CLEARWATER — Coni Pappas is not and never was a drug addict. But for years, she suffered from the effects.
She lost her marriage to cocaine. Later, she would lose a son.
Pappas, 59, now waits for her surviving son to get out of rehab and prays that her grandson, born with an opiate addiction, will grow up drug-free.
Tonight, Pappas will share her story at the Narcotics Overdose Prevention & Education, or NOPE, vigil at Largo Central Park. The event is held every year to remember the many who have died and the many still struggling with addiction. She says she hopes to reach someone with her words.
"If I could do something to help others heal," she said, "then I believe it's going to help me heal as well."
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Pappas married Nicholas Karaphillis in 1981. They owned a house in Tarpon Springs, had two boys, and he ran a car dealership.
About a decade into their marriage, her husband tried cocaine, Pappas said. His occasional drug use spiraled into an addiction.
"It was the '80s. There was a lot of Hollywood movies. There was a lot of glamorization of drug use and no one really understood the addiction," Pappas said. "We had these kids. We had this life. We had all this stuff."
She begged him to stop. After their arguments, he would disappear. Pappas lied to her sons about their father's whereabouts.
"Daddy's on a business trip," Pappas would tell them.
Before their 20th wedding anniversary, she filed for divorce.
She tried to keep her sons away from their father as his addiction intensified, eventually including abuse of crack and prescription pills. But Pappas said she couldn't keep them away all the time. As teenagers, they visited their dad, and he offered them drugs, she said.
In April 2005, her eldest son, Nicholas Karaphillis, decided to stay at his dad's house one weekend. The following Monday, Pappas' ex-husband, who died in 2008 from a tumor, called her. Nicholas was dead. He was 23, just one month from graduating from the University of South Florida with a marketing degree.
An autopsy later revealed the cause of death: cardiac arrest due to severe cocaine toxicity.
"The single most challenging, horrendous thing that can happen to a human being," she said through tears, "is to bury your child."
Pappas had her other son committed to rehab four times, starting when he was 17, but his addiction expanded to prescription drugs.
In 2010 he had a son. When Pappas visited the baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at Mease Countryside Hospital, doctors told her the baby was addicted to opiates. He was in detox the first nine weeks of his life.
When the child was 7 months old, Pappas asked her son if she could raise the boy while he sought drug treatment. She formally adopted him when he was about 1 year old.
His name is Nicholas.
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Her son, now 28, is almost finished with rehab. For Thanksgiving, he will stay at her Clearwater Beach home until he finds his own place.
It will be the first time in years that mother and son have spent the holidays together.
Pappas often takes her grandson, now 3, to the beach, the aquarium, Disney World.
"He's given me a level of joy that I haven't experienced in a very long time," she said.
Pappas said she also found comfort from her grief in the practice of yoga. She opened White Orchid Yoga in Dunedin in 2008, and later moved the studio to Clearwater. She named it after the flower her deceased son, Nicholas, often gave her on holidays.
On Wednesday, she sat barefoot atop a colorful cushion on the wooden floor of her studio.
"This has been so much help to me," she said. "Brings me out of such a place of despair and darkness."