Tom McCarthy Jr. stood before the gathering of mothers and fathers who had lost sons and daughters to the opioid epidemic and tried to console them.
“I want you to forgive yourself and please take this to heart: You did nothing wrong and absolutely unequivocally own no fault,” he told them.
“I happen to know the disease of addiction and exactly how powerful it can be,” he continued. “I know because I lived it.”
And then he added prophetically:
“Those of you who lost loved ones need to understand as hard as your loved one may have tried and you may have tried to help them fight, sometimes this disease is just too strong, too advanced, too aggressive and sadly can be fatal.”
That was a year ago. Earlier this month, the addiction caught up with McCarthy again. After three years of recovery, a time when he helped many others into treatment, he had a relapse. He told a friend that he felt guilty and embarrassed.
McCarthy took his life with a gun in a Hamburg motel room a week ago Friday. He was 34.
People in the drug treatment support community were stunned and heartbroken. McCarthy, a former Erie County sheriff’s deputy, had worked to save many others from the opioid epidemic and offered comfort to the families of those who had not survived.
“The fall for Tom was too intense to comprehend,” said Cindy Goss, who provides counseling and help to current and former public safety workers. “He felt that people would judge him because of the stigma attached to drug addicts.”
McCarthy’s funeral was Thursday, and his father wanted others to know that addiction is not only terrible but unpredictable.
“The disease came around and grabbed him again,” said Tom McCarthy Sr., a retired Buffalo police detective and SWAT team member. “This disease will rip your family’s guts out.”
The young McCarthy became addicted to opioids after being prescribed painkillers for a knee injury he suffered in 2002 when subduing a 300-pound man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit at a Buffalo Bills game. He was an Erie County Sheriff’s deputy at the time, following his father’s footsteps into a law enforcement, but he lost his job because of the addiction.
In January, McCarthy had returned to law enforcement, as a public safety camera monitor for the Buffalo Police Department.
During the three years he was in recovery, he dedicated himself to helping others enter treatment through the Guardian Angel Foundation he established.
“At Tom’s wake, many mothers and fathers came up to me and said it was because of my son that their son or daughter got into recovery,” his father said.
When he spoke to the families of opioid victims last year during the candlelight memorial service, McCarthy described the unrelenting nature of addiction. He began his speech by expressing his “unconditional sympathy and condolences to those of you here tonight that have suffered the tragic loss of a loved one to this horrible disease of addiction.”
Opioid addiction is a “chronic, progressive, disease of the brain that simply cannot be beaten by sheer willpower alone,” he said. He said it required intensive long-term treatment.
“As with any disease, sometimes the treatment will work and sometimes the disease will win and too oftentimes be fatal,” he said.
The “unrelenting, powerful and persistent” addiction returned for McCarthy in early August.
Goss said she spoke to McCarthy late Thursday afternoon, Aug. 3, after he had relapsed and overdosed.
“We discussed going back into treatment, and for a moment, we thought that was going to be the plan,” she said. “However, his guilt and shame over his relapse weighed heavy on him because he felt he let so many people down. On the contrary, the opposite was the case. People would have embraced and loved him just as they did before.”
Debra Smith worked with McCarthy in the Family Support Group of the Erie County Opiate Task Force.
“What kind of society do we live in where someone would prefer to take their own life rather than face shame?” she said. “Relapse is a bump in the road, but society assigns shame to this disease and it makes it very difficult for people to regain their footing.”
Smith’s son, Nathaniel, and McCarthy were together during inpatient rehab in 2014. Nathaniel died from an opiate overdose in September 2015. He was 26.
This year’s candlelight memorial is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 31, at the LaSalle Park Pavilion. McCarthy will be among those whose memories will be honored, Smith said.
So far this year, there have been 233 confirmed and suspected deadly opiate overdoses, according to the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office. Last year, there were 301 fatal overdoses.
There’s also another way to honor the memory of McCarthy. His family asks that contributions be made to Catch A Falling Star Assistance Program for Law Enforcement Officers and Families, 36 Woodgate Drive, Lancaster, N.Y., 14086.