently uses illicit drugs, according to a 2014 government survey.

The survey did not poll children under the age of 12, but some authorities suggest that kids are now being exposed to addictive substances at an even younger age.

“Detectives in our area said the average age kids are beginning to dabble in any kind of drug is 9 years old,” Kathi said. “I’m an elementary school teacher. I look around at my fourth and fifth grade students — that’s them.”

The Mannings and Abrahams are no longer silent about the suffering they have endured. They said addressing the stigma connected to drug addiction and creating programs in school that address the risks children face are vital in fighting the opioid epidemic.  

“We stuck our heads in the sand,” Kathi said. “As parents, we struggled [in the beginning] with, ‘Is this normal adolescent experimentation, or is my child an addict?’ No parent wants to go that route.

“Once [Joseph died] we were like, ‘Everybody needs to know what was going on,” she continued. “As we begun to speak out more, people have come and confided in us. [They say] ‘You wouldn’t believe this,’ or ‘this is happening in my family.’”

And in the seven months since they lost their son, they haven't kept quiet.

Kathi and Dave have met with officials within the school system in Gwinnett County about upgrading their counseling departments and health resources. They have also created a scholarship in honor of Joseph at the local technical school that will go to a person in recovery and have partnered with Navigate Recovery Gwinnett to help those who can’t afford the entry fees into sober living facilities.

The family organized a golf tournament in honor of their son and has also taken to raising money for the cause through the sale of bright green bracelets. The words “#honorjoe” are scrawled across the bands.

“We just want to find our ways,” Kathi said.

Lisa and Greg are also working to keep other children from suffering the same fate as their son. They plan to one day open a non-profit recovery center specifically geared toward young people.

“They just don’t have those places around,” Lisa said.

Their center would also incorporate an addict’s family in the recovery process, requiring a level of involvement they said they rarely saw when they sought help for Dustin.

“It’s important we make families aware — they have to be involved,” she continued.

Lisa has also made it a priority to reach out to schools in the area to share her son’s and Joseph’s story in the hopes that it will help save another’s life.

“Lisa tells the story of Dustin and Joe and it resonates with them,” Greg said.

This includes children in elementary school, she said.

“I spoke to 150 cheerleaders in June... third and fourth graders, I had them crying, asking me questions, giving me hugs when I was done,” Lisa said. “They got it.”

And throughout it all, the Mannings and the Abrahams have looked toward each other for support.

“As horrible as it sounds, I’m glad that we have another family we can talk to – they’re going through the same exact thing we are,” Lisa said. “We knew Kathi and Dave, [but] since this whole incident, we do talk more and text each other and check on each other. It’s nice to have someone... you might be having a really bad day and nobody gets it, but Kathi and Dave would.”

***

Seven months have passed since life as they knew it ended for the Mannings and the Abrahams.

Some days are easier than others, but the loss is always there.

“You never know how you’re going to wake up and be,” Kathi said. “I think I’m still in shock. The reality hasn’t quite struck me yet. It’s really difficult. Your friends still want you to go out to dinner and some days, we wake up and we can’t even move.”

She and Dave suffer from grief bursts that can strike at any moment, prompted by the smallest of details.

“I’ll be driving along and anything can trigger tears,” Kathi said. “I was walking a couple weeks ago, looking at the pumpkins [along the road] and I cried for 45 minutes because Joseph loved Halloween and decorating.”

For Dave, moments alone in his car have brought him closer to his son, he said.

“Joe used to work for me,” he said. “I do vending — it’s a small business — and Joe, he always rode with me. I just pretend he’s still in there in the passenger seat, listening to talk radio with me. He’s still with me; that’s something we have to believe. If we don’t believe that, life’s just a cruel joke, isn’t it?”

The Abrahams said they have come to accept the surges of grief as a part of life now.

“I’ll be at the fitness center, at the gym, having a normal day and something comes over you and it wipes you out,” Greg said.

Lisa agreed, saying: “It used to be that I thought about it minute-by-minute. I’m getting where I’m day-by-day. I think about him constantly, but there are some days where I break down for no reason. Nothing sparks it.”

Their loss fuels their mission to make others aware of the epidemic taking hold of the country, they said.

“Once you go through this, you don’t want anyone else to have to go through it,” Dave said. “The amount of people affected—it’s [equal to] a plane crash every day in our country. And all the grief that it causes — it ripples through the community.”

If you or someone you know is affected addiction or the issues addressed in this article, the families of Joseph and Dustin suggest visiting Faces & Voices of Recovery or the National Alliance for Recovery Residences to find a local organized recovery community, and Facing Addiction for resource for those seeking help or information regarding any aspect of prevention, treatment or recovery.

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