Mom, quadriplegic son have powerful anti-drug message

2007-01-05T23:00:00Z Mom, quadriplegic son have powerful anti-drug messageDOUGLASS CROUSE The Record (Hackensack N.J.) The Billings Gazette

Maureen Morella rested her hand on her son's head as the auditorium filled up in front of them.

Then she stepped back to the edge of the stage to scribble some last-minute notes. When she turned around, Jesse was drooling.

She grabbed a towel and wiped her son's face.

Jesse Morella is 18 years old. But his dependence on others rivals that of an infant.

Heroin left him that way after nearly killing him two years ago. It also changed his mother's life: As Jesse lay in a coma after overdosing, Maureen Morella made a vow - one that the Pequannock, N.J., family's recent visit to Lakeland Regional High School helped fulfill.

"I said to God, 'If you will keep this boy alive, I promise you I will go out to every child who will listen to me and share my message,' " Morella recalled.

Since last March, Morella, Jesse and his 17-year-old brother, Tyler, have given at least 15 presentations in New Jersey schools - one version for middle- and high-school students, another for parents. They started in affluent Morris County, which saw a record 46 drug overdose deaths in 2006.

Morella tells kids that to do drugs - to try them when every signpost along the way screams NO - is a supremely selfish act. With parents, she argues that ignoring the reality that kids are going to get high anyway is irresponsible and foolish.

The stay-at-home-mom with no public speaking experience delivers those messages with volcanic emotion: loudly, sharply, through tears and with rarely a pause. Often, Tyler comes along to explain how his big brother's overdose changed his own life.

But the literal and figurative focal point is Jesse, a young man who once flew through the air on four-wheel ATVs. Today he is a quadriplegic. Jesse has an awareness of the moment. With help, he can type simple phrases and has shown enthusiasm for continuing the presentation. But he is unable to speak, swallow or write his name.

"He is grounded for the rest of his life," Morella tells students while pointing to her son's wheelchair. ""This is his ride."

Jesse aspirated on vomit during his overdose on Nov. 10, 2004. At one point, medics told his father, Sal, that they had lost the teen.

Maureen Morella is convinced that Jesse was not a heroin addict - it may even have been his first time, she says. Whatever the case, she adds, "It was the last real decision he ever made."

Morella's own decision, to take her family's story public, wasn't easy. She feared others would question her motives, that it would exhaust or upset Jesse. As it stands, friends roll Jesse out of the room to spare him the anguish of most of his mother's presentation.

During her boys' childhood, she concedes, she was more nurturer - "the mom who always had the cookies" - than practitioner and preacher of tough love.

But she was hardly naïve. She had Jesse tested after discovering his marijuana use early in 2004. But parents have to be relentless. Too often, she says, they become "white noise" in their kids' ears.

"We need to make it scarier," she said one night in a near-shout. "We need to be smarter. We need to take back the power and be the parent."

It takes guts, she knows, for one parent to knock on another's door and say: "I think your kid has a problem."

She tells them: Do it anyway.

And she takes a stern approach with kids.

"I'm going to take it personally if I hear about any one of you overdosing on drugs," she tells them.

In a talk to parents in Wanaque, N.J., late last year, Jesse sat beside his mother.

Above them on stage, a video played. The first half showed images of a smiling boy at play. In the second, a teenager lay contorted in a hospital bed and grimacing through therapy.

Parents dabbed at their eyes. A teenager covered her face and sobbed.

Then Morella started to speak, her words sounding more like a spontaneous rush than a polished speech.

When she finished 20 minutes later, a few seconds passed before the audience applauded. Afterward, some remained quietly in their seats.

Then Morella wheeled her son up the aisle, inviting people to shake his hand. Some hugged Morella. A half-hour later, three mothers still clustered around her.

"I always tell the kids I feel like I'm screaming," she told them. "But, if I have to scream the message, I will."

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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