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Losing a Child to Drug Overdose. And How to Prevent It

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Two years ago Robin Elliott lived through every parent's worst nightmare. Her 21-year-old son Zack died of a drug overdose. Like any parent, Robin adored her only child, who she remembers as "intellectually inquisitive, athletic, musical, and popular with his classmates." Zack's father had died of cancer at 35, and Robin and her son were very close as they supported each other.

Zack wasn't naïve to the perils of drug use. When he was 16 attending an overnight party, some of the kids decided to try marijuana. Zack didn't want to get involved, so he called his mother to come pick him up. A proud Robin arrived to assure him he'd done the right thing. But five years later he'd wind up dead of a heroin overdose near the Bluff in Atlanta. Somewhere, something went wrong.

The drug use started after trouble at school. Zack attended one of the best private schools in Atlanta, known for stellar academics and strict conduct guidelines. Though Zack was a good student, he liked to challenge the rules and after a few behavior incidents over his 10+ years at the school, he was asked to withdraw.

"It killed him to leave the school and all his friends. It killed me too," says Robin. Her words would prove prophetic. Only days after leaving school, Zack started using drugs. Over the next few years, he experimented with all types of drugs and went through several treatment programs. Like many who struggle with addiction, he tried to stop, stayed clean for a while, then relapsed again, and the cycle repeated.

From the beginning Robin knew about his drug use, and their relationship became fraught with tension. "Those years were a nightmare," she recalls. "We were fighting, screaming all the time. I became the kind of mother I never thought I would become. I wanted him to stop so badly, but he always said he was smarter than drugs. In his later years of using, he wanted sobriety, but the cravings always won out."

Shortly after his 21st birthday, when Zack's drug use had slowed somewhat, he took a set of car keys that someone had forgotten to lock up, and drove to the Bluff in Atlanta. The police found his body the next day, dead from a fatal overdose of alcohol and heroin. But he wasn't the only person who died that day.

"As a parent with a child who is using drugs you always think 'What would I do if he died? How could I stand the pain?'" says Robin. "But what you imagine is nothing compared to the real thing. For me, it's a physical feeling, like someone ripped out a part of my body. I'm not whole anymore. I feel dead."

Zack's downward spiral from a kid who stood up to peer pressure over marijuana to full-blown addiction is tragic and puzzling. Robin believes it had a lot to do with a genetic predisposition towards addiction. Robin is a recovering alcoholic, though she's been sober since before Zack was born, and addiction runs in the family. She also admits that Zack struggled at times with depression and anxiety, despite an outgoing personality. According to scientific studies, about half of people with mental illness also suffer from substance dependency.

To help cope with her son's death, Robin co-founded a group in Atlanta for grieving parents who have lost children to overdose. She's also part of a coalition working to reduce overdose deaths through new legislation in Georgia, including 911 Good Samaritan law and naloxone access legislation.

911 Good Samaritan laws, now enacted in 13 states including Georgia neighbors Florida and North Carolina, grant limited immunity from some drug or paraphernalia charges to people who experience an overdose or seek help to save someone's life. In states without such laws, fear of law enforcement deters over half of witnesses to an overdose from seeking help, and leads to many preventable deaths. Robin hopes that Georgia will soon join the states that put saving lives above making arrests.

"Maybe someone was with Zack before he died who could have helped him and was afraid to," says Robin. "Because we don't have [911 Good Samaritan] laws [in Georgia], we'll never know."

The group also hopes to introduce legislation to expand access to naloxone, an antidote that reverses an opiate drug overdose and is safe and easy enough to be administered even by people with no medical training. Overdose prevention advocates are trying to get the life-saving drug into the hands of people who need it, mothers like Robin who could have had naloxone on hand in case her son overdosed at home.

Robin still struggles daily with feelings of shame and depression because of Zack's death. But she has a message for other parents whose children struggle with addiction.

"One thing I wish I had told Zack was to have an overdose plan," says Robin. "When you are the parent of someone using drugs, you are so busy trying to get them to stop that you don't give advice on how to stay alive while they are using. It might seem like counterproductive advice, but it's important to remember that as long as they are alive there is still hope."

Robin and overdose prevention advocates plan to work next year to introduce 911 Good Samaritan and naloxone access legislation so that other parents might avoid their fate. Let's hope that Georgia lawmakers and those in other states are touched by stories like Robin's and can recognize the value of every life, even those who struggle with addiction. They too are part of our communities. They too have mothers and families. They too are loved and forever missed.