SOLACE founder Jo Anna Krohn, right, talks to students at Georgetown High School on Wednesday, Jan. 23, about how easily and unexpectedly teenagers can become addicted to drugs, and how her own son died from wreckless behavior while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Portsmouth-based SOLACE is starting a Brown County chapter in February.
"I know that you're a teenager and you think you're bullet-proof and that you don't need to worry about it, but one thing I will tell you is that we have a tremendous epidemic of prescription drug abuse going on right here in Brown County - you probably already know that," said Steven Dunkin, executive director of the Brown County Community Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services to a silent crowd at Georgetown High School. "You probably already know people who have issues with prescription drugs, or you may know someone who has a problem but you aren't aware of it."
Dunkin was at the high school on Wednesday, Jan. 23, with members of the group Surviving Our Loss and Continuing Everyday, to tell the all-too-familiar tale of the drug problem in Brown County, and put it in perspective for the crowd.
"In 2010, Brown County had the dubious distinction of leading the state with the rate of unintentional deaths due to drug abuse," Dunkin said. "There were 17 people lost in this county due to overdoses, due primarily to prescription drugs. My way of thinking is if a serial killer is running around the county and takes 17 lives, we would have this gym filled with people wanting to do something about it. So I thought the best way to do something about it is to start the discussion: to make yourselves aware of what the issues are."
Three SOLACE members - Jo Anna Krohn, Barbara Howard, and a young recovering addict - were present to discuss their experiences losing a loved one to a drug-related death, and how young people often find themselves down the rabbit hole of drugs before they even realize what is happening to their lives.
"My story kind of tells itself, and I think it's important to share it with people," Krohn said. "A lot of you think that at the age you are, that you are invincible and nothing bad could ever happen, and that's what my son thought. But you know what? He was wrong. On April 20, 2008 he made a mistake - his mistake cost him his opportunity to take Jenny to the high school prom, it cost him the opportunity to walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma, and it cost him his life. His name was Wes Workman and he was my son."
Krohn founded SOLACE in her hometown of Portsmouth, two years after she lost her son to an accidental gun shot while he was under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and opiates.
"We have about 40 members who have lost a parent or child to drug-related deaths, whether it be overdoses, car accidents or homicides," Krohn said.
Before telling her heart-wrenching story, Krohn played a video to show students that her son was very similar to themselves.
"By watching this video, you can just see that he was one of you guys - he was a regular person, he had a lot of potential," Krohn said. "Wes was a good person, but he made many bad mistakes and doing drugs makes you an entirely different person. You do things you would never think that you would do."
"This did not have to happen, it did not have to be like this," Krohn said. "He was good looking, wasn't he girls? And pretty tough, wasn't he guys? He was active. He was fun. He loved life. He was a great kid, he just made some bad choices, and once he started using drugs he had it in his genetic makeup that he liked it very much and he did not want to stop. And it went very quickly from drinking beer and smoking pot to pills, cocaine, he just went off full-speed ahead."
For four years, Krohn tried to help Workman seek help and recover, going as far as pressing charges against her own son, who went to juvenile detention four times.
"It broke my heart, I thought this is the worst thing a parent could ever go through, to see their little boy have to go to jail," Krohn said. "But I was wrong. It wasn't the worst thing that could happen, by far."
Workman continued to abuse drugs throughout high school.
"His senior year he was pretty good, he was sentenced to rehab and he went for three months," Krohn said. "It wasn't long enough to teach him his lesson or to really rehabilitate him, or to make him understand what he was doing. He just complied with all the restrictions and hurried on with the program and convinced me that it was OK and that he could come home. So against my better judgement, I let myself hope and believe that he was doing better, that he had learned his lesson."
When Workman came home, he had colleges looking at him for scholarships and everything seemed to be looking up - on the outside.
About five weeks before Workman died, his father told Krohn he believed their son was not only abusing drugs, but selling them as well.
"I asked Wesley and did some investigating, and I found out yes he was, he had a number of friends he was getting prescription Oxycontin from - he would take half of them and sell the other half," Krohn said. "And when I heard this, I was really disappointed. I was going to turn him in, because he was 18, and I thought and prayed "what do I need to do?" I convinced myself again that if he goes to jail he won't graduate high school, he won't go back and get his GED, he will use this against me - "you did this to me mom" - even though it wouldn't have been my fault, he would use it as an excuse for the rest of his life to just say "I don't have a diploma so I can't work." So I decided not to do anything, and wait until he graduated, and that was the wrong decision because he never made it that far."
On that Sunday night in April, Krohn received the phone call that no parent wants to get, and heard the words that have haunted her every day for the rest of her life: her son had been shot in the head.
Krohn then rushed to the local hospital and saw her son laying on a stretcher, about to be taken by air care to Columbus - he was still alive. Krohn discovered what had happened from Workman's father, who was also at the hospital.
"He told me what had happened: he was allowing our son to be downstairs with his friends and he was allowing them to drink. He was allowing them to smoke pot, and they were taking pills," Krohn said. "My son was all topsy, he was very messed up. So while they were partying, somebody sees the gun laying halfway under the couch - and they mention it."
Workman had bought the gun for protection because as he started dealing drugs, people started breaking into their house looking for pills and money.
"He got the gun out and started playing with it," Krohn said, getting emotional. "And he says to his friends, "I know a game we can play, it's called Russian Roulette." And for no reason at all and with no warning, he pointed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger."
Wes survived the flight and made it through the night. The next day, doctors discovered that due to the damage to his brain, Workman would be blind in his right eye and would be paralyzed on his right side - but could possible be completely blind and paralyzed - and that he was going to have severe brain damage.
Krohn did not have to make the decision to take her son off of life support because he died from "brain death" on Tuesday, April 22.
Workman was buried a week later in his jeans, football jersey and tennis shoes.
Krohn asked the crowd to raise their hand if they had friends or family members who were abusing drugs, and students looked around at the amount of hands. Some remained motionless and unsure.
"Do you think my son woke up one morning and said, 'I want to be a drug addict?' Did he wake up that morning and say, 'I'm going to kill myself today?' No," Krohn said. "He didn't. It was very impulsive, and that never would've happened if he hadn't been abusing drugs. You should never mess with drugs. You don't know if you take one pill if you're going to be able to stop. All it takes is one pill to get you."
"My hope is that if you go out this weekend and you get the opportunity to get wild and crazy, think about Wes, and maybe you'll think, 'No, I don't want to get too crazy this weekend. Maybe I'll skip that," Krohn said. "My point to you young people is if you have a friend, if you know someone who's doing something wrong...if you know somebody who's got a problem, do something about it. Don't wait. Don't be afraid to get them in trouble. What's the worst that could happen - they get mad at you because you rat them out? You could be saving their life. You don't want to be in my position, or in the position as a friend who's lost someone."
SOLACE member Barbara Howard then got up and recited a poem titled "Pills."
"As you all sit here and listen to this, you may think, 'Oh, this can't happen to me,'" an emotional Howard said. "And if you honestly, honestly believe that, you're dead wrong, because it can happen to you. There is hope, and this doesn't have to end in tragedy. You've got your whole life ahead of you. Be smart with your choices."
Howard lost her son-in-law, watched her daughter lose her son, and on Oct. 3, 2009, lost her daughter, Leslie Cooper, 34, to a prescription drug overdose.
Krohn and Howard travel around the state to tell their stories of how they lost their loved ones in drug-related deaths and to start up local SOLACE chapters, as they are launching in Brown County next month.
"The ladies from Portsmouth will be coming here to help get the group started and hopefully there will be enough response to it that the group will take on its own operation here in the county," Dunkin said.
The first meeting to kick off the Brown County chapter will be 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Georgetown Church of Christ. It is open to anyone who wants to learn more about the group or anyone who is experiencing issues in their own family.