“He was riding away on a bicycle. The last thing he said was, ‘I love you.’ He didn't ask me for money that day. I actually thought he was clean because it was the only time he didn’t ask.”

Nicole Springer Parodi, 32, recalls this memory from Aug. 2, 2015, after spending the afternoon at a church function with her family. It was the first time in nine months that she’d seen her brother, Jeff.

“He looked really skinny,” she recalls. “But he looked clean. He was helping everybody – taking out garbage, helping people down the stairs. He did a lot to help people that day. I gave him a hug and told him I loved him.”

Three days later, Jeff, 31, was found dead from a heroin overdose – and he left behind a wake of destruction from which his family will never recover.

Talking through tears, Nicole shares this deeply personal account of losing her brother to the dark world of drugs.

“We had a normal, run-of-the-mill childhood,” Nicole says. “Jeff played baseball, sports, you name it. We were extremely close.”

She refers to her brother as a “ladies’ man,” who loved fishing, auctions and, of course, hanging out at the mall.

Jeff, who suffered from attention deficit disorder, was a typical teenage boy, experiencing the usual “growing pains” that we all endure. But things changed dramatically when the family moved.

“He transferred high schools, and it was rough,” Nicole explains. “We didn’t fit in, and there wasn’t much for us to do. That’s when the separation happened – I wasn’t able to be the big sister anymore.”

Jeff struggled through the next couple years, but eventually, graduation was upon him.

“Years prior to that, Jeff was in an accident and suffered severe head trauma,” Nicole says. “It was at (Mexican restaurant) Garcia’s, someone smashed the door on him and cracked his head open. When he graduated, he came into a large amount of money - about $25,000 - from the case.”

That’s when all the partying started – and a deep downward spiral quickly ensued.

Money was missing

'I COULD TELL SOMETHING WASN'T RIGHT

Jeff had a girlfriend in Florida, so he left the state to live with her.

“He was going to school over there, studying criminal justice,” Nicole explains. “He had some dental work done and got Oxycontin. Then he got hooked, and we lost touch. The rest is a blur.”

Shortly thereafter, Jeff and his girlfriend split, and he moved back with his family. He started stealing money from his mother, who was in complete denial of a problem.

“My mom started realizing she couldn’t pay the bills, money was missing,” Nicole recalls.

Eventually, Jeff relocated to Kansas for a job painting water towers. He was there to make money, but was always broke at the end of the day.

"That’s when I got suspicious,” Nicole says. “I could tell something wasn’t right.”

Nicole tried to explain to her mother that Jeff had a problem, but she wouldn’t accept the harsh reality.

“To hear that your son is a drug addict … it’s hard. I found paraphernalia, showed her, and said, ‘Look what's going on.’ It’s hard as a sister – I’m thinking, ‘I don't wanna be the rat, but I gotta show tough love.”

Once Jeff came back from Kansas, things rapidly deteriorated. He moved back in with his mother, and was eventually given an ultimatum.

“He was in rehab 11 times,” Nicole says., “All over the country, from Florida to New Jersey and everywhere in between.”

Still, he denied the addiction to his mother.

“He told me though,” Nicole says. “He always said he was clean, but then would come around and say that he needed to go to rehab.

But Nicole had lost hope.

“I knew when he came back home, he was gonna go right back to the drugs.”

She was spot on, every time.

A vicious cycle

LIES, STEALING AND EMPTY PROMISES

The same cycle repeated itself for years – lies, stealing and empty promises.

“My dad was dying on hospice, and Jeff stole his TV out of the living room, he stole from my daughter (Elisa, now 13),” Nicole recalls while sobbing. “My daughter was old enough to know - that’s the sad part.”

“At least she can look at me, and I know she will never touch that, she won’t be that person.”

Around 2008, the family got a glimpse of light, when Jeff got clean and went on Suboxone and Methodone, both used to treat drug addiction.

The sigh of relief was very short-lived.

When he could no longer afford the prescriptions, Jeff went back to heroin, Nicole says.

“It’s a nasty cycle.”

She points out the double-edged sword of Methodone clinics.

“People were always trying to sell drugs, things to entice you,” Nicole explains. “The people there, they were bad people. Sometimes we felt like the place was trying to keep you on Methodone because of the money. Why not ween them at a faster pace, get them off? Mom went through thousands so he could stay off heroin. We did everything we possibly could.”

It was devastating for the young girl to watch her uncle waste away, but Nicole finds a silver lining.

Around this time, Jeff and Nicole lost their father and grandmother.

“He knew my mom was at a weak point, and he walked back in and stole $23,000,” she recalls. “He learned how to play us better – he knew we were getting smart to him. This makes my brother sound like a horrible person, but it wasn’t him. He was no longer my brother. The drugs had consumed everything we knew about him.”

Jeff’s addiction became so grim that he started eating Fentanyl patches, shooting heroin around the clock and ingesting whatever drugs he could get his hands on.

'I thought he was dead'

'I WAS VERY SLICK TO HIS GAME'

“I drove him to rehab one day, and I thought he was dead in my car,” Nicole recounts. “We gotta find a different way (to break the cycle)."

The next couple years were an exhausting blur of tears, constant fear and repeatedly coming close to facing Jeff's death.

“Narcan - addicts look at it as a free pass,” Nicole says of the overdose-reversal drug. “ They think, ‘Cops will come give it to me, and I’ll be OK.’ Jeff had it. He overdosed five times before he died.”

Jeff floated from friend to family member, looking for places to stay after repeatedly being kicked out of his mother’s house.

Last Christmas, he resurfaced.

“He told Mom he was clean, and she let him stay a night at her place,” Nicole says. “I came there, I was baking Christmas cookies with my daughter, and I kept noticing him going into the bathroom. I know the drill - you go in, close the door, turn the shower on, lock the door, and he’s in there half an hour. I was peeking in the bathroom to see if he was lying on floor or not. I was very slick to his game, and he didn't like that. I can tell when someone is high unfortunately.”

When Jeff emerged, he told Nicole, “Don’t break Mom’s heart – it’s Christmas.”

That was the last Christmas Jeff would experience alive.

In June, after a restraining order was put in place, Jeff contacted Nicole. He told her he was hungry and living in the woods.

“I didn’t believe him, but my co-worker, who lost her sister to heroin, told me she saw him sitting on a bench, looking homeless, in front of the grocery store. He wasn’t lying.”

Jeff started showing up at church, where he would get help and hot meals.

“I started getting anxiety driving there because I didn’t want to see him on drugs anymore,” Nicole says.

And that’s where everything came full circle.

“Going back to Aug. 2, the last time I saw my brother alive, at that church,” Nicole says. “Four days later, we got the call.”

Two options

DIE OR GET CLEAN - NO HAPPY MEDIUM

The family was hesitant to believe the truth. Jeff had faked his death once before, in an attempt to get his mother to talk to him.

“The whole time, I am upset, at work, waiting to find out that it wasn't real,” Nicole recalls while sobbing. “Let this just be false again. But it wasn't this time. At the church, there were two detective cars. That's when I knew it was real. He was found in a motel room.”

The family has yet to receive answers to the circumstances surrounding Jeff’s death.

At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t matter.

“I want to do something to help,” Nicole says. “You can hold someone’s hand, but you can't hand them a penny, nothing. You can hand them your heart and say, ‘I love you, and I have to do this for you.’ ”

She says there are two options for those who do heroin – die, or get clean, no happy medium.

Nicole – who stresses the importance of tough love ­­- points out a quote that resonates deeply.

“If the addict loves you, you're not doing your job,” she recites. “If he is angry with you, you are.”

Since Jeff’s death, Nicole has taken a strong stance when it comes to providing families with support in dealing with addicts.

“If doctors and pharmaceutical companies aren’t gonna step up, we have to,” she says, noting that physicians are much too quick to prescribe prescription painkillers these days. “The family has to learn to be stronger than the addict. There aren’t enough resources out there.”

Nicole feels that law officers aren’t cracking down on dealers hard enough.

“This kid, they caught him, the one who was with my brother,” she explains. “Instead of asking for the dealer, they let him go. I asked the cops why, and I got no answer. ‘We can’t charge him with anything for leaving your brother,’ they said. There should be a law - if you leave and don't make a phone call, there should be a consequence. What's gonna stop them from leaving the next person dead?”

Nicole’s parting message is one of finding strength.

“We have to,” she says. “We have to be strong and help people. If the government is not gonna change it, we as a public have to change it. Be the stronger vice against it. We can't let it keep taking all these kids.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

Nicole started the "Team Jeff" scholarship fund to raise awareness for families dealing with addiction. Donations can be made at m.gofund.me/bv483tx4 or mailed to Lacey United Methodist Church, 203 Lacey Road, Forked River, NJ, 08731.

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