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'They have a heart. They have a soul': Iowa parents grapple with the loss of children to opioids

As these families face the reality of losing their children to accidental drug overdoses, they hope to warn other parents and save lives in the process.

DES MOINES, Iowa — The pandemic has created a perfect storm for teenagers and addiction. 

Kids are falling prey to drug dealers targeting them through social media. Fentanyl-laced drugs are becoming more common, with teenagers taking them without realizing exactly what they're ingesting - a disturbing new trend that's killing more young people every day. 

The Iowa Department of Public Safety says the number of counterfeit prescriptions laced with fentanyl has already quadrupled in 2022. As parents face the reality of their children dying from drugs, they hope to warn other parents and save lives. 

Sandy Emberlin is one of those parents. Standing in a room full of pictures of young lives lost to drugs, she spoke through tears, reminded of the indescribable pain she lives with after losing her son to a drug overdose. 

She read "To Honor You", a poem by Connie F. Byrd, who also lost her son to drugs. 

"To honor you I get up every day and take a breath. To start another day without you. Here I go. To honor you, talk to those who knew your smile and the way your eyes twinkle with sacred knowledge.” 

Emberlin is not alone in her grief. 

Deric Kidd and his family are coming up on the one-year anniversary of losing their teenage son, Sebastian, to an accidental drug overdose. 

“July 29, my son was working a full-time job,” Kidd recalled. “The next morning, I went to make sure he was up for work. The door was closed, and I knocked on the door. He was slumped over his bed when I opened the door and I just kinda knew. I screamed. Told my wife to call 911. I touched him and … you knew."

Kidd and Emberlin are just two of many parents who have lost their children to drugs. 

"Teen addiction and substance abuse has really become an epidemic," said Dr. Payal Kohli, an expert on teenage addiction. "And unfortunately, it's an epidemic that, particularly in the last two years has really exploded, partly due to the pandemic, partly due to changes in our social environment, partly due to the increased reliance on social media."

Kidd says his son Sebastian dealt with depression and bullying. Sebastian was prescribed different medications and started taking Tylenol or migraine medicine to self-medicate. 

Then, at age 16, a friend introduced Sebastian to Percocet.   

“We found out he took half a pill that night [when he passed away]," Kidd said. "After talking to his friends, we found out that was the norm.” 

That half a pill took Sebastian's life. 

In the wake of the tragedy, the Kidds looked for support in parent groups. 

“The groups we were in,” Kidd said. “They always say a kid should learn from their mistakes, not die from it.”

The Kidds and other families who have lost their children to drugs believe drug access is becoming more common and more complex. Fentanyl-laced pills are deadlier by the day. 

“If you’re 25, 14 or 11, it’s there and can be delivered right to your door, so I don’t care if you’re a great parent and you discipline your kids and you watch everything your kids do. They might be grounded for two weeks, to their room and all that. They can have it delivered to the back door.”

Today, this group of parents is trying to turn their grief into a positive force, one that protects kids from drugs. At the same time, doctors are trying to change the conversation around addiction by reframing it as a disease.

"Addiction is a disease at any age, but when we're adolescents, our brains are particularly vulnerable because they're developing at a very fast rate," Kohli said. "As adolescents, we know that our risk-taking behavior is actually heightened. So we're more susceptible to try something, to succumb to peer pressure, to try some of these substances."

Emberlin wishes her son could have beat the disease. He started using at just 14 years old. 

“There’s so many times he tried and wanted to get sober,” she said.

“Doctors had to pump his stomach to save him from a heroin overdose,” Emberlin continued through tears. “He hugged me. He said ‘It’s not enough time, I’m not gonna make it if they let me out.' He said, ‘I’m not strong enough. I don’t have anywhere to go.'” 

According to the CDC, more than 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. That's why together, these families are sharing warning signs parents should look out for to fight the epidemic of drug use. 

“I don’t think there’s any difference of these kids taking pills than when we were drinking when we were younger," Kidd said. "It’s a different way to cope. These pills are the same way. They’re easy to hide. You can’t smell it.” 

Ann Breeding also lost her son to drugs. He started using and ended up on the streets shortly after turning 18. 

“I tried everything. I mean everything,” Breeding said. 

These parents want you to learn from their pain.  

"As a mom, it’s like you’ve got this really thick glass in between you and your child. They’re committing suicide and you’re on this side, with a hammer and a bat and you’re trying to get through this glass, to get to them, to save them," Breeding explained. "But then at the end of the day in our story … I wasn’t able to break through the glass." 

To help break the stigma of drug addiction and save lives, these families are asking for people to stop calling drug users "junkies.”

“God doesn’t make junk," Breeding said. “For someone to use that word … you’re saying that someone's child is junk. And I don’t care who you are [or] what position you’re in, if you use that word, how do you think a mom feels? Your kid is no better than any other kid. They have a heart. They have a soul. They have a family. There’s a reason why they got to where they’re at.” 

Kidd adds, “As a kid, you’re gonna succumb to things because of your own pain. This is not going away. It’s going to get worse. People are going to continue to self-medicate.” 

According to Kohli, prevention is key when it comes to ensuring more kids don't die of accidental drug overdoses.

"Really making sure that you talk to your teen or adolescent about this ... bringing it up is not going to put the idea in their head. In fact, it's going to empower and educate them," she said. "Let them know that it's okay to come to you as a parent to talk about questions they might have if somebody approaches them on social media or at school, and offers them the substances, or if they're even considering using them."

Today, looking at his son’s picture, Kidd reflects and thinks about what he would tell his son if he were still here today.

“[I would tell him] that I couldn’t be prouder. I thank God that he was in my life for 17 years and he’s the reason that I am trying to be a better person.”

His message to families is to focus on what brings your child peace and to recognize kids are growing up in a pandemic world. They may sometimes forget that there are safe places waiting for them.

Kidd says his son Sebastian found the skatepark to “be peaceful... his calm place, his serenity.” 

“He would go out fishing with his friends and that was a passion of his so sitting out on the river and watching skaters over there,” Kidd added.  

From the Kidd family remembering his son at the skatepark in downtown Des Moines, to the room filled with a collage of young faces that have died from drugs, Emberlin reads a poem from another broken mother grieving her lost son, wishing she could turn back time, but still finding strength to carry on.

“To honor you, I take chances, risk making a fool of myself. Dance every dance. You were my heart, my gift of love. From the very highest source. So every day I vow to make a difference. Share a smile. Live, laugh, and love. Now, I live for us both. So now I live to honor you. To honor you, I know there’s no guarantees of days spent in your presence.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, visit YourLifeIowa.org or call 855-581-8111. 

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