A local mom mourns son lost to drugs
February 14, 2012
Two months after her son’s death, Sheila Kirst’s darkest suspicions were confirmed. Jacob, her fun-loving 20-year-old snow- and skateboarder, a recent Park City High School graduate, had died of a heroin overdose.
In the weeks spent waiting for the results of Jacob’s autopsy, Kirst, who knew that her son had struggled with addiction, became steadily more resolved to go public with Jacob’s story. Now, with the official results in hand, she wants to warn other parents and local youth that a dangerous villain has moved into the neighborhood: heroin.
"It took 14 weeks to get a copy of the autopsy report. But in my gut I knew, I knew Jacob was struggling," she said in an interview that she instigated.
"I want to tell kids what this drug is. They don’t know. I’d love to scare the hell out of them, to let them know we are not exaggerating. I am here as a parent of a child heroin addict. This will kill you," she says with heartbreaking conviction.
Kirst traces Jacob’s addiction back to the use of painkillers.
"Like a lot of kids in this town, Jake had a lot of injuries through snowboarding. He had been on Oxycontin and Percocet, not once but a few times. But in his journals he writes about never thinking those prescriptions could cause an addiction," she said.
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"He was a risk-taking kid, but that is what we do in this town. That is what this town is about, jumping off a mountain, going face first, this is who we are," she said.
But some kids, and she admits that Jacob was one, don’t know where to draw the line.
Medications were available without prescriptions too. According to Kirst, in 2009, during Jacob’s senior year, a classmate who also had undergone several surgeries was providing a steady supply of Oxycontin to Jacob and other students. But when Oxycontin became too expensive the boy had switched to heroin. One day he offered some to Jacob.
"In Jake’s words, he said he didn’t know what it was and this other kid said, ‘It’s like Oxy only better.’"
At that moment, Kirst says, Jacob sealed his fate.
"Whether it’s two years or 20 years, there is only one end to it. That is what these kids truly don’t know. For the rest of your life you are in pain."
For the next year, Jacob tried to hide his mounting problem while his parents tried equally hard to deny it existed. "I knew he had tried pot, tried drinking. But he was never excessive with it," she remembers.
One day, though, an anonymous caller told the family that Jacob was using heroin. Kirst, along with her husband and Jacob’s sister, confronted him. He adamantly denied it, claiming the caller was an ex-friend who was just being vindictive.
"It seemed preposterous. Nobody does heroin," she thought at the time, especially not a bright kid who had taken honors classes in middle school.
But as Jacob’s habit grew, it became harder to conceal.
"About a year later he came to me I knew something was wrong. I thought he was on cocaine or speed or something and I pressed really hard. I wasn’t letting up. He walked away from me, but then he turned back, and that’s when he said, ‘Mom, I’m in trouble.’ And he told me it was heroin."
Her first reaction was shock and anger. But when she calmed down, she and Jacob’s dad began trying to help him. He went to rehab and the family hoped he was on the road to recovery. the summer of 2011, Jacob was living at home and had a job that he loved. But there were signs that he had relapsed. Kirst caught him giving himself an injection, and there were other times when he seemed to be "in a stupor."
"I have news for you. As a mom, every single day you come home, you wonder, ‘Is today the day I find him dead?’"
Every time she suspected that he was off the wagon, Kirst said, "I would beg and cry. I would say, ‘Jacob, this is going to kill you,’ and I would hear, ‘It’s OK mom, don’t worry. I’m not stupid, mom.’"
In the meantime, the family struggled financially. According to Kirst rehab programs cost $35,000 per month and realistically, she said, Jacob would need at least six months to a year of treatment to overcome his addiction.
"Every person I know who is going through this says the same thing: You have to maintain a job, you have to pay your bills, and in the back of your head the whole time you wonder, ‘Is this the day I find him dead?’"
Last fall, on Oct. 12, Jacob locked himself in the bathroom and injected a dose of heroin. His sister Chelsea eventually found him unconscious and called 911. Paramedics worked on Jacob at the house and then transported him to a hospital in Salt Lake City where he finally succumbed.
Kirst can not contain her tears when she recalls that night.
"He was a good kid. He was so outgoing, people loved him," she said, adding that, 90 people showed up at the Park City Skate Park for an impromptu memorial afterwards.
Kirst doesn’t blame anyone for Jacob’s death. The boy who gave her son his first taste of heroin had his own problems. In fact, she remembers trying to convince his mother that he needed to be in a pain management program.
Instead, she believes once they understand the magnitude of the problem, the community will rally to save kids like Jacob.
"One thing I know is, this town has a great heart. It is a compassionate, loving town. The hard part is when you bring it to the front. This is not about our image. This problem is across the United States, it’s everywhere, and it is a secret, I understand people are afraid, parents are ashamed, but I am never ashamed of Jacob. That is why I am coming forward."
Kirst still loves to be surrounded by Jacob’s friends and she has an urgent message to convey to them and to their families.
"I love kids more than anything. I have fallen in love with these Park City kids. They are just the best kids I’ve ever been around. I especially like that confusing age between 13 and 15 because that is when the kids really need us the most. They are still squirrely little kids but they are going to have to deal with some adult issues quick."