Suburban Nightmare: Opiates in Poway, California

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Suburban Nightmare: Opiates in Poway, California

By Maggie Ethridge 10/30/16

“Parents think the disease of addiction is about them: what kind of parent they are, where they live, how much money they make. They see their kids with their hearts, not their eyes.”

Image: 
Aaron Rubin in a Poway football uniform.
Aaron Rubin was a Poway High football player who became addicted to opioids after treating his football injuries.

Poway, California calls itself "the city in the country," nestled inside low rolling hills that surround the warm weathered town. With fewer than 50,000 residents and a median household income of $96,000, it is a religiously curated suburban town, infamous among its residences for the book length of guidelines and rules that have to be followed when building or adding a structure. Even something as simple as a shed in a backyard can require half a year of red tape and expensive fees.

The word Poway is taken from the Diegueño and Luiseño Indians who lived in the area before the Spaniards encroached. The structures of Poway are built according to rules meant to keep an old-time feel to the buildings; the largest veterinarian building in Poway is styled as a farm and barn, blue with white edging. Horses chortle and sling hay in large, fenced backyards, a train runs through a sleepy loop in a local park where children flock all summer long for the cheap rides, Civil War reenactments take place on the stretches of grass that grow next to a quiet stream.

A few blocks down from that stream, on a nearby street, Jackie Thomas struggled in the middle of the night to keep her son Thomas alive. She had driven through the neighborhoods looking for him, and found his car pulled haphazardly to the side of the road. It was past midnight. When she jumped out and opened his door, David lay slumped over the steering wheel, unresponsive. Jackie pulled on him desperately, and David vomited. He was overdosing.

Between the years 2000 and 2007, seven people overdosed and died from opioids in Poway; in the next seven-year span, up until 2015, 24 died. Almost all were white and male, and many were young. Those are only the deaths from opioid overdose—not including those near-death, or those seriously brain injured.

Aaron Rubin was a Poway High football player who became addicted to opioids after treating his football injuries. After trying and dropping out of community college in Chico, Aaron started taking OxyContin. In 2004, Aaron returned home and told his parents that he had a drug problem. They didn’t ask what drugs, but immediately set him up with a psychologist and therapist, and his father began taking him to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Aaron’s mother, Sherrie, told me over the phone about Aaron’s original Poway supplier: the father of Aaron’s good friend, a Pop Warner coach who was an addict himself. Aaron, said Sherrie, “is of the first generation of kids to grow up with pharmaceutical ads. They had no perception of the harm.“

After eight months of sobriety, on October 9, 2005, Aaron took one, then two 160 milligram pills of time-released OxyContin—"Oxy"—at a friend’s home. He went to sleep, and had a heart attack and two strokes.

As Aaron lay in the hospital ICU, his friends approached Sherrie, wanting to understand why Aaron had overdosed. They were all using the same pills, weren’t they? Why did this happen?

After a year in a Pomona brain injury treatment center, Aaron came home. Quadriplegic, permanently in a wheelchair, he no longer can speak or care for himself. His mother, Sherrie, is his full-time caregiver. Sherrie formed the Hope2Gether Foundation for the prevention of drug overdose. Sherrie and Aaron together visit Poway High (among other schools) once a year, and give a presentation on Aaron’s story.

Anthony Tafola started using opiates in Poway when a friend of his took a full bottle of 10 mg Norcos—60 pills—from his grandma. He and Anthony took the entire bottle over the course of a weekend. “In Poway the majority of supply was from kids who were taking it from their parents, who had surgeries, tooth surgery, diseases. A lot of kids in Poway have older parents who have this kind of stuff going on,” Anthony told me. When I asked about people noticing that the pills were gone, Anthony verbally shrugged. “I guess people just don’t notice.”

The majority of the drug supply that Anthony encountered over the years of his opiate addiction came from young people’s Poway relatives, and from their own prescriptions for panic or attention disorders. This was the same experience of another male Poway resident I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous. “All the Poway dealers I knew were like high school kids or guys in their twenties. They usually started their supply from parents or grandparents first and then moved on.”

Anthony has been off pills since he found out he was going to be a father. His daughter Lucy was born just under a year ago, and Anthony credits fatherhood with his desire to clean up.

Anthony attended Poway High for a year and a half. During that time he was repeatedly brought into the school administration for various offenses, all of which were documented except for the most serious offense: drug possession.

“I kept getting suspended,” Anthony said. “If I had Xanax, the liaison officer just threw them in the trash and they suspended me and that was it. I’d come back like nothing happened. I was started off in school counseling, she wanted me to go to rehab. But that was it. They kept my cigarettes and filed reports about those, but they just threw the Xanax away.”

Anthony has the printed out disciplinary records from his time at Poway High. They document cursing, cigarette smoking and other minor offenses. Nowhere is drug possession mentioned.

“Kids all over Poway High carry it with them every day at school,” Anthony said. “Everyone knows who has it, where to get it from.” Anthony’s addiction became profound; it was easier to buy the pills in bulk in order to sell them. That way, he could supply his own habit at a cheaper rate, and make money off the rest. Anthony’s supply continued to come from Poway, or larger drug dealers in the close city of Escondido.

“In my family, I’ve lost four people to overdoses in eight years,” Anthony said slowly. “Overdosing wasn’t on my mind though. It just seemed like fate, when you were going to die.” Like Aaron Rubin’s friends, Anthony and his friends have no practical knowledge of how the pills they ingested daily could harm their bodies or take their life.

This September, two senior boys at Poway High overdosed and died. Neither death was publicly stated as being caused by overdose, but when I spoke with many Poway High school students, it was clear that, as one freshman student stated, “Everyone knows why they died.”

I kept hearing this in interviews: Everyone Knows. Everyone knows lots of kids at Poway High carry pills. Everyone knows where to get them. Everyone knows kids are dying from opiate overdoses. Yet Poway is quiet.

A few years ago, Jackie Thomas attended a Poway community educational meeting put on by Steve Vaus, the current mayor of Poway. Jackie stood and addressed the crowd, which included many parents of Poway High teenagers. “I told them about my son becoming addicted to opiates. How he lied. And I heard ‘Well my kids hang out with good kids,’ a lot of blame on other kids. There were at least three or four parents there that I knew their children were doing it, and they were in complete denial that their kids would even ever do that.“ The conversations ended there. Jackie walked away feeling frustrated.

Sherrie Rubin agrees. “Parents think the disease of addiction is about them: what kind of parent they are, where they live, how much money they make. They see their kids with their hearts, not their eyes.” Since Aaron’s overdose, many of his friends have come to Sherrie and her husband for help with addiction. They don’t go to their parents, because, Sherrie says, “Their parents just don’t get it.”

When I asked what the parents don’t get, Sherrie laughed tiredly. “Everything,” she replied. “I was the same [before Aaron’s brain injury]. They sabotage the environment after kids get sober in 30 or 90 day treatment centers. Addiction is the only disease parents don’t talk to their kids about.”

I interviewed a district administrator who requested to remain anonymous, and he told me, “Three or four years ago, all the middle schools were having this issue with pharm-parties, where kids were trading drugs. Kids I caught were selling Ritalin. The parents didn’t even know that the whole prescription bottle was gone; they’d bring it school and sell it. This was big in the middle and high schools. I’m sure it’s still going on, they just figured out how to keep from getting caught.”

The anonymous administrator told me that he was frustrated with the persistence of parents in believing that it is the influence of "bad kids" they need to worry about, and not the actions of their own child. “I know of a family in Poway,” he said as an example. “Now they have dealt with addiction in their son for four years. They had told me that it would never happen to their son, that it was just getting him away from friends who were a bad influence.”

Dr. Jennifer Cullen has been an emergency room physician for Pomerado Hospital in Poway for three years. She told me over the phone that overdose patients are admitted to the hospital for further treatment only if they fail to respond completely to Narcan—the opioid overdose treatment—and IV fluids. Other overdose patients have to be admitted for further monitoring and assessment of possible brain or heart damage.

“[Overdose] is something we see commonly; one of the number one culprits is opioids for sure,” Dr. Cullen told me over the phone. “One of the most common reasons for overdose we see is from benzos and alcohol. What I think we are seeing more of are people coming in who are intoxicated due to opioids due to prescriptions like Vicodin, Percocet.”

Patients who have overdosed accidentally are offered a meeting with the on-site social worker, and are given pamphlets on addiction and referrals to local rehabilitation centers. Then they are sent home.

That night in Poway years ago, Jackie Thomas pulled her son from his car, dragged him to her car, drove her car a block, ran back to her son’s car, drove it a block, and continued this pattern until she was close to home. In this insane, heart-rending collection of minutes, Jackie was living the perfect metaphor for the effect that drug addiction has on a family. Enabling. Desperation. Fear. Deep grief.

Perhaps as a community, Poway is still enabling. We need to move forward and be unafraid to use words like addiction and overdose, to educate ourselves on drug use and addiction. We need to talk about what is happening in our community, loudly, from all available platforms, with more concern for the lives of our children than for the reputation and funding of our schools and our sports teams. We need to foster true connection in our community, which has been called the opposite of addiction, to thwart the need for emotional escape.

After a trip to the ER, Jackie sat with her son in her house, and finally did what she had been unable to do for years: let go. “You can’t live here anymore,” she told him. “I can’t do this anymore.”

David moved in with his grandmother, who set immediate rules: he was drug tested daily, he had a strict curfew, he had to work, he had to attend daily AA or NA meetings. David finally let go of all his friends connected to drugs. The family remained supportive and loving of David, but no longer would they allow the disease of addiction to make the rules.

David has been clean and sober for seven years now.

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