By Joseph Kellard
The beach had a significant role in Holly Prussman’s life — and death.
When she was a girl, Holly enjoyed playing on Roosevelt Boulevard beach, and she developed into a top Long Island swimmer at age 6. In January the beach was the site of a memorial service for her, as lifeguards paddled surfboards out to sea to place a wreath in her memory and 19 balloons, one for each year of her short life, sailed skyward.
On Jan. 12, Holly died of a heroin overdose at her parents’ home in the Canals. Early that morning — a week after she had checked herself out of a drug rehab center after a few months’ stay — her father, Mitch, saw light under her locked door. Mitch and Holly’s mother, Julia, found their daughter lying dead in her bedroom.
Holly had injected herself with the usual amount of heroin that she took before the rehab stint, her mother explained, but because she had been clean for three months, her detoxified system couldn’t handle the normal dosage. “She didn’t mean to kill herself,” Julia said.
Growing up in Long Beach, Holly cultivated many interests and developed into a top athlete. Thanks to her early success in swimming, she made the high school varsity swim team when she was just a seventh-grader. Her mother was a swimming instructor, and Holly taught alongside her. She surfed with her father, and became a lifeguard at several Town of Hempstead pools and beaches as well as in Long Beach. She also excelled at track, soccer, gymnastics and dance.
At Long Beach High School she was an honors student, earning a 98.6 average, excelling in math, chemistry, earth science and meteorology, faring well at school science fairs and earning a $10,000 scholarship to C.W. Post. She loved going to movies, especially comedies, tending to her chihuahuas and riding roller coasters. Her parents took her on multiple trips to Busch Gardens and Disney World.
In her late teens, however, her life changed. One day on the boardwalk, her mother recalled, Holly met her future boyfriend, a Freeport man who, her parents said, introduced her to heroin. Eventually the Prussmans started to notice things missing from the house: cash, blank checks, jewelry. At the time they had no clue that these were the first signs of Holly’s addiction.
There were other red flags. “Holly had always been a good friend to her friends,” Mitch said, but, Julia explained, her daughter began shutting her friends out, isolating herself with her boyfriend. The Prussmans were aware that she had done some drinking in high school, but that stopped cold. “You see, alcohol and heroin don’t mix,” Julia said — one of the many things she came to learn about heroin users.
There were also the many lies. Julia dismisses the claims of those who insist that you must trust your drug-addicted children. “They’ll earn your trust to get you to believe them and then they’ll lie to you,” she said. “So you never knew when she was being truthful and when she was lying. She was very smart and knew how to manipulate you.”
One day, Holly’s boyfriend was at her home and appeared to her parents be under the influence of something, but when they later confronted Holly about it, she lied, telling them he was high on marijuana. They told her not to bring him around anymore. Then Holly’s older sister, Sarah, found heroin bags in Holly’s clothes, and her boyfriend explained to the Prussmans what they were.
Finally, last June, Holly came clean. “She told me one morning, ‘Mom, I’m in a lot of trouble,’” Julia recalled. Her parents took her to the detox unit at Long Beach Medical Center, and the time she spent there made her eligible for the Dynamite Youth Center, a drug rehabilitation facility in the Catskills, which she entered last October.
But it wasn’t long before she started to think about leaving the center. One January day, a week before her fatal overdose but months before her treatment was scheduled to end, she checked out. The next day she took two trains back to Long Beach. “That was a bad sign when she came home,” Mitch said, citing statistics about relapse rates.
Hours before her parents found her dead, they tested Holly for heroin, and the test turned up positive. After the family went to bed the night of Jan. 11, Holly got up and injected herself with more heroin. “Heroin addicts will do drugs at any time,” Julia said.
Mitch said that what makes his daughter’s death so hard to accept is how sudden it all seemed. “We lost her to a severe sickness — drug abuse, a sickness she couldn’t control,” said Mitch, a high school teacher, who recalled his bring-your-child-to-work days with Holly.
“I’ll miss her affectionate ways,” he added. “If something was bothering you, she would rub your shoulders and your back.”
The Prussmans are heartened by the outpouring of support from the Long Beach community, particular their fellow parents and officials at the high school, who helped pay the funeral expenses. With Sarah, 24, and their son, Jacob, 14, still to look after, they want to find some way to help the parents of other drug-addicted children avoid the pain and heartache they have endured.'
“She was a good kid ... the one we had the highest hopes for,” Julia said. “Our family is incomplete without her.”
* This story originally appeared in the Long Beach Herald in 2010.