Experience a transformative conversation with Susan Bartz Herrick in today’s episode that dives into the heartbreaking loss of her son to opioid addiction.
Susan explores the 13 precursors to addiction and the profound insights into the 3 C’s – cause, control, and cure – that shaped her own experiences in understanding her son’s disease. Her story serves as a message of resilience, uncovering how she reinvented her own life with unexpected purpose after profound loss.
Susan is dedicated to reshaping public understanding of the disease of addiction, inspiring parents to shift shameful conversations into ones of hope, and challenging the broken state of the medical and insurance system.
Join us for this timely episode that helps us break down the stigma and ignite courageous stories that will support the healing journeys of other families.
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Listen to the podcast here
Susan Bartz Herrick On Reinventing Your Life After Losing A Son To Addiction
I am so excited to have our guest for this episode, Susan Bartz Herrick. She has a unique story that I’ve not quite heard before and I wanted to have that shared with our audience. The more we share the stories and the ramifications of what we’re dealing with as a loved one, the more of us understand the web that reaches out there in terms of this disease of substance abuse disorder. Susan, thank you for being with us.
Thank you so much for having me.
For our audience’s sake, give a little bit of background. I heard her story on a podcast that I had been a guest on, The Addicted Mind, and thought, “I have not heard a story quite this way before.” You did a great job of communicating your journey with your son. You have a book that we can pre-order for the March 2024 release. I wanted to give voice to your story, give you an opportunity to talk about your upcoming book, and be a resource to our audience. I’m going to turn it over to you to tell your story.
I am a retired professor. I taught speech and theater under my MFA. In the middle of me teaching, I was asked to be a community liaison specialist at a psychiatric hospital. Mind you, this was in the 1980s. I worked on a Doctorate of Education for Human Development at this time but my job was to go out into the public and talk about mental health issues and substance abuse. Little did I know that the job would set the foundation for what would happen to me in life later on.
At that time, substance use disorder was considered a disease that nobody knew was considered a disease or if they heard that, it was like, “Yeah, right.” There was a prevalent stigma. My job was to promote the, “Just say no.” The thought was that if you say no to drugs, you won’t have a problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.Be compassionate and more understanding of the fact that substance use addiction is a disease that rewires your brain and hijacks you. Click To Tweet
My story goes on shortly after I left that job and it was quite difficult. I was there for about three and a half years but I came to see so many of the pitfalls in the mental health field that patients were only treated until their insurance ran out or they would only get treated if they had insurance. I was dealing with a lot of children. When the census was low, I had to sit on the unit. Truly, it was heartbreaking.
I got married. I was about 35 when I had my son. He was the love of my life. I wanted him so much. I perhaps knew better than to marry his father. I saw some challenges there with alcohol. I did not know at this time that there were thirteen precursors to addiction and that my son was born with those. Genetics is only a small part. There are neurological precursors like Tourette’s, ADD, bipolar, night terrors, people on the spectrum, bio-neurological changes, and how the brain works a little bit differently. You have trauma and social confidence issues.
It’s a wonderful study that I cover in my book laying all of these out. My book is a memoir but it also delves into the science of substance use disorder. I knew I was writing out of my field of expertise and I had to document everything. I’ve got about 9 to 10 pages of footnotes and 12 pages of bibliography. If anybody has any questions, all of the sources and everything that I say is right there. Getting back, my son never slept. He was, “I’m fire. Hi, Mom. How are you,” from the get-go. I was going in my late 30s so I needed some sleep. He stopped taking naps when he was two years old.
Our sons were pretty similar. I was 34 when I had him. There are some similar things here. Sam’s dad, my son, I didn’t know was an alcoholic and suffered from post-traumatic stress from Vietnam. That didn’t reveal itself until later. Sam was going all the time, too. You’re the first mom I’ve talked to who’s had such a similar story. It’s a little woo-woo.
I could only live with his father’s behavior only so long. At the age of ten, I said, “I can’t deal with this.” Luke had some more of the precursors like the trauma of losing his family and losing his father’s very nice income. I had to go back to work. We lost the house. Truly, if it wasn’t for my sainted mother, we would have been homeless because his father had lost everything unbeknownst to me. I started to watch my son’s grades decline, too. He had a hard time focusing.
We had him tested when he was quite young and they said, “He’s got an IQ of about 140. This is a very smart kid but he is shy and nervous when it comes to timed testing. He gets very anxious. We’re not medical professionals, we’re educational testers but we will tell you, he probably has ADD. It looks like he might have Tourette’s syndrome.” They asked me if he had night terrors growing up and I said, “Yeah.” They told me to be cautious and work with him because even though he had a high IQ, some things did not come naturally to him like reading.
Our world exploded when he was ten years old and he started getting very depressed. He went through puberty overnight. One night I was looking at the coffee table and said, “Where did those hairy legs come from? They were not there yesterday.” It happened quickly. Early onset puberty is another precursor. Why? It’s because these hormones hit the brain and the brain has a hard time trying to figure it all out. What I did not know during this time was that there was a company called Purdue that had introduced this brand new drug, which was a miracle drug, as they called it, for pain. The drug’s name is OxyContin.
During those early years, the medical profession was passing it out like Pez. At that time, Luke was complaining about a sore back. I thought he was sitting in his chair too much in his room. We had it checked out and he had a pilonidal cyst. He had to have surgery and his whole demeanor changed after surgery. He came out of this depression and he was happy. I didn’t think anything of it. He then had a sprained thumb and he was given Percocet, which is a form of OxyContin. Wisdom teeth were out. Before I knew it, from the age of 13 to 16, he had a dependency on this drug.
In the meantime, I had taken him to a couple of psychiatrists and they said, “He’s bipolar.” I bought into that because it explained his crazy behavior. They tried him on Depakote, Seroquel, and all these other drugs, which sent him truly crazy until one day I said, “Something is not right here.” I took him back to a psychologist that I knew and they said, “Susan, listen. Your son is depressed. He’s got himself dependent on any substance he can get his hands on so he feels okay. Since it is OxyContin, he needs a drug to help walk him off, which is called Suboxone.” I said, “Where do I get it?” He said, “That’s the problem. It’s very difficult to get.”
I was floored to find out that there were only three AMDS in the entire state of North Carolina at that time that could write out a prescription for Suboxone because doctors had to take an extra eight hours to be able to prescribe this drug. At first, they could only have ten patients a month that they could see. I said, “What sense does this make?” They pass out this drug like crazy and then boom. I found out that there was a public policy created in 1914 called the Harrison Act. They laid the platform for that in the medical community and public policy is still based on that law. We did find somebody to give him Suboxone. All of a sudden, he started getting to be my son again. I thought everything was going to be great.
Can you give me timeframe-wise when this was, Susan?
This was in the mid-2000s from about 2002 to 2009. In 2010, tragedy struck. My son was in a near-fatal car accident. He was almost nineteen years old and how he survived, the doctors don’t even know. His body was crushed. He had 27 broken bones and a burst T-fracture. He was driving down to Florida to take care of my mother for a while because Grandpa had died three weeks earlier. He had an old Range Rover and it was stuck in a high position. He turned a corner and the car rolled. He went out the side window. By the grace of God himself, Luke survived.
I was standing at his bed for a week watching a ventilator breathe for him. When they finally said that he would make it, I remember distinctly walking out of the room one day and looking over. There was morphine, Dilaudid, fentanyl, and all of these narcotics dripping into him to keep him alive. I knew we were going to have a much bigger fish to fry after this was all over. That is exactly what happened. That is what the majority of my book is about. Some doctors in Florida had him up to 800 milligrams of OxyContin a day for the pain and then public policy changed. They said, “We can’t treat you anymore.”
We were left out in a state where our insurance was out of network with doctors who fell into three categories. One was, “We don’t use narcotics anymore so we can’t help you.” It’s because they were afraid of losing their license. Others still believed in Purdue. You treat that pain all the way up. They did not know about the tolerance effect that the more you give, the more you need.
What happens with this drug is it produces dopamine, which is that feel-good hormone. In doing so, coming from an artificial source, the brain no longer produces it. When the drug is not there, the brain starts to think it is going to die. That’s where the withdrawal and crazy actions come from because people are trying to keep themself from going through this horrific withdrawal. I’ll get more on that in a little bit.
After eighteen crazy months, we finally figured things out. I had to use the tough love. I already had a girlfriend who walked in and found her son overdosed. I could tell from what I was seeing that I had to bring myself out of denial. No parent wants to say, “My child is addicted to drugs.” Unless we get out of the denial ourselves and say, “My child is in trouble. Something is going on and has happened to their brain. This is a disease and I need to step in to help them.” You can’t control it, you didn’t cause it, and you can’t cure it but there are ways. In eighteen months, I finally found a needle in his car.
One morning, it hit me. I walked into his room and said, “I’m going to give you 24 hours to move out of his house. No credit card, car, or money. Nothing. I will get a court order to enforce that.” I meant it because deep in my heart, I knew he was probably going to die because of this. I just did not be the one to find him. I could take getting a phone call but I cannot take finding him that way. I was like, “You’re out. I find you a year-long treatment center.”
By that time, I had come to learn that it takes the brain about a year to heal and start making its dopamine. I said, “It’s a year-long treatment center sobriety house as far away from North Carolina as we can get. As long as you’re still around your same playmates playing toys and playgrounds, you’re going to want to do the same play actions.” I walked out of my room in my study and ten minutes later, I heard his door opening. I was ready for the explosion, which happened many times. Instead, he sat down and cried. He said, “Mama, I have tried to stop so many times. I hate myself for what I’ve done. I can’t stop because it’s killing me. It feels so terrible.”
Later on in life, I asked him two questions. “When do you think the dependency started?” He answered, “Mama, the second that nurse gave me that little white pill and all the pain went away, it was on my radar.” I asked him to explain to me. I said, “What do withdrawal and cravings feel like?” When we hear those terms, especially craving, we think of a chocolate chip cookie or that piece of the pie. It’s nothing compared to what these cravings are.
Luke and I were standing out in the backyard and there’s a small little finger back there. He said, “What withdrawal feels like is this. If somebody pours gasoline on you and lights you on fire, every single part inside of you and outside, from your hair fibers, eyeballs, toenails, and heart, is on fire.” You’ve got 1 of the 2 choices. You can run as quick as you can and jump in that lake, and that’s going to put it out. When you get out of the lake, those fumes after a while, are going to start to come back up and light back up again. You’ve got to make sure that there’s always a lake close by that you can jump into, whether it’s your lake or not. The other choice is to sit there and let it burn you up for 5, 7, or 10 days.”Withdrawal feels like somebody pours gasoline on you and lights you on fire. Everything inside and outside of you is on fire. Click To Tweet
I watched him go through that multiple times because he wanted sobriety more than anything else. He fought and fought. He has had sobriety for many years. From a kid who had a GED to get into an Ivy League school, it was amazing. He started his company. He was a scratch golfer. He found ways to cure his disease and find other ways to make his body make dopamine. He got into an incredible physical shape. You would never know all of the scars up and down his front and back. He looked with a shirt on.
Unfortunately, we had the perfect storm roll in during COVID. Luke would go to meetings 1 or 2 a day. All of a sudden, all the meetings were gone. He had to golf every day. It was a driving force but it did the trick. All of a sudden, he couldn’t golf or go to meetings. He broke his hand. All these things trickled down. He relapsed and fought to get off again, which he did.
He made up his mind that he was going to move from California back home. He had spent the entire summer with me. I could tell his brain was not reacting back the way it had the other times. His anxiety was still through the roof. Unfortunately, when he got back to California, he asked his friend for a Klonopin or Xanax. What he got was a pill that was pure fentanyl. He was gone within 36 hours after he went home.
There are way too many parents and grandparents who have experienced this journey. My son was finishing eight months of I can’t even tell you how many rehabs. He’s starting back to work. Our sons were about the same age. There has to be a way for us to hold the space for their journey and ours also. I believe that everything is to serve a higher purpose so I certainly believe that Luke’s journey is to serve a larger purpose than just telling the story of his demise and the trauma of dealing with the disease.
I am super curious throughout all of this because before we got on here, we were talking about twenty years of dealing with this and the trauma that it’s been for you, the stress, the worry, and all the things that we, as moms in particular and dads deal with the kids that we love who are dealing with this disease. At what point did you get clear that it was important for you to take care of yourself?
I tried to during the process. I loved my job and working with kids. During this time, I set up hospice 5 times in 4 years. My mother, my father, and two of my good friends were all dying of cancer. I was the one taking care of them. A lot of us go through these years of being the thin slice of baloney in the sandwich of life. We’re taking care of the kids. We have parents and friends. I always tried to exercise and take care of myself but I won’t lie to you, my focus was on trying to keep him alive.
I did in 2018 have a wake-up call. Something exploded in my head. My ears started ringing. I was told I had PTSD. What a surprise. Letting go of something you cannot control, and this is one of the biggest things that I learned from Luke and some of the treatment centers, was to ask myself the three Cs whenever I would get crazy. “Did I control this?” If the answer is no, let it go. “Can I cure this?” No, you can’t cure this. It is a chronic disease, which will be with them forever. If they can’t cure it, let it go. The biggest one is, “Can I control this?” You cannot control substance use disorder.
What is unfortunate for S2D and OUD is when you have diabetes and heart disease, which are chronic, there are all these medications, doctors, and plans to be able to help you and be supportive of you. Case in point diabetes, you’ve got 30 drugs that doctors can use in combination to find the right kind along with diet and exercise. With substance use disorder, there are three. There is very little research. It’s starting to grow more because we are losing 300 young people a day. It’s not just because the fentanyl is coming over the border.
Yes, that is a big cause but it’s also because of public policy and the medical industry. Notice I didn’t say profession but the medical industry has a stigma. They don’t want to treat people. They’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their license because of all these archaic laws. Mostly, they do not understand substance use disorder. Of all of the tens of thousands of DOs and MDs that we have in this country, only 7,000 of them have a specialty in addictionology and truly understand how it affects the brain. That’s a huge difficulty.
I hear the frustration in all of this and I live the frustration to a certain extent. I want to go back to when you said you had that wake-up call in 2018. What did you do with that wake-up call that was your journey?
I had to look at myself and life realistically, separating my son’s journey from mine. My son and I, over that accident, had a crisis bonding. I had to look at that and open that up to see what was his responsibility, what was mine, and how I could better take care of myself. I’m sure you probably have even used this example on the airlines when they say, “In the case of turbulence, grab your mask first and put it on because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to help anybody else.” That took me a long time to get that message.
I realized I had to put this in the higher power hands. I saw how much my son wanted health. I also saw he was a young man who wanted to fit in and be like everybody else coming out of denial for both him and especially me that I don’t care what other people think. One of the most painful parts of this entire process is at Luke’s memorial service and at his wake, many people couldn’t look me in the eye. They were ashamed for me. I’m not ashamed of my son. He had a disease, one that hardly anybody truly understood. How he lived his life and how he died were two separate things.
My greatest call was after he passed away. On Facebook, I read a lot of these stories, Angels of Fentanyl and the people who have lost their children. You’ve got parents who die with their child even if they’re still living and some don’t. They die with their child with anger and bitterness. I was on this one conference call with a group called Helping Parents Heal. It was only a couple of months after Luke transitioned. Their whole basis was to bring more love into the world in honor and memory of their child.
That resonated with me because I knew Luke’s story, the truth about what substance use disorder is, and the stigma that keeps it underground with the medical community, public policy, and even the parents of those children who say, “My kid is an addict.” No, they’re not an addict. We don’t say, “You are a fatso.” We don’t use those terms. “My child has a disease. They’re in recovery.” Instead of, “They’re clean now.” They’re never dirty. It’s by how we use our terminology. By standing up and making the rest of my life’s work and purpose is to break the stigma like a lot of our friends in the past had to do with other issues. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do.
I understand the stigma, judgment, making them bad and wrong, and all the swirls around that. In the loved one’s community, we talk a lot about breaking the stigma, shattering the stigma, or whatever along those lines, which is asking people to suspend judgment and be compassionate and more understanding of the fact that this is a disease, it rewires your brain, and it hijacks you. The person who is using it at the time is not the person they are when they’re not using it. They’re two different people. There’s a lot around that. What I am curious about because I’ve been wrestling with this myself is, if we’re shattering stigma, judgment, and all that swirls around this, what are we creating? Can you imagine a world in which stigma doesn’t reside?
I would like to see it.
Can you describe it? Can you imagine it?
Your term compassion encapsulates it. We are so quick to judge and accept a belief system and a norm without thinking it through. When you take a look at all of the large stigmas that are being shattered, how many people had to die in such tragedies to get the attention? In the LGBTQ community, many of my friends were afraid to come out with their love until there was a fight. My book is called Slow Dancing with the Devil because that’s what we were doing. One of Luke’s best friends was so shattered after losing Luke. He is an actor out in Hollywood. He said, “We are going to turn this into a film.”We are so quick to judge. We are so quick to accept a belief system or norm without thinking it through. Click To Tweet
He has been dogging that out. There is a screenplay that has been completed and they’re starting to shop it out because we want to bring to the public the same kind of realizations as what the Dallas Buyers Club did for HIV. It’s to not be ashamed. Take it on and speak freely with love and without judgment. It takes introspection to be able to take a look at our belief systems and examine them ourselves, “Am I reacting to something I heard or a social norm, or is this true?” I had that evolution in my life. Say no to a disease. Karma got that one.
It was the times. You and I are about the same age. My brother was addicted to cocaine during those times. What is helpful and gives me hope is that I was the one in our family who got my brother to go to rehab. In a time when I would say this to my friends or other people, nobody spoke about them knowing somebody who had needed to go to rehab. I didn’t know not to say it. Now, you can just about talk to anybody and they know somebody, or they have people in their family. Out of it becoming personal to so many people at this stage, the day of reckoning is here in terms of understanding that we do need to elevate our consciousness in terms of compassion.
We must. I saw my son suffer so much, not just because of the disease but how he wanted so strongly is to be able to have the chance to use all of these wonderful abilities that he had. Unfortunately, some of the biggest problems still lie within the substance abuse community. One of the gold standards is to use MAT, Medicine Assisted Treatments, or MOUD, Medicines for Opioid Use Disorder to be able to help people.
I have met someone who wrote the epilogue for my book, who is an addiction specialist. He claims that 80% of his patients who have been once very dependent are now living healthy good lives. He manages their medication. He said, “I have to bring it up and down sometimes like any chronic disease.” There is always hope for this but within the substance use community, there are still a lot of groups that say, “You can only be clean if you don’t use any MAT or MOUD.” What sense does that make?
You would not tell a cancer patient, “Your faith and program are not strong enough if you decide to take chemotherapy.” You would not tell that to a diabetic. “You walk and eat well. No, you can’t take any medicine at all no matter what your blood sugar is because if you do, you’re a failure.” That is still a message that is coming out. It is starting to change but it certainly isn’t changing as quickly as I would like, which is another reason for this book.
It is to be able to lay things out in a layman’s understanding. I can read Medicalese with a dictionary. I’m fortunate I have friends who translate for me. There is a lot of good information coming out but it’s lying in journals that are written in sixteen-year-grade language. It needs to come down to seventh or eighth grade, and that’s what I tried to do.
It is so important. The foundation of all of this is unconditional love. We all need to be educated about this disease and how it affects our loved ones and know more about it. A lot of people get stuck in the judgment, stigma, and shame part of it, and aren’t open to understanding what is going on. I’m still sifting and sorting through this for myself but it feels very much like it’s too painful to love somebody who’s going through this. This requires you to love deeply at levels that most of us are not prepared to do in a way that is healthy and whole.
I could separate. I told Luke I would help and support him as long as he remains on his program. I said, “If you go off, then you’re on your own. It will break my heart but mostly it will break yours.” I learned how to make that separation. I had to do it a couple of times by saying no without feeling guilty.
That took me quite a while.
“If you want to go out and get drunk, good. Bye. No car, keys, money, or anything.” I’d go home and pray. I was fortunate because thanks to my mother. We had the finances to be able to send him away to places that could help him. I cried many times for the mothers that didn’t. Knowing he can’t stay around the same behaviors, I could send him away. A lot of other people can’t. This is why we have to affect policy change and insurance. There are so many things broken about the mental health system. If we don’t start standing up screaming about it and drawing attention to it, it won’t change.There are so many things broken about the mental health system. If we don't start standing up screaming about it and drawing attention to it, it won't change. Click To Tweet
My biggest call is out to parents who have had to deal with this that they learn the right terminology and change this paradigm within their heads. There is a clip I found online that I share in the book. It’s a young boy in a hospital bed. He’s bald and has IVs in him. You can tell he’s a cancer patient. The parents are sitting there screaming at him, “How could you do this to us? Why don’t you get up and change? Do you know the problems that this is causing us?”
Parents would never do that if that was their child with cancer. Yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing instead of, “You have a disease. We need to get you helped. You have to have help but you have to want it first. If you do, let’s follow these avenues in how to get the best kind.” Truly, change some of the verbiage. It’s not a clean or dirty addict. There is an addiction but it’s a dependency and disease. We don’t treat other diseases with this kind of disparity.
There’s a very small percentage of people that understand the brain health piece of this and that this disease reorders your brain. There’s education that needs to take place and more people, I hope, want to be educated instead of holding on to these archaic old ways of viewing this disease. That’s one. It’s not just a mindset shift. There’s a heartset shift that needs to take place too that is rooted in unconditional love and compassion with boundaries. We have touched certainly on the journeys of our kids growing up with this disease and then the journeys of our kids as adults growing up with this disease. They’re two different journeys from a parenting perspective.
My shift out of my son’s teenage years and who I was as a mom, and then shifting to a different way of parenting as having an adult son, there’s a bridge to getting into that other side. The two of us are very driven to want to know, be educated, and understand because we love our son so deeply. There are two things I’m thinking. One is our love for them has unlocked our curiosity about how can we show up differently in the world and be different from that perspective. I certainly have tremendous more capacity and understanding for what’s taking place than I did previously. There’s a lot to this.
The more and more people who are willing to share their stories, like you, me, and the people that I surround myself with who are not ashamed, embarrassed, or judging themselves based on this disease, hopefully, we can move more in that direction of compassion, not only for the ones that are dealing with the disease but for us as the people who are loving ones that are dealing with the disease.
I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t care what people think about me anymore. There is such absolute freedom in that. I don’t know why I did. What other people think about me is none of my business. I want to make sure that there are fewer of these phone calls that break your heart because it rips your heart right out of your chest. Also, to edify and enlighten people on this. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be able to do this. Truly, I’m very grateful.
I want people to get your book. Give them the title, where they can get it, your website, where you’re available, and how can people reach out to you, connect with you, and learn more from you.
My website is my name, SusanBartzHerrick.com. The book is on there but you can pre-order through Amazon. It is published by McFarland and it is on their website too. They are a highly acclaimed academic publisher and I’m under their print. It was quite an honor. I was going to self-publish if I had to but they picked me up. SBHerrick13@Hotmail.com. I encourage anybody to write or get up with me. It is my job, in my son’s name, memory, and honor, to help as many people as I can. Thank you.
We’re so grateful that you have the strength to have your voice, write your book, and hopefully have a movie out there that will continue to push the envelope of our societal understanding of this disease and our compassion around this disease.
What have we got to lose? Nothing.
Everything to gain at this point, truly. Thank you so much for your time, heart, story, and who you are in the world as an advocate, a writer, and an influencer in this space. I’m very grateful to have listened to that podcast, heard your story, and have you join us. Thank you so much, Susan.
- Susan Bartz Herrick
- The Addicted Mind – Past episode featuring KL Wells
- Slow Dancing with the Devil
- Amazon – Slow Dancing with the Devil: A Son’s Substance Use Disorder, A Mother’s Anguish