‘I can’t believe this is Mikey’: A sister struggles to reach her brother, a heroin addict, following arrest

  • Michael Paul Collins, 34, or “Mikey,” was once an avid athlete who played hockey, football, baseball and rode BMX. His sister, Theresa Fathi Ahmed, talks about the younger brother she helped raise in the past tense because of his involvement with drugs. Courtesy of Theresa Fathi Ahmed

  • Michael Paul Collins, or “Mikey.” Courtesy of Theresa Fathi Ahmed

  • Theresa Fathi Ahmed, right, pictured in 2004 on her wedding day. Courtesy of Theresa Fathi Ahmed

Published: 8/6/2016 12:26:39 AM

NORTHAMPTON — She first saw his face — gruff, unshaven and obscured by sunglasses — in a news story.

Theresa Fathi Ahmed called the police, sobbing, as she studied the man in the grainy surveillance photo on her computer screen.

“We are 110 percent sure that it’s my brother in the pictures,” she told the sergeant.

A day before, on July 29, the barefoot man in the photo entered a Southampton liquor store at about 7:30 p.m., uncapped a hypodermic needle and pointed it at the cashier.

“Give me all the money in the register,” he demanded, according to a police report. “Give me all the money!”

Within a day of his sister calling the police, authorities picked up Michael Paul Collins, 34, after he was spotted less than a mile from the store, according to a police report. He was brought in for questioning, where police say he confessed to holding up the liquor store — as well as stealing the car he’d been stopped in. He is accused of making off with about $270.

He needed the money, Collins told police, to support his heroin addiction.

Collins, who pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court Monday to armed robbery and assault charges, was booked into the Northampton jail. Newspapers and TV broadcasts ran his mugshot with the news of his arrest. That night, his sister, Ahmed, saw the booking photo and sent an email to a Gazette reporter.

“My brother Michael P. Collins,” she wrote. “A son, a beloved brother.”

She talked about the man — “Mikey” she’d called him growing up in Westfield — who was once an avid athlete who played hockey, football, baseball and rode BMX. The man who loved to cook, fish, do yard work and take trips to the beach.

“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do,” she wrote, “until the heroin came into our lives.”

Now, Ahmed talks about the younger brother she helped raise in the past tense because of his involvement with drugs.

“I feel like my brother’s dead,” Ahmed said. 

Can’t believe this is Mikey

As the events surrounding Collins’ addiction come to a head, opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts continue to rise.

The number of confirmed overdose deaths have more than tripled since 2010 — increasing year by year, with 1,531 deaths in 2015, according to a Massachusetts Department of Public Health report. So far this year, from January to June, Massachusetts has seen 504 confirmed overdose deaths. But state officials suspect that number may be as high as 986.

Ahmed is fighting to ensure her brother doesn’t become that kind of statistic.

Ahmed, who lives in West Springfield, is 15 years older than Collins. Growing up in a household with a single working mother, it often fell to her to look after her brother.

On a recent morning, Ahmed spoke with a longtime neighbor who was shocked at Collins’ arrest.

“I can’t believe this is Mikey,” the neighbor told her. “I can’t believe this is happening, that he’s falling into this. You expect it from somebody else.”

Ahmed said she can’t recall when exactly her brother started using, but does remember noticing a stark change in his behavior roughly a decade ago. The once silly, happy and always-joking man who loved being around people was fading from reach.

At several points, he would just disappear and stop talking to his sister altogether, she said.

Recently, Ahmed said, she “had a feeling he was getting worse and worse.”

On the Wednesday before the robbery of the County Road Liquor Store, Ahmed sent her brother a text. “Call me please. I’m not giving up on you. You need help,” she wrote to him.

“No,” he replied a day later. “I’m messed up and staying away from everybody.”

He was arrested three days later.

After his arrest, Collins phoned his sister from jail, she recalled. She sensed his remorse as he struggled to piece together how he’d ended up in jail.

“I was relieved and thankful he’s still alive,” Ahmed said. “Sad to hear him cry. Sad to hear he’s so sorry — it was like he was just waking up. Waking up to reality. He doesn’t have a clue what happened. He’s in a fog about things.”

All he did in that moment, she said, was apologize over and over. How? She recalled asking him. How did things get this bad?

“I don’t think he knows,” Ahmed said.

No one was injured in the robbery at the Southampton liquor store, though it left the cashier shaking in fear, after she was shown the needle, according to the police report.

Collins has a criminal history that includes a charge of armed robbery in 2010, according to court documents.

His mother, Nancy, declined to be interviewed, according to Ahmed. The police report on the Southampton robbery notes that Nancy Collins told officers that her son had taken about $600 from her by using her ATM card. She aided the police investigation by identifying her son from video surveillance in the store.

‘A little extra’

Liz Whynott, program director of the Tapestry Health needle exchange clinics in Northampton and Holyoke, said when crimes like this occur, people tend to make generalizations about the accused.

“I think we, as a society, tend to throw users and addicts into a box … and place more emphasis on them as ‘addicts’ rather than human beings,” Whynott said.

The fact that Theresa has come forward in an effort to humanize her brother is encouraging, she added — showing others that he’s more than the sum of the crimes he’s accused of.

“I know a lot of people that have been on long-term recovery that had a pretty hard time with heroin in the past that have done things like rob banks and stolen and done a lot of things they’re not proud of,” Whynott said. “But now, they are incredibly successful in their own ways and are productive members of society.”

Ahmed sees the trauma of addiction in her work running an emergency room reception desk at a community hospitalin Connecticut.

Week after week, she watches as addict after addict is rushed through the emergency room doors. And with each person, she said, her mind goes to her brother.

“When something is going on in your life that’s similar, you want to give a little extra,” Ahmed said. “Because I wouldn’t want anyone to mistreat my brother because of the choices he’s made.”

As for the people who come in and out of the ER, “It’s been young, it’s been old, it’s been (an) infant,” she said. “It’s not one race or religion. This epidemic of heroin is reaching everybody. People don’t realize how dirty this drug is.”

Ahmed has held a mother’s hand as she learned her son would not be walking back out of the hospital. She’s called family members to summon them to the hospital after loved ones could not be brought back following an overdose.

“Sometimes,” Ahmed said, “they can’t even go back into the rooms.”

A sister’s plea

Nobody forced her brother to begin using heroin, Ahmed said. But because he made the decision to do so at one point, she added, shouldn’t exclude him from getting the help he needs. Ahmed said she’s taken her brother to several treatment clinics and to counselors. He never stayed.

“Now I basically have to rearrange my lifestyle,” she said. “I could’ve been spending different parts of my life having fun with him … now I’ll be holding his hand going through the system … I could be planting flowers at his gravesite.”

Please don’t judge her brother, she wrote in her message to a Gazette reporter, judge the drugs.

Ahmed ended her message with a plea addressed to Collins. “I love you,” she wrote. “God bless you, come back to us.”

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.


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