How the Loss of a Son Led to the Formation of Sage’s Army

By Maggie Ethridge 03/25/16

Carmen Capozzi remembers Sage standing over his brother David’s casket with tears in his eyes. “I’m never going to use drugs, Daddy.” 

How the Loss of a Son Led to the Formation of Sage’s Army
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“As I speak, I want you to picture your children’s faces…”

This is Carmen Capozzi telling a full high school auditorium the story of his son, Sage. He wants the audience to know that this story, about a boy who became addicted to drugs, isn’t just about his son; it’s about all our children. Our communities. He also wants them to know that Sage was beloved, that the stigma of bad parenting is false. Drug addicts are every person. Sage was a baseball player, wrestler, and golfer, a talented musician and a hard worker. Sage was a loyal and fierce friend, a defender of the underdog who dropped himself next to the girl on the bus who no one would sit with; they became friends. Sage Capozzi was a two-year-old who couldn’t pronounce his own name but introduced himself as taught, with eye contact and a handshake, “Hi, I’m Fage.” 

It’s telling that Carmen starts his interview with The Fix with this story about his son: “As a baby, Sage needed surgery to insert tubes in his ears, but my wife and I heard a news story of a baby dying after the same procedure. We were trying to figure out. Should we do this? We were crying to let him go. You do everything to protect your children.” 

The Capozzis did everything they could to protect Sage, a little boy from Irwin, Pennsylvania, who had grown up as his father’s best friend. They played music in the basement and worked together at Carmen’s business. It was a calm childhood until 2002, when Sage was twelve years old and his older stepbrother David snorted cocaine and then hung himself. 

Carmen remembers Sage standing over David’s casket with tears in his eyes. “I’m never going to use drugs, Daddy.”

Carmen thought, “Good, we’re safe.” 

At twelve years old, Sage was struggling academically. The school counselor told Carmen and his wife that Sage had ADHD. “I didn’t see it,” Carmen says. The school insisted, and the Capozzis wanted to help their son, so they put him on Adderall. “I didn’t like how it made him,” Carmen remembers. “He didn’t want to do anything.“ The Capozzis had Sage put on Strattera, instead.

According to Sheri Holmesly, the admissions director of Lasting Recovery, a rehabilitation center in San Diego, California, ADHD medication can be problematic for addicts. Holmesly tells The Fix that Lasting Recovery does not allow ADHD meds (such as Adderall or Strattera) or benzos; they taper people off their drugs. “None of it is good for an addict,” Holmesly says. “You don’t have to have natural coping mechanisms. Medications for depression or other mental health issues, we do that.”

Unbeknownst to his parents, Sage had found a new group to fit in with at school: kids on prescription drugs. They traded drugs freely. "Pharm parties" occurred, where the kids either brought their own drugs or stole what they could find at home to put in a bowl, and blindfolded, they would pick out a drug and take it. One day, Carmen got a call. Sage and two other boys took pills in class, and Sage got sick to his stomach. A concerned schoolmate told the nurse. Carmen flipped out. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what was happening,” he remembers, with pain in his voice. “Then the pot and alcohol started.” The Capozzis put fourteen-year-old Sage into a rehabilitation center, The Gateway Youth Program, looking to circumvent what they hoped at the time was just a bump in the road for their goodhearted son. It wasn’t to be. The bump became a headlong, downward dive that ended with Sage’s death at twenty years old.

“From seventeen onward was just a nightmare. People have no idea the nightmare that we lived,” Carmen says, sounding raw and disbelieving of himself as he recounts Sage’s police record, time in rehabilitation centers, and overdoses. Sage overdosed on heroin and opiates twice between seventeen and twenty years old. The Capozzis did everything they could think of to help him, including having Sage temporarily locked up for being suicidal. He wasn’t—but it was a way to help him.

"When Sage relapsed, I didn’t get it. I said, 'Sage, you’re in meetings, counseling, what are you doing?'" Carmen tells The Fix. “Sage said, ‘Dad, it’s not that easy. Dad I’m scared. I don’t want to die.’ At that moment I realized how powerless I was to help my son. I can fix anything, your bicycle tire, having problems with school—we’re going to sit down and talk. I could support him, get him to meetings. But I couldn’t get him clean.”

Sage went to rehab one last time briefly, and checked himself out. Moving back and forth between his uncle’s place in Indiana and home in Philly, Sage returned with 90 days clean, to see his grandmother, who was dying. Carmen sighs. "Sage was sad. I said, 'Sage, get back to working your program, focus buddy.' I remember Sage said, 'I’m out.' It was a Wednesday. By Sunday he was dead."

Sage Capozzi’s life ended in a hotel room. His girlfriend called a friend instead of 911 when she noticed Sage was breathing erratically. The friend said, “Just watch him, he’ll be fine.” Sage’s girlfriend fell asleep, and when she woke early the next morning, Sage was dead.

Carmen recounts visiting Sage’s body. “We went in middle of night. We couldn’t touch him. His eyes were open—his beautiful brown eyes no longer brown, they were gray.” Carmen cries softly. “I had 20 minutes with my son. We prayed.”

Carmen spent two days on the floor of his father’s home. "I couldn’t take my hands away from my face. I didn't want to look at the world. That night, 10 p.m., I heard Sage's voice. 'Dad you have to help. They’re not bad kids.'" This was the beginning of Sage’s Army.

Carmen was suddenly filled with purpose. He needed an army, and along with a friend of Sage's, he created one: Sage’s Army, a nonprofit, community serving, grassroots organization that offers support, guidance, and education for those with drug addiction and their families and loved ones, as well. Sage’s Army began in Carmen’s mother-in-law’s basement—today it has two Facebook pages (one open and one private) with over 8,000 likes, a website, and a brick and mortar building that Carmen rents as Sage Haven, Sage’s Army’s headquarters.

Carmen and other volunteers at Sage’s Army speak at schools and provide information to rehabilitation centers in order to refine their programs. Sage’s Army assists other communities in setting up their own chapters, Carmen explains. “People are afraid of rehab. They think they’re going to be locked up in a room. We can explain how it works, tour facilities. I can hold treatment centers accountable for what goes on.” Every year, Sage’s Army goes to The Fed Up Rally in front of the FDA building in Washington, D.C. to protest the failing war on drugs and agitate for new laws. The protestors have been successful—in 2013, Sage’s Army was part of the protest that successfully moved hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II, making it harder to prescribe.

Sage’s Army wants to break the stigma of drug addiction and create communities where addiction is recognized, openly discussed and treated. The catchwords for Sage’s Army are awareness, compassion and action. Carmen tells The Fix, “I’m not ashamed of my son. I was ashamed that he was an addict, but I’m not anymore. I’m not ashamed of who my son was. If I didn’t have Sage’s Army, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Maggie May Ethridge is a freelance writer and the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.