Unable to wake up from a Robitussin nightmare


Kevin O’Neill had successfully stopped his older brother Jack from buying cocaine from his dealer in the fall of 2020. But then Jack tried Percocet, and became addicted. The brothers were students at St. John’s University, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were home in East Norwich, learning virtually.

Jack’s journey to sobriety
Without a dealer, Jack O’Neill was desperate to score more Percocet that fall, and drove across the island to buy it.
“I went to one house and the guy said, ‘Dude, what are you doing here?’” Jack recalled. “He was wearing a bandana, and I saw a shotgun there. I told him, ‘I’m sick, dude.’ He said he’d give me something but to never come back.”
Jack knew he needed help, he said, but sobriety would be painful. One night while driving aimlessly around Long Island he called his mother, Ellen, and said he needed

a vacation. She told him to come home. Jack swallowed a quarter of a Percocet before he walked into his house at 4 a.m. It would be the last one he took.
“At 11 a.m. my parents woke me up,” Jack recounted. “They already had the car packed for a rehab center. They took my keys and told me I no longer had a car. In the car I was in so much pain I was thinking about jumping out. I had just turned 22.”
His mother had arranged for Jack to undergo a detox at a center in York, Pennsylvania. When he got there, he lied, telling them he had been sober for five months. They ignored him, telling him to strip for a search that Jack said was humiliating. He detoxed there for 12 days.
Then he was driven to the Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, which offered a long-term drug program. He underwent six hours of a variety of different therapies five days a week. After 16 months he graduated in July 2022 from the program, sober.
O’Neill now lives in a sober house in Baltimore, and works at a nearby dog day care center, where he was recently promoted. He has been sober for two years, but still attends five Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week, which he attributes to his newfound confidence, less anxiety and his ability to talk in front of people about his journey to sobriety. He plans to go to veterinary school next spring in Baltimore.

Kevin’s story
Kevin O’Neill knew about addiction when he stopped his brother, who’s a year older, from buying cocaine — perhaps more than Jack realized. Kevin was also an addict, but his drug of choice was cough syrup.
At first no one knew, because Kevin began abusing the medication when he was a freshman at Iona University in the fall of 2018. Being an addict was unlikely for the 2018 Oyster Bay High School graduate, who had been a member of the cross-country and baseball teams. Known as someone who didn’t drink or do drugs in high school, Kevin was easygoing and admired for his sense of humor.
“He was so kind, patient and clever,” Ellen O’Neill said of her younger son. “What happened with Kevin was he went to college and couldn’t find his way, so he isolated, and then, to take away the pain and sadness, he began to drink cough medicine.”
Kevin was a transfer student at St. John’s in the fall of 2019, and remained there until he withdrew, citing a medical condition, in January 2021. Jack didn’t notice Kevin’s addiction at first. But it became painfully obvious when Kevin stopped by the frat house where Jack was living.
“He was a shell of himself, a zombie,” Jack recalled. “I never saw him like this. I called my mother and said something was wrong. Then I brought him home shortly after that. Kevin had always been very social and hung out with even kids my age. That was the shock for me — how dramatically he changed.”

Helping Kevin
Kevin was admitted to Zucker Hillside Hospital in Queens for two weeks in January 2020 to receive psychiatric care. He needed to be stabilized, because the cough syrup had made him psychotic. He was 20 years old.
“Kevin was hallucinating. The long-term effects of abusing cough syrup change the make-up of your brain,” Ellen explained. “I couldn’t hold a conversation with him — his behavior became erratic. He’d leave at all hours of the night, or he’d become fixated on an object like a watch. He’d keep talking about it or staring at it.”
After his discharge from Zucker, Kevin entered an intensive outpatient program in which he attended group and individual therapy while living at home, until he could no longer go in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He continued the program on Zoom, and his mother, a librarian in the East Meadow School District, took a medical family leave to be his caretaker. He remained a student at St. John’s, taking his classes online.
It appeared that he was recovering from his addiction, but when Ellen returned to work in September 2020, Kevin relapsed. It was around the same time he stopped Jack from buying cocaine.
“As a parent, you’re in denial,” his mother said. “You just can’t believe it. You think your love will protect them and conquer all.”
That October, Kevin’s behavior was so erratic Ellen had to call an ambulance. Kevin drove away before the ambulance and police arrived. Ellen remembers being at her wits’ end. She collapsed on the porch steps, and her mind raced. She didn’t know what to do. A police officer sat next to her, promising that he would tell the other officers to treat Kevin as though he were mentally ill.
“I have always relied on my belief that in a crisis there are angels that walk among us. Those are the people who have suffered great trauma and loss,” Ellen said. “They see the world through a different lens of empathy and understanding. It is one of the gifts that grow out of great heartbreak.”
Police found O’Neill and he was brought to Nassau University Medical Center’s psychiatry ward for three days. But within 24 hours after returning home he began behaving erratically again. The police returned him to NUMC for another two days.
During that time Ellen searched for long-term psychiatric care finding Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut. She brought Kevin there upon his release from NUMC, where he stayed until the end of December. A social worker at Silver Hill suggested Kevin continue his long-term treatment at Turnbridge in New Haven, Ct. He worked on his sobriety there until June 2022 and then moved into a nearby sober living house until he relapsed in February 2023.
Ellen took Kevin to Maryland Addiction and Recovery where he is currently continuing his recovery.

The Fenix Brothers
At one point during Kevin’s recovery a psychiatrist told his parents he might not bounce back neurologically. During the day, Ellen said she would not even entertain the idea but at night, as she tossed and turned in bed, she wondered. If the doctor was right what would her son do?
“John’s Crazy Socks came to mind,” she said, referring to the company started by a man with Down syndrome. “What if we created a way for men and women in recovery to have something to do so they can feel like they are making an impact.”
Ellen and Jack formed The Fenix Brothers, an apparel line that includes hats, shirts, and blankets, to bring awareness and acceptance to individuals who face mental health and substance abuse. They hope to travel to residential treatment centers, outpatient program centers and community centers to reach their goal. It’s a dream Ellen hopes will become a reality.
For further information, go to The Fenix Brothers’ Instagram: @thefenixbrothers3