HAMBURG — Zach Crotty loved snowboarding and music. He serenaded his mom, Suzanne, with rap songs in the car, and mixed his own music before Garage Band existed. His favorite singers were Lil’ Kim, Tupac and Bob Marley. He tried drugs to overcome his anxiety as a teenager and go dragged into a world he never could have imagined and ultimately, was unable to escape. Zach Crotty died of an overdose at 19, on Oct. 26, 2009. Today, his parents Mark and Suzanne, along with Buffalo News reporter Sue Schulman, are telling his story, one chapter and one month at a time.
“I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter for over 30 years, and have met thousands of people and written thousands of stories. But few, if any, stories touched me the way the Zach Crotty story did,” Schulman explained. “I think it’s because I’m a parent. At the time, all three of my kids were teenagers. The Crottys had experienced what has the be the worst pain imaginable – losing a child. Yet they were willing to open up their house and their hearts, to share Zach’s story, to share their grief, in hopes of preventing others from dying and preventing more parents from experiencing the pain that has remained with them since Zach died.”
Suzanne and Mark Crotty decided to start Zach’s Story, a serialized book about Zach’s journey, in his own words, in order to help other kids who might be addicted to drugs, or those who have not dabbled yet, but are in danger of addiction.
“It’s important for us to get the story out there,” Suzanne Crotty explained. “It’s important for people to know that it can happen to anyone, anywhere. If you saw where we live, out in Colden, you’d think, ‘People do drugs there?’ But they do.”
Crotty said she also wants to help combat the stigma attached to drug addiction. “It can happen to anyone,” she said. “Zach was a good kid. He was smart. He was happy-go-lucky. Addiction is a disease. It doesn’t matter who you are. But what he took controlled who he became.”
To figure out who that Zach became, the Crottys and Schulman have worked to string together a timeline of his life using the writing he left behind.
“He was always writing in a journal, ever since he had his composition notebooks at Colden Elementary,” Crotty said. “He had some sayings, said he wanted to help people.”
And now, with Zach’s Story, he can.
“The journal articles and other documents describe the drugs he got from friends as well as the ones prescribed by doctors,” Schulman said, of the writing she and Suzanne Crotty have been compiling. “They detail his experiences in out-patient counseling as well as in-patient rehab. And the papers include his personal feelings about his drug use, and day-to-day life experiences.”
Those day-to-day life experiences were no different than any other teen, Crotty said. He tried golf, karate and t-ball as a kid, but realized he was more interested in music and the arts as he approached high school. He worked at Kissing Bridge in Colden, first in the board shop and later as a chairlift operator, to use his love of snowboarding to make some extra money. Crotty said that she never suspected he was using that money to buy drugs.
“During the time I’ve been working on the book, I feel like I’ve gotten to know Zach,” Schulman noted. “I really like him. He was a really cool kid. He had a great sense of humor. He tried drugs to overcome his teenage anxiety, then got sucked into an addiction he couldn’t get out of - even when he wanted to get out of it.”
As Zach said himself, in his journal, “I didn’t feel like I fit in.” At first, he tried marijuana to reduce the anxiety that would leave his heart racing, his palms sweating for minutes at a time, but after awhile, he switched to painkillers. “They made me feel like a better person,” Zach said. When he took them, he didn’t have to work hard to fit in. So he took them a lot. And other drugs too.
“All it takes is one sports injury, having your wisdom teeth out,” Suzanne Crotty said. “Zach got it from kids at school, from someone else’s medicine cabinet. The latest case I heard was of a girl who’s 12 and addicted. I have a granddaughter who’s 8-and-a-half and I look at her and think, “This isn’t going to happen to you.”
The Crottys and Schulman are releasing Zach’s Story one chapter per month, in an effort to educate the public about the dangers of drug addiction and how it can affect people’s lives. Schulman meets with the Crotty’s about once per month, although it varies depending on where they are in the project, and they email back and forth in between.
“It’s very emotional. Very hard,” Crotty said, about going through her son’s old writings. “I can keep living, day to day. Sometimes, I just have to cry. And then I say, ‘OK. I’m going to cry today.’ Unless you’ve been here, you have no clue. There’s nothing else like it.”
“I developed so much admiration for the Crottys that when Suzanne said she wanted to turn Zach’s journals into a book,” said Schulman, who met the couple when she was working on a series for The Buffalo News on drug addiction, called “Rx for Danger,” “I [offered to work on the book] because I believe what she is doing will help save lives.”
Crotty hopes so, too.
“My son didn’t want to die. He took chances with drugs,” she said. “I hope to tell the story not only to kids, but to upcoming medical doctors, so they see who they’re working with. They don’t get enough education on these drugs. I hope this will have so much more impact than a textbook.”
“I’m not a role model,” Zach Crotty wrote in his journal. “I’m more of an example to learn from.”
His parents and Schulman hope others do learn from his story, one chapter, one month at a time.
“I’m not trying to change the world. I’m just trying to help our community,” Suzanne Crotty said. “And maybe save someone else’s child, some other parents, from what we’ve gone through.”
Zach’s Story can be found at www.zacharycrottystory.blogspot.com