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By Fred Dickey

Feb. 10, 2014

“Like father, like son” is a hoary old cliché so familiar that its warning usually earns a shrug, even though human behavior says it’s often true. Euripides, that wise old Greek, cautioned the same thing 2,500 years ago as he wrote, “The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.”

Not a lot has changed in a couple of millennia. To make the unhappy point, a young hoodlum in juvenile hall will sometimes mention (and proudly) a father who once looked through the same bars.

A childhood from hell can be overcome, but so can Mount Everest.

Any child — boy or girl — is the captive of environment, and if it’s a drug-infested home, then that becomes his classroom, and the family members are his tutors. The behavior he sees becomes his normal. Whatever the warnings, the child of a drug addict is still his father’s son.

Even a youth who pulls his feet out of that quicksand must make his peace with ugly experiences no child should have, and that’s what made Joey Lattarulo old and wise beyond his 18 years.

Joey is a senior at Oceanside High School. He’s small and slight, with curly black hair and a wisp of a beard. Unlike many peers, he engages with eye contact and speaks thoughtful words; no giggler he. Joey’s an honor roll student who serves as aide to his English teacher.

He participates in music, swimming and water polo. Most of Joey’s friends are girls, and he prefers to socialize with them, including with his actual girlfriend. Unusual for his age, he’s religious and prays a lot. He also works part time in a restaurant to save for college.

Even more unusual, from infancy up to his junior year in high school, Joey lived in a home where crystal meth occupied the honored seat at the table. It was a tweaker way-station and the meth version of a crack house.

Joey was born into chaos. His mother left him and his three older sisters when he was still an infant. “She went off and did her partying. Her justification was that she didn’t want to drag us into the mud with her, (but) she could have chosen us over that. That’s when the bad things started, (when) she left.”

For the rest of Joey’s childhood, his mother was in and out of his life. Mostly out.

The jumble of events placed Joey in a foster home about age 6, which he recalls as a horrible time. When he was told one day that a family member would be picking him up soon, Joey sat on the front steps by the hour, day after day, until he saw his aunt drive up to deliver him from the nightmarish place.

He thinks that experience made him desperate to stay with his family, no matter how bad it became. Such as it was, it was home.

His father had been given custody at the time of the split, and the family lived in a two-bedroom apartment on Clementine Street in downtown Oceanside, where Joey says his father failed to control the girls. “My father tried to raise us on his own, at least he tried to. But my sisters just overran him. They never listened to what he said. He just had no power over them.”

When his carpenter-handyman father was at work or out of the house, Joey as a young child would have to tag along with his sisters to wild teen parties where he sat in the corner and witnessed behavior not included in his Dick and Jane school texts.

The family moved to a little-better neighborhood when he was 10 or 11, and that is where Joey became aware of his dad using crystal meth. The girls soon followed their dad into substance abuse: the oldest into alcohol and the other two into pot and mainly crystal meth. Joey says at least one teenage sister eventually did the drug alongside their father. The home turned into a 24-hour drug house attracting a parade of tweakers, he says.

Joey experienced three police raids, the first when he was 10 or 11 and while hosting a friend on a sleepover. “It was scary. They kicked down the door and raided the whole house. It was just because my father had all these drug dealers in and out.”

Joey weathered the shock of seeing his father handcuffed and arrested. At other times, both his middle and younger sisters were also arrested.

The house traffic was crowded by his middle sister’s friends, who were from well-known Oceanside street gangs. “She was dating some guy from one of those places and he would come around and bring his friends. I would always be so worried for her because there’s like six guys marching into the house and I know they’re all doing drugs.”

Joey says his oldest sister was the only one who ended up doing something positive with her life later on. The middle sister was the one he was closest to as a child, but she was the one who descended most deeply into drugs.

“Having to watch all this every day was just a terrible thing. When someone is high on meth, they don’t sleep. They’re up all night, and they are really not rational. They spontaneously do things; they clean all the time but never get anything done. They clean for an hour on one corner of the room to make it perfect and then everything else is just a disaster. You look into their eyes and you just don’t see the same person.”

He once visited his dad’s job site and realized the appeal of meth to laboring men. “I was amazed that they were, like, all tweakers. They would go into the bathrooms and get high because it gives them so much more energy. My father, he has a lot of injuries. Every day he had a lot of pain. I saw how he got so addicted.”

Joey was thrust into the role of baby sitter when he was not yet a teenager. He recalls times his middle sister would go off and leave her infant children in his care. “I’m crying at the door asking her not to leave, but she would just walk out the door and just leave me there with her kids.”

Joey’s efforts to wean his family off drugs made him perhaps the youngest drug counselor ever.

“From third grade on, I knew my family were meth addicts. That was just my life. My middle sister was always difficult to talk to. She would just cry and run away and yell at me. My youngest sister would talk to me. She would get emotional and tell me she knows that she’s not doing the right thing, she knows she’s better than that. But she never stepped out of it. She just kept going.

“My father would never admit anything to me, so I used to play detective. I would search the house and find their meth pipes and drugs. I would break them and leave them on his desk.”

Even with that evidence, his father would still claim he didn’t use drugs. Joey says that he eventually wrote letters to his family members pouring out his young heart and asking that they stop using drugs. He got no return mail.

Though Joey’s mother had been several years mainly out of his life, his most painful memory of her happened in middle school, at a time when she was staying at a house down the street. He noticed a couple of strange men driving around using binoculars. Shortly thereafter, he saw his mother running down the street screaming. The men, he found out, were bounty hunters who had come to take her away.

Joey had a slight scrape with the drug life himself, experimenting with marijuana — and alcohol — as a freshman. But he says he did a reality check and turned his back on the things that had destroyed his family.

Early in his junior year, he moved in with his aunt and her husband in Carlsbad, even though leaving meant separating himself from his two infant nephews, for whom he had almost been an adolescent parent. But for the first time, he was exposed to the normal life of a high school student.

“They took me in with open arms, and I (experienced) what it’s like to have a structured family, to have rules and people that actually parent you. Growing up, I was the parent, trying to tell my father what’s right and wrong and what he shouldn’t do.”

Joey was also encouraged by teachers who saw his potential and convinced him to see it, too. He has won a Simon Family Foundation scholarship that will give him a start in college, where he wants to study psychology. He already has been accepted by San Francisco State.

“I really want to understand and help — not just me and my family, but other people, too. I want to understand why my sisters fell so hard to drug addiction and my (older) sister did not. I want to understand why I didn’t fall into that life.

“Going to college is proof that I can amount to anything I desire, as well as set an example for all the people in my family.”

Joey says he loves his entire family and always will. His biggest resentment is that his father has never admitted or apologized for the helter-skelter life he forced on Joey.

“I’ve sat down and talked to my parents (separately). My mom, she admits her faults and apologizes for them. My father doesn’t. He’s in denial. He always has been. When he would get mad, he was just raging mad. I just, I’ve always wanted my father to admit that he was a bad parent.”

I was unable to contact Joey’s sisters, but I reached his father, who lives in another county.

The father started off explaining that Joey’s mother was not on the scene and was of little help in raising him, obviously trying to shift blame. When I asked if he would confirm his crystal meth use and that of two daughters, the question was followed by a long pause. A silent response of shock and embarrassment oozed through the phone.

Finally, “Well…” he said in a whispery voice, perhaps stalling to find a better answer. Pressed, he acknowledged he and his daughters used meth “a little bit.” Then, finally, an unqualified “Yeah” to the same question for himself, but “not all” of the daughters.

The apology Joey wants was not mentioned, because that shouldn’t come through me. That is for his son to hear. Face to face. But until that day comes, Joey will be just fine.

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