110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
‘Stand Up’ is a place to talk about it
By Jen Horton
posted Mar 1, 2012 - 7:15:27am
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls prescription-drug abuse a “deadly epidemic.” The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said 81 percent of drug incidents that involve police also involve drugs that were prescribed by a doctor.
But families keep prescription addiction in the dark, because its realities are ugly and uncomfortable.
Two DeLand moms have stepped into the light. They said it’s time for people to stop looking away, and start looking for solutions.
It’s time to talk about it.
Robyn Schmidt and Erika Webb both have sons in trouble. They launched a Facebook page, Stand Up, to bring their pain into the light and get a conversation started with others who are hurting.
The two met with The Beacon at a local restaurant. They bared their souls in the hope they could empower the community.
Schmidt arrived home from work Feb. 7. Her son, Michael Burke, 23, had been hospitalized following an arrest for theft. She hadn’t seen her child in weeks. Due to hospital regulations, she was unable to find out how Burke was doing.
That’s when the floor fell out.
Schmidt’s husband, Rob, told her he’d seen Michael.
“I said, ‘Where? Was he released? Did you see him at the hospital?’” Schmidt said. “He said Michael was on the news.”
Her son made the TV news after breaking out of the hospital.
Michael Burke had been arrested for stealing his mother’s checkbook and debit card, and draining her bank account. Schmidt was the one who called police.
“It was hard to do,” she said. “It was so hard to do. He could serve 10 years in prison, and I’m OK with that. In 10 years, he’ll still be young, and he’ll be alive.”
She paused to compose herself, leaving the implication hanging heavy in the air. Her baby, the boy she nurtured for 23 years, could die if he continued on his path; jail was a safer place for him.
According to the Centers for Disease Control more people died in 2008 from prescription-drug overdoses than from cocaine and heroin combined. In Volusia County last year, there were 114 drug-related deaths.
Facing jail time for violating his drug-offender probation, Schmidt’s son escaped from Florida Hospital-DeLand wearing a hospital gown and prison shackles.
He ran from police to an unoccupied building; while in the building, he grabbed a knife.
Police said they thought Burke might use the knife on himself.
“I think he broke out to end it,” Schmidt said.
The Jan. 28 arrest was Burke’s second. In 2010, he was arrested for grand theft and dealing in stolen property. That’s when he was put on drug-offender probation. Records show that while in that program, Burke tested positive for drugs more than once.
His mother said he was stealing to support an addiction.
Burke injured his shoulder when he was 18, Robyn Schmidt said, and the doctor prescribed Oxycodone for the pain. That was the beginning, Schmidt said.
Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson said his office made 1,585 drug-related arrests in 2010, a 50-percent increase over the number in 2000.
“Many of these people do get started legitimately,” the sheriff said.
Burke was a bright boy with a heart of gold, his mother said. By age 20, he had earned a fumigation license at the University of Florida, and was ready to begin a career.
Schmidt now looks back, and realizes how she was involved in Burke’s drug abuse, as her son learned the tricks of getting new pain-pill prescriptions.
“He’d complain of a toothache, and I’d take him to the dentist,” she said. “I feel totally ignorant. I was taking my child to the doctor to get better, and he was getting sicker.”
Things came to a head in 2010 when Michael was arrested for pawning stolen items.
Schmidt made the hard decision to not bail her son out of jail. He stayed behind bars for six months.
“When he came out, he looked fantastic,” Schmidt said.
Michael spent another six months in inpatient recovery. He was allowed to visit home on the weekends.
Schmidt thought Burke was getting better; instead, he may have been getting more sophisticated in his drug use.
“He told me he learned how to inject drugs from a person he met in recovery, someone he brought to my home for a weekend,” she said.
An incident with a girlfriend triggered the most recent downfall, Schmidt said.
“Michael completely spiraled after that,” Schmidt said.
That led to the January 2012 arrest, Schmidt said.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “But I can’t help him be sick... .”
Erika Webb is a friend of Schmidt’s. Webb’s son C.J. is currently serving seven-and-a-half years for a gamut of crimes: battery, stealing, and a weapons charge.
Although C.J.’s charges weren’t drug-related, a DeLand Police report from August 2004 said friends told police C.J. had been brandishing a sword, screaming obscenities, and threatening to kill a man. He was arrested for aggravated battery.
At the time, his mother said, C.J. was mixing prescription drugs and alcohol.
The National Drug Threat Survey, in 2009, said seven out of nine regions surveyed had increases in crime that correlated to increases in prescription-drug abuse.
“You do everything you can to protect them,” Erika Webb said. “From the time they’re little, you just want to protect them.”
Both mothers teared up after a shared moment of grief and pain.
Webb said her son, C.J., was also a bright boy, who graduated early from high school and started to experiment with drugs.
“Two weeks before his 18th birthday, he ended up in the hospital overdosed on mushrooms,” Webb said.
C.J.’s first arrest, she said, happened after he went to an auto-parts store and stole a scooter. He was put on house arrest, and did great at first, his mother said.
Then he relapsed, and flashed a gun at a local bar. He was arrested again. This time, he was going to prison.
“I remember sitting in that courtroom thinking I was going to die; I was just going to have a heart attack right there,” Webb said. “I promised then that I’d do anything, anything to be a part of the solution.”
C.J. is nearing the end of his sentence.
Both women said convicted felons who are recovering addicts get little help.
A 2011 Florida Department of Children and Families report said that, statewide, only 11 percent of drug addicts who need treatment are getting it.
“They need structure, peer counseling, job mentoring and support for their families,” Webb said. “In recovery, they call it a family disease.”
Schmidt said addicts’ family members have nowhere to turn for guidance or support.
“AA works wonders, Al-Anon works wonders, but we’re working with a different demon,” Schmidt said. “This is something our society has never had to deal with.”
Both women said people fail to take seriously the dangers of prescription drugs, believing “it must be OK if a doctor gives it to you.”
Schmidt said one doctor put Michael on a replacement drug to get him off another drug.
“The doctor told him … he had a genetic disposition for drug use,” Schmidt said. “That it wasn’t his fault.”
That didn’t set well with Schmidt.
“That was not what Michael needed to hear,” Schmidt said, “that it wasn’t his fault.”
Addiction to prescription pills has no boundaries.
“This epidemic touches everyone in sight,” Sheriff Johnson said. “These drugs know no boundaries. The poorest and richest sons are all susceptible.”
Schmidt and Webb want that to change.
“I swore I’d do anything to be a part of the solution,” Webb said.
They both feel not much will happen until more people start talking about how prescription addiction is affecting them.
“It’s time to talk about it,” Schmidt said. “This is not a dirty little secret. I’m going to scream it from the rafters if that’s what it takes to get people to talk.”
Schmidt and Webb intend for the Internet gathering place they co-founded, Stand Up, to be a place where people can start the conversation.
“I want to collect as many parents as possible,” Webb said.
They hope the conversation will lead to communitywide action, as people begin to realize the ramifications of one family member, friend or co-worker with a prescription-drug addiction.
“One person affects the entire community,” she said.
One prevention effort already under way in Volusia County is the Sheriff’s Office program that allows people to drop off unused prescription medication so it can be destroyed safely. This is important, the sheriff said, because many young pill abusers are getting hooked first on drugs from their family medicine cabinets.
Orange City Manager Jamie Croteau said the drop-box program in her city has been highly successful. Since October, more than 100 pounds of medicine has been dropped off.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the drugs that caused the most deaths in Florida in 2010 were Oxycodone, benzodiazepines, methadone, alcohol, cocaine, hydrocodones, diazepam and morphine.
Schmidt and Webb would like to see more volunteers at rehabilitation facilities, more exit programs, more counseling and more resources for families.
But right now, they are screaming from the rafters: “Yes, it could be your child. Do something!”
They are thankful that, tragically, because of jail, their boys will have lives to come back to someday; they are hopeful those lives will be beautifully free from drugs.
While it is hard to have a child in jail, there are harder things.
Schmidt took a deep breath and said, “I sleep well now. I’m not sitting up in bed, hearing sirens go by, and wondering where my son is.”
Webb nodded her head in agreement.
The comments posted below are posted by readers, not by The Beacon staff. These comments express the views and opinions of the authors, and not the administrators, moderators or webmaster. The comments forum is governed by these rules. Please use the report abuse link if you find offensive comments.
Did you find this story interesting or informative? Subscribe to The West Volusia Beacon to read more stories by Jen Horton, along with others from our award-winning writers. Subscribe now!