Opioid epidemic hits home hard

Farrissey family speaks out about their son’s overdose as number of Island opioid-related deaths spikes.

Illustration by Matthew Kramer

When Kathy Farrissey was a kid, everybody knew the one, maybe two, drug addicts on the Island. Now, she can point out at least half a dozen in her son’s high school yearbook. Her son, William (“Will”) Farrissey, was one of them. He died of a fentanyl overdose on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, at 8:35 am. He was 27 years old.

“I knew I was going to bury my son,” Kathy told The Times on a recent Friday afternoon. “I think I said it two years ago.”

But the Farisseys’ fight began long before that. In May 2004, Will suffered a bilateral crush injury at 13 that “changed his life,” Kathy said. One of his legs got infected, and in 2006, they agreed to amputate.

“That’s when they first gave him the miracle drug — Oxycontin,” Will’s father, Andy Farrissey, said. “We weren’t even vaguely warned of the consequences.”

“They told us, ‘Take them when you wake up, before physical therapy, take them so you can go to sleep,’” Kathy said. “‘Take them every day. Whenever you need to.’”

Will had 62 surgeries over the course of his life, and with each surgery came more prescriptions. “They prescribed him up to the very end,” Andy said. “The Oxy plugged in and ignited a fire that was never able to be put out in my son.”

The social pressure of having Oxy around was another issue — Will was a known source on the Island.

“Everyone was bugging him for them,” Andy said. “From 15-year-olds to 70-year-old people. It was absurd. None of us wanted to live like that.”

In 2010, Will gave up his unlimited prescription, and tried alternative methods of pain management. When that didn’t work, he tried to get his prescription back.

“The pendulum swung the other way,” Andy said. “When he wanted to go back to managed use of [prescription painkillers], it was not possible.” Will had to get his drugs like everybody else. He tried heroin. “Heroin’s cheap,” Kathy said. “And it’s the highest of highs.”

Every time Will’s leg got infected, it was time for another surgery and back to the prescription painkillers. He had access to both — street highs and prescribed highs.

“It was like a cycle,” Kathy said. “And you could never break it.”

“Every single day was a fight,” Andy said.

And the Farrisseys fought. Will did 11 rehabs, one sober house, and two Section 35s, which allow a person to make a court order requiring someone be civilly committed and treated involuntarily for alcohol or substance abuse. Will had therapists and counselors.

“The stress that you feel putting your kids through school is one thing,” Andy said. “What you’ll do to keep paying those rehab bills will just blow your mind.”

“I always just thought that I could find somebody who had the answer,” Kathy said. “If I find that person, they can give me the answer, and I can fix him. But there was no answer … It’s a death sentence. You can only play with fire so long before you get burned. You use drugs, and eventually you’ll die.”

Will Farrissey died of a drug overdose after a long battle with addiction, according to his family.

Will’s story represents a nationwide epidemic that’s hit the Island hard. In one year, the number of drug overdoses has at least doubled, according to data gathered by Chilmark health administrator Marina Lent. In 2018, there were six overdoses, plus two that are pending determination. In 2017, there were three overdoses, plus two cases pending. Pending cases refer to deaths that are still undetermined and require more testing and autopsy.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Christine Todd said in a recent op-ed column. Todd is a Dukes County commissioner, and a member of the Substance Use Disorder Coalition. She’s been vocal about her daughter’s struggle with opioids.

Lent collected death certificates from each Island town. She’s working with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to analyze the figures and publish something useful for invested Island groups like Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Island Health Care, and the Substance Use Disorder Coalition. The Island-wide epidemic is not a reflection of Island-wide efforts. “Everyone’s gearing up for it, and it’s still getting worse,” Lent said. “What are we missing?”

Lt. Timothy Williamson has been with the Oak Bluffs Police Department for 23 years.

“There’s been a lot more [overdoses] than I saw early on in my career,” Lt. Williamson told The Times. The majority, according to Lt. Williamson, are related to heroin, heroin mixed with fentanyl, or sometimes just straight fentanyl. “We’re also seeing an increase in overdoses related to cocaine mixed with fentanyl,” he said. “We just saw two fatal overdoses from that combination. It’s concerning … We’re losing the war on drugs, and we have been for a long time. It’s a public health crisis. We’re seeing a lot of young people die.”

“We know there’s only one, well, technically two, but one predominant way to get to the Island,” Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio said. “Make no mistake, there is controlled substance transportation going on.”

Drug cases are tough, according to Lt. Williamson, because while law enforcement is supposed to fight the fight on drugs, they’ve got one hand tied behind their backs.

“The Fourth Amendment — we can’t just search people. We need probable cause,” he said. He said K-9s at the Steamship Authority are used to detect explosives, not drugs.

“A K-9 cannot do a sniff on a person,” Lt. Williamson said. “It’s illegal. We can run a K-9 around a vehicle, but we need reasonable suspicion. It’s not a method we can use.”

Dealers also aren’t bringing large quantities to the Island.

“It’s usually a drug addict trying to support a habit by selling small quantities around here,” he said. “They’re taking a lot of runs, and bringing small amounts over at a time. It’s so easy to be discreet. That’s how they’re beating law enforcement.”

Lt. Williamson believes there should be higher accountability for those who are “peddling this poison.” He cited some communities in New Hampshire that started charging dealers with manslaughter. “They should be treated almost like it’s a violent crime,” he said. “Maybe more of that would have a deterrent effect.”

Jason Willoughby was arraigned on a manslaughter charge in November for distribution of a Class B substance (fentanyl) that allegedly led to an Island woman’s death last winter. A trial date will be set when Willoughby appears for motions Dukes County Superior Court on April 24 at 10 am.

Alex Carlson’s case is another example. Carlson was arrested in October 2017 for having 103 grams of suspected fentanyl — the largest fentanyl haul in Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force history. He was sentenced to four to five years in prison on Monday, April 1, at the Dukes County Superior Court in Edgartown.

“I think justice was served,” Lt. Williamson said. “He had a very large amount of a very dangerous drug.”

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency website. Many on-Island police departments and EMS have Narcan on hand, which treats narcotic overdoses in an emergency situation. Narcan can be bought at most local pharmacies, but its availability actually presents challenges statistically.

“Now addicts have Narcan,” Chief Saloio said. “So one person’s consuming, and the other one is watching” with the life-saving spray. “As bad as a problem as it is with the data we do see, there’s data we’ll never see,” he said.

“A lot of times we’re not even aware there’s been an overdose in our community,” Lt. Williamson said. “They’re revived by friends and family, brought to the hospital, and we’re not even notified. It’s treated as a medical issue.”

The Farrisseys always had Narcan in the house. “There’s some people who need them,” Kathy said. “It’s like a fire extinguisher.”

As far as prevention, Chief Saloio believes a community’s approach should be three-pronged: it should engage law enforcement, rehabilitation services, and education. “If we only do one of the three, we’re missing two,” Chief Saloio said. “It’s an approach everyone needs to divide 33⅓.”

Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player and friend of the Farrisseys, was moments away from an overdose in June 2008.

“There was a point in my life when I was really struggling,” Herren told The Times. “Andy’s father, Andy Sr., took very good care of me and my family. I’ve known the Farrisseys my whole life … I became someone Will could count on as a resource. Will was an unbelievable kid. As sweet as they come. An amazing soul.”

Herren also believes recovery starts with education. “My heart is in prevention,” he said. “We need to start implementing wellness as a core class in our school systems … You don’t need to talk to a 6-year-old about drugs, but you teach them empowerment, self-esteem, self-worth, and how to make the right decisions.”

Herren wishes recovery programs weren’t capped at 30 days: “How could a person suffering from an illness for 5, 10, 15, 25 years possibly be fixed in 30 days?”

The Herren Project is a nonprofit that hosts educational talks around the country, and has two residential treatment centers in Massachusetts, with a third opening soon in Virginia.

“I have people that have been there for nine months,” Herren said. “It’s a very holistic approach, not centric on addiction or recovery — it’s about the whole person.”

Recovery also needs to be about the family, according to Herren. “I know how much my family suffered because of my sickness … we need to give more help to the whole family — brothers, sisters, daughters, sons — it affects everyone.”

Will had two surgeries on the 15th and 17th of January, after another leg infection. They would be his final surgeries.

“We brought him home on the 18th,” Kathy said. “They gave him prescriptions for five days. We watched that really great [Patriots] game together on the 20th, that Sunday. That was a good night.” Two days later, he was found dead.

“Did prescription opioids kill him? Or was it the other stuff?” Andy said. “And what’s the [expletive] difference?”

Kathy and Andy are proud of the battle their son fought. They talked about the first time he walked after his injury in 2004. They talked about how he was still able to play lacrosse and football. They talked about how much he loved fishing, boats, his animals, his siblings — he has two.

“Will was big,” Andy said. “He was a physical presence.”

“He had a big heart,” Kathy added.

Kathy and Andy said they’re beyond the point of blaming people, although some can be distributed to the drug manufacturers.

“I’m mad at the people who make the opiods,” Kathy said. “They make money, and they know the stuff is addictive.”

I asked them what advice they’d give other families struggling through similar situations.

“Don’t hide it,” Andy said. “I grew up during a time where you kept your dirty laundry to yourself. That in no way is going to help you with this.”

“Do the best you can. Call your friends. Don’t be embarrassed. Get a counselor, especially in the beginning.” Kathy said. “Keep a notebook. Documentation. Narcan. Someone told me to always have hope. Have hope, but not denial. You can’t live in denial.”

The Farrisseys recommend engaging with local police departments, courts, and hospitals.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the first responders on the Island,” Andy said. “Obviously we don’t have the right answer, because we weren’t successful, but I can tell you we put a lot of effort in. We engaged every day.”

Will is out of pain, and his family said that’s all they’ve wanted for 15 years.

“I kind of feel like my nightmare is over,” Kathy said. “My son died with a needle in his arm, but that doesn’t define him.”

Help is available

Substance use and recovery resources:

Martha’s Vineyard Substance Use Disorder Coalition

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services
Emergency services: 508-693-0032

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Substance Use Disorder Department

Learn To Cope


Alcoholics Anonymous

Island Health Care Community Health Center

MVCS Island Counseling Center
508-693-7900, ext. 290

MVCS Island Intervention Center
508-693-7900, ext. 241

MVCS Island Wide Youth Collaborative
508-693-7900, ex. 400

MVCS New Paths Recovery Program
508-693-7099 ext. 251

MVCS Recovery Coaching
508-693-7900, ext. 411

Narcotics Anonymous

Vineyard House

Youth Task Force


  1. So sorry to the Farrisey family. I’m sure you did everything you could. Now we should do everything we can. I try and hire addicts when I can, as so many Islanders avoid and discrinminate on them. I tell everyone to turn in any known opiod dealers before they kill a member of your family or a friend. If you know someone using, make them get help. Very few can beat this addiction on their own.

  2. All this talk about the “war on drugs” is complete and utter nonsense. Until this country decides they actually care about people instead of billionaires, this will keep happening. Go after the pharmaceutical industry and the Sacklers if you actually want to do anything about the opioid crisis.

    • While this particular incident is tragic in that the addiction was due to an infection and multiple surgeries that created even further addiction, it is also true that most addictions to opioids come from wanton experimentation with dangerous drugs and are entirely the responsibility of the person using them. The crisis is not first and foremost the fault of the Pharmaceutical Industry although they have lots to answer to. The crisis is the fault of the user. Blaming the Pharmaceutical Industry is akin to blaming the Alcohol Industry for alcoholism.

      • And the survey says…Yeah, I’m OK blaming the alcohol and pharmacy companies. (I throw big tobacco under that bus too). We, if you haven’t noticed, are human. With that comes the desire not to be in pain. Ever take an aspirin? I make my case. You are dead wrong sir when claiming prescription depencance is based on “wanton experimentation”. While plenty of us have done that, you’re skating on awfully thin ice here, as statistics prove you wrong (https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis). Get back to us when you’ve studied up. My advice: dump your Endo, Janssen, Teva and Allergan stocks ASAP. (https://www.policymed.com/2017/10/class-action-suits-over-opioid-epidemic-ramping-up.html)

        • Bluegrass flyer. Please study the literature. I never said prescription dependence was based on experimentation. I merely said dependence is. Big difference. Like legal and illegal which you folks always conflate. 32 percent of addiction comes from prescription. The rest is foolish experimentation. Your notion that we desire not to have pain is just silly. Most of us are not addicted and that reflects self control.

      • Hi Andrew – you may want to read up on current medical literature regarding the causes of substance use disorders. Usually, there are several underlying and interlocking factors involved – none of which can be helped by stigmatization.

      • Andrew- you obviously have no concept how powerful these drugs are. Certain people do not have the free will to say no more. Just because someone is weaker should that be a death sentence?

    • Agree, but the real killer is the junk that is mixed or cut into the street opiates like fentanyl. In most countries opiates are banned even for legitimate pain uses

  3. I am Very sorry to the Farrisey family, and the tragic loss of Will. I pray he is in Glory with our Lord, protected from all harm. God Bless you all.

  4. Public Trust I think you’re an amazing person to hire addicts and to not discriminate! I have a history myself and have been clean for years and I changed my life around 1000% mainly for myself and my family! My children meant more to me. I think there’s a lot of discrimination against addicts and there’s so much shame that they just eventually stop trying.
    Andrew, I think you have a common attitude about addiction and maybe if you educate yourself a little more you’ll see things differently. The problem isn’t that the pharmaceutical companies created these drugs, because for some, they are a life saver. However, their fault lies with not making people aware from the VERY beginning the ability these drugs have to make you addicted! I HATE it when people say it’s a “choice” because let me tell you something. Hypothetically let’s say you injure your back in a accident, your doctor puts you on OxyContin. You take it 100% AS PRESCRIBED! You DONT abuse it in any way shape or form. 10 days later your script is finished and you’re feeling better. The minute that OxyContin starts withdrawing from your body you will experience the most uncomfortable feeling you have ever felt, worse than the worse flu you ever had. Welcome to withdrawal. Take 1 pill and it’s gone and you feel normal again. Welcome to the cycle, and the moment when you stop taking them for pain, and start taking them for habit management. It can happen TO ANYONE!!!!

    • Kristen I said the industry has much to answer for. All the oxycontin I have had prescribed gives me reams of instructions and warnings and they also say take as little as you need for the pain and when the pain is gone or subsides stop taking. People keep taking. It is not true that everyone who takes Oxycontin feels withdrawl when the cease. Most people who take it can cease and life goes on. Most people.

  5. Trafficking in opioids should be prosecuted as attempted murder, or at least reckless/negligent endangerment. As the Sirens once lured men to their deaths, opioids lure the wounded to their deaths with a seductive song that promises – and delivers – an end to their pain.

    To be clear, I’m no fan of the war on drugs. Opioids are special, filthy stuff that can kill the strongest of us.

    Go ahead, ask me how I know.

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