I am writing in response to your recent piece on the death of my cousin, Adam Cotugno. My family and I were deeply hurt and offended by the manner in which his tragic passing was handled. Adam was our beloved cousin, nephew, brother, son, and friend, and we found the article to be patronizing and condescending in its depiction of Adam’s life and death. Adam indeed fell victim to addiction, but his struggles with substance abuse do not define who he was as a person. He was a kind, thoughtful, gentle soul, and will be remembered always for his wonderful sense of humor and unrelenting work ethic. The outpouring of support our family received in the wake of Adam’s death is an indicator of how loved he was and how much he will be missed.
Adam’s passing is the direct result of a broken and ineffective system which treats addiction as a choice rather than a disease. This approach not only dehumanizes victims of addiction, but it reinforces the problematic stigmatization of the disease, which in turn perpetuates the problem. When addicts are treated with scorn and disrespect, they are unable to seek effective help, and often turn back to substance abuse because the system has failed them. Our world has suffered an injustice in losing such an incredible young man far before his time. Until we redefine the terms with which we discuss addiction, we will continue to unnecessarily lose wonderful young people who could truly have changed the world if given the opportunity. The policies and programs put in place to combat addiction will only change when public opinion of substance abuse changes to reflect the heartbreaking reality and nuances of addiction. As creators of mass media, you have the opportunity to save other families from the grief we are currently experiencing by writing about addiction with compassion.
Heroin use and abuse have been reaching epidemic proportions in the Northeastern United States. Adam’s death provided a journalistic opportunity to document the stark reality of the heroin epidemic with compassion and honesty. Our family was deeply upset to see Adam’s death being handled so flippantly during our period of grief. Portraying Adam through the single lens of his struggles with addiction amounts to defamation of character. Moreover, we found it unnecessary that his home address was published, putting my mourning family at unforeseen risk. The closed-minded way in which Adam was described in the article brought our family needless sorrow.
Our favorite memories of Adam are not memories of an addict, but memories of a beloved family member and friend. There was the Super Bowl Sunday when Adam and his brother Josh skipped the game to shovel heavy snow off the roof of my family’s house. There was the day Adam took my sister out for ice cream when she needed a friend, and insisted that she share his cone with him. There were the countless times Adam and Josh helped my elderly grandparents keep up our family’s summer home in Otis, Massachusetts, giving up afternoons of lakeside fun to complete endless repairs and construction projects. Adam was generous and selfless, and his absence has brought us deep anguish. He was not, as suggested in your article, a hopeless addict and a criminal; he was a thoughtful and beloved person who is deeply missed.
I hope to see my words and reflections published, either in part or in full, in an upcoming issue of The Westfield News.
MPH Candidate, Columbia University
BA Psychology, Vanderbilt University