Descending into Drugs
About the Guest
Opioid-based pain pills are the cause of thousands of deaths each year. Author and businessman Rick Van Warner is all too aware of the crisis. Van Warner gives us a glimpse of what it's like to live with and love an opioid addict, his son, Tommy. Van Warner first realized his 16-year old son had a problem when he went missing. Five days later Van Warner found Tommy in an old, abandoned building in town, barely recognizable and on the brink of an overdose. Detox and rehab came next, but it wouldn't be his last.
Rick Van Warner gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to live with and love an opioid addict. Van Warner first realized his 16-year old son, Tommy, had a problem when he went missing.
Descending into Drugs
Bob: The first time Rick Van Warner’s son used opioids, he was hooked. Here’s Rick.
Rick: We found out about it—our son didn’t come home from school one day for the weekend and went missing for a few days, which led to some very anxious searches for him. He was 16 at the time. At that point, the pills—OxyContin was flowing through the high schools like candy at 7-Eleven, according to one law enforcement official I spoke to.
And what was really frightening is—when you find out how quickly somebody can get hooked. What’s difficult for parents to look out for is—unlike alcohol or marijuana, which are the normal things that you might be looking for your teens to worry about, there’s no scent on the breath; there’s no bloodshot eyes; there’s no telltale symptoms that there’s a problem until they’re already so far down the line that that’s when it shows up.
Today, no family is safe from this. It’s across all 50 states—it’s rural; it’s urban; it’s suburban. It doesn’t really matter how much money your family makes or not, or what your ethnicity might be—it is an equal-opportunity destroyer.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 1st. Our host is Dennis Rainey; I'm Bob Lepine. When anyone in a family starts abusing opioids, a nightmare has begun for that entire family. We’ll hear more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I was thinking about one of your favorite questions to ask people—the question about: “What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” I think our guest today has had some courageous moments; don’t you?
Dennis: Undoubtedly. I want our listeners to know what we’re about to talk about today is a national health crisis in our country. It is so understated that I think parents need to be warned. I think Rick Van Warner is one of the men of the hour to help parents know what is going on and to perhaps save thousands of lives. Rick, welcome to the broadcast.
Rick: Thanks for having me.
Dennis: Rick has one of the more fascinating backgrounds, Bob. He was, for 30 years, a veteran of journalism. He is now the CEO of Tijuana Flats, which is a southeast regional—what do they call it, Bob?—
Bob: —fast casual.
Dennis: —fast casual Tex-Mex restaurant. Bob and I have not had a chance, but we will go!
Bob: I am looking it up next time I’m down in that part of the country.
Dennis: He has been married to Maria since 1985. They have four children. He has written a book called On Pills and Needles.
Before we get into Rick’s story, I just want to ask you, Rick—would you just give us kind of a Twitter version of what’s taking place in the opioid arena around this country?
Rick: Yes; it’s a terrible epidemic that really was kicked off by Big Pharma and the launch of OxyContin and similar opioid-based pain pills. There’s over 100 people dying every single day in America from either pill-form heroin—which is essentially Oxys and so forth—as well as heroin itself. When you think about that for a moment, it’s the leading cause of death among Americans for accidental death. It kills more people every day than auto accidents and gun violence combined.
Dennis: You indicated that in 2007, worldwide, there were 75 tons of opioids created; and America was consuming 82 percent.
Rick: It tends to be more of an American problem, although it has spread to Canada and some other countries in Europe. Really, it comes down to the addictive nature of these opioids/these pills. When you think about it, the pain pill opioids are essentially a synthetic version of heroin. There’s very little difference between the effect and the addictive nature of both substances—one’s made in a pharmaceutical lab; one’s made in a street lab.
It really is a crisis that, once the governments finally got, in the States, really hit by this—such as Florida—got around to controlling and putting some controls on prescription monitoring, etc.—it really just pushed the problem into the streets; because, by now, you’ve got tens of thousands of people already hooked on these drugs.
Dennis: So, in 2007, you were a dad of a family of three sons and one daughter.
Dennis: Your son was entering high school. It’s like: “What does this have to do with you?” But because you were in central Florida, it has everything to do with you.
Rick: And today, no family is safe from this—it’s across all 50 states—it’s rural; it’s urban; it’s suburban. It doesn’t really matter how much money your family makes or not, or what your ethnicity might be—it is an equal-opportunity destroyer.
When we found out about it—our son didn’t come home from school one day for the weekend and went missing for a few days, which led to some very anxious searches for him.
Dennis: How old was he?
Rick: He was 16 at the time. At that point, the pills—OxyContin was flowing through the high schools like candy at 7-Eleven, according to one law enforcement official I spoke to. He [son] had gotten into it just as an experimental drug—just like kids in high school tend to experiment around with different substances.
Bob: When your son went missing, you had to be in panic mode, wondering: “Had he been abducted? Had he been in an accident somewhere?” You had no idea; did you?
Rick: We’d noticed some behavioral changes in him—his grades had been slipping; he had been a little more defiant. We had him on restriction—we’d taken away his transportation, so he’d take the bus to school. So, on a Friday night, for him to not come home, initially, was—you know, my wife, of course, goes to panic mode a little faster than I do anyway. I wasn’t as worried that first night. It wasn’t until we started canvasing some of his friends and looking for him that we heard that he might be actually using these dangerous drugs with somebody we didn’t know—another kid.
That’s when the—started to get very nervous about it. By the time a day or two went by, then the nervousness turned to, certainly, despair and just anxiousness of whether we’d ever see him again.
Bob: Let me reel us back from that moment and tell us about Tommy, growing up.
Rick: He is the sweetest and most gentle out of all my children—and remains so to this day.
And remains so, even though there were periods of absolute apathy and dispassion, which is what the drug does to somebody. It takes away their personality—hijacks their brain.
He was just a normal child—he liked soccer / he liked fishing—just did normal kid things with his brothers and with other neighborhood kids. He didn’t really seem to have any—there were no real precursors for this kind of an issue.
Bob: You said you had started to see some indication that something was going on with him with grades and with friends during middle school?
Rick: Shortly, in the months leading up to him disappearing, we started to notice that he was a little less engaged. He seemed to just kind of be a little more apathetic / a little defiance starting to come out. But, of course, having raised four kids, show me a 16-year-old that doesn’t have some defiance, somewhere, along the way and—
Rick: —it’s fairly normal. So most of it was written off to normal teen angst, if you will.
It wasn’t until he didn’t show up that we really had any sense there was a drug problem.
Dennis: It was that abrupt?
Rick: It was absolutely abrupt. And what was really frightening is—when you find out how quickly somebody can get hooked. What’s difficult for parents to look out for is—unlike alcohol or marijuana, which are the normal things that you might be looking for your teens to worry about—there’s no scent on the breath; there’s no bloodshot eyes; there’s no telltale symptoms that there’s a problem until they’re already so far down the line that that’s when it shows up.
Dennis: So if you had been warned, prior to this happening, do you think there would have been any clue that you could have picked up until he ended up being missing?
Rick: Honestly, I don’t think so. I mean, what’s crazy about this substance is—it was deceptively marketed as a cure-all pain pill, which became the thing that was prescribed for everything from tennis elbow to back pain.
Dennis: Kids were actually selling these drugs after stealing them from their parents in the medicine cabinet.
Rick: Right; and most people, who were prescribed these drugs—you know, for pain, or for a minor surgery, or for wisdom teeth out. I mean, we had three kids—looking back on it—I had three kids that had their wisdom teeth out, as teenagers. They were all given prescriptions to this, which is kind of mind-blowing, knowing what we know today.
Bob: Your older son was how old at the time that this happened?
Rick: He’s about a year-and-a-half older than Tommy.
Bob: So he’s maybe a junior/senior in high school.
Bob: Had you seen any alcohol or weed issues with him?
Rick: No; not at all.
Bob: Clean—straight as a whistle as far as you knew?
Rick: Pretty much; yes.
Bob: Yes; you had seen something with your younger son—with Barry. There was some night you saw him put something in the trash can.
Rick: Well, I saw him try to cover up for some weed that my middle son had hidden in something that looked exactly like a Coke® can. It felt like a full can of Coke, but it had a screw-off lid and a little secret chamber in the middle of it.
It’s unbelievable what goes on.
For the most part, they were all raised the same in a Christian household and with the same value systems. There weren’t really any problems that we noticed until Tommy went off the deep end with these drugs.
Bob: You’d had a blow-up with Tommy the night before he disappeared.
Rick: Yes; correct.
Bob: What was that about? Do you remember?
Rick: I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about him just not wanting to—and looking back, this was probably the only indicator—he kept talking about leaving, and living on his own, and wanting to not follow any of the rules. Our oldest son had warned us that we’ve taken away so many of the privileges that there’s nowhere for him to go, at this point, but sideways, which was an interesting perspective.
I think that, when you think about these pills—where most of them are coming from and how they got into the schools—is because all these people that were overprescribed—
—most people took two or three, if they took any, and didn’t like the way they made them feel—so just leave a half-empty bottle or three quarters of a bottle in the medicine cabinet. Most of the kids were getting them from their parents, or their aunt or uncle, or grandparents; and they could get five bucks a piece for them in the halls.
Dennis: I’m a good friend with a gentleman who nearly went off the deep end with OxyContin. He started describing what takes place and how addictive it was. He was defining his entire life around where he was going to get his next hit, how he was going to get it, and where he was going to go. He said he lived his life in a blur—lost all kinds of weight—and literally, was beginning to watch his marriage completely fall apart. His professional abilities in what he was performing, as a man, was suffering as well. He was about to lose on all fronts.
Rick: Yes; well, I think the thing that people really need to understand is that, when someone—even with very short-term use on these opioids—what they do is—they hijack your brain chemistry. Once that brain chemistry has been hijacked by these substances, the science shows that it inhibits all your other ability to reason, ability to—
Rick: —judgement, completely.
The brain goes to a place where, first and foremost, is just to get more of the drug and to get it again. It’s an escape-from-emotional-pain drug too. That’s the other point I want to make. A lot of people look at it: “Well it’s just a drug of choice,” etc. Sure, some people choose—like my son—to play around with it at first; but it’s—once somebody’s in that addiction, it’s nearly impossible to escape; because of the rewiring of the brain chemistry that goes on. It makes it super difficult to get away from the grips of these substances.
Dennis: You mentioned that some people take it as a result of pain.
Dennis: It seems to me that the history of pain clinics is recent. Am I wrong on that?
Rick: No; and if you really go backwards, “Where did this pain scale come into play in American medicine as one of the vital signs?” Well, it was all done by the pharmaceutical industry and the backers of the pain pills. They created and they sold in this pain scale that we now all are very familiar with.
Well, not surprisingly, that’s when the pain pill business really took off and really became huge, including some of this family of opioids that are highly addictive. You start to think about a man-made crisis and a man-made epidemic that’s killing over a 100 Americans a day, and it really—as I researched for this book—my original frustration really turned to anger.
Dennis: Yes; you called these pain clinics “pill mills.”
Rick: Right; and then around that time, there were so many pills in an unregulated state, like Florida—which is a good thing on the one side of the hand—
—but it has its down side when it comes to things like these pain pills and like the pill mills did—popped up all over Florida. During the time my son was coming of age, in his middle teen years, was really the height of this pill mill explosion—to where there was just thousands of pills for every man, woman, and child in the state of Florida.
Dennis: You mentioned in your book 650 million pain pills in the state of Florida alone, causing 1,500 deaths.
Rick: Absolutely; for a long time, nothing was done on this front. By the time that we finally started talking about this problem, in the last few years, it’s already such an epidemic that it’s—you know, the train’s left the station.
Bob: How long was Tommy missing and how did you find him?
Rick: The initial time, when we knew—when he went missing and we knew we had a serious problem—he was gone for about four days. During that period, there was one abandoned building that was so dangerous that the Orlando city police would not go in it—deeming it too dangerous.
I went in it a few times with my friends and searched it ourselves. I just had some sort of gut feel that he was there; we had heard that he was in that vicinity. I’d seen kids in and out of that building, and I just had a sense that this—
Dennis: What was so dangerous about that building?
Rick: It was an old naval barracks, and it was about eight stories—a couple of football fields large. It had been abandoned for many years, so there was—you know, surrounded by a chain link fence. It was pitch dark; it was strewn with graffiti/broken glass. You could have homeless, vagrants, and different people that didn’t want to be found, hanging around there. The police also felt that the structure—the floors on the upper floors would be too dangerous to even walk on and so forth—so just your typical abandoned building.
Bob: But you went in, looking for your son.
Rick: Of course; yes. I mean, the first night, I had one—just one friend—and was very ill-equipped to go searching for him, with like maybe a flashlight; and that’s about it.
Bob: Were there people in the building?
Rick: No; none that we saw, but you could hide anywhere in that building. It was massive. When we saw the state of the building and saw the—it had almost an evil feel to it. We went back after that first night—I came back the next day by myself, and I was more prepared. I had the right footwear on; I had the right flashlights—had a baseball bat, just in case—those sorts of things.
Bob: And did you find Tommy there?
Rick: No; it took four days. I searched that building probably five times—you know, every floor.
Dennis: What made you think he was in there?
Rick: Looking back on it, I think God kept guiding me back there; because I just had this innate sense that he had to be in this building. I don’t know why. It was—I can’t put my finger on it. We had gone and canvased the Greyhound station/the Amtrak station with flyers and missing persons—he was reported missing. My wife and several friends said: “Look, he’s nowhere near there. He’s long gone.
“He’s out of Orlando and everything.”
Something made me keep going back to that building. On the fourth or fifth day, we found him—my son / my older son had taken a break—come home from college to help in the search. We were able to convince a friend of his—the friend he had been running with—to show some of the spots in the building where they had been hanging out, and he was there. We got him on the brink of overdose.
Bob: He was there, strung out?
Rick: Yes, very strung out—curled up in a corner, with a hoodie pulled up. Probably on—pretty close to the brink of overdose.
Bob: What do you do—in your head, as a dad—when you see your son, who you thought, a week ago, was a normal adolescent—in a hoodie on the floor of an abandoned building, strung out?
Rick: It’s devastating. It just rocks you to your core. It’s just extraordinarily painful. You try to figure out: “Where did we go wrong? How could it get this far this fast that we didn’t even know there was a problem?”
It’s just mind-blowing when—you know, just conflicting emotions—relief that he was alive. By the fourth day, we wondered if we would find him dead. We put him into a detox facility at the hospital; and then, two days after—
Dennis: I want to know how you got him out of there. Did you just pick him up?
Rick: Well, my son—my [older] son called me from in there; because they didn’t want to spook him [the friend]. My son had convinced Tommy’s friend—who we had kind of been tailing and kind of making feel quite uncomfortable for a better part of a day, including a couple of friends of mine.
My son said to him: “Look, we’ll go away. We’re not interested in getting you in trouble or anything to do with you. We’re just looking for my brother. Can you, at least, show me some of the spots you used to hang out in the building?” He said “Okay; I’ll do it.” That’s—my son walked in the building with him—with us outside.
He called me; and he says: “I’ve got him. He’s not in very good shape, but I’ll get him out—just give me a few minutes.” It took him 10/15 minutes. He didn’t hardly recognize his brother when he first saw him.
Then, when they did bring him out, it was obviously a very emotional and tearful thing. There was a policeman there, because we had to take him out of the missing persons’ data base. Then, we were able to take him straight into a detox facility, where he spent several days; and then he went from there to his first residential rehab program.
Bob: You know, if I’m a dad, finding my son in that situation, all of the emotions you’re talking about are right there. But being the optimist that I am—I’m thinking: “We’ll take him to the hospital. They’ll take him through detox.
Dennis: “We’ll get him fixed.”
Bob: “He’ll see how foolish this is. Then he’ll swear off, and it’ll all be over.”
That’s not what your story is—as we’re going to hear this week.
But I think a lot of parents, Dennis, have that kind of a hope in a moment like this. You have to temper that hope with some realism.
Dennis: When you end up finding a child who is an addict—a young adult child like this—you don’t realize the roller coaster ride that you have just begun. You can’t even begin to imagine the twist and turns and the surprises that come along the way. Nor can you begin to count the cost of the emotional toll it will take on you—as a man or a woman—on your marriage, on your family, on your work. I mean, on and on it goes, Bob.
The way I’ve heard some describe it is—it’s like the solar system—instead of the earth revolving around the sun; it’s like the entire solar system is tipped on its side, and everything revolves around Pluto.
Dennis: It completely is disorienting.
I’ll tell you—I don’t know how anyone would face this time in their lives if they didn’t have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and a community of believers, [which] stick and stay close with them, and remind them of the truth.
Bob: And to hear from somebody, who has been through this like Rick has. To hear his story, I think, is going to be eye-opening for a lot of people but, also, going to give hope to a lot of people. Rick has told the story in a book called On Pills and Needles. It’s a book that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number. Again, find information about the book and order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Or call to order the book, On Pills and Needles, by Rick Van Warner. Our number is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, issues like what we’re talking about today—opioid addiction—these are issues that a lot of families—they suffer in silence. They’re embarrassed to be honest about what’s going on behind the four walls of their home. Our goal, here, at FamilyLife® is to try to reach into families—maybe your family is going through something like this. Maybe you know somebody who is struggling with a son or a daughter or a husband or a wife, who is addicted to opioids. We want to try to provide practical biblical help and hope on these issues.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to continue to hear from Rick Van Warner about the journey his family has been on, for more than a decade now, with one of his children addicted to opioids. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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