When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Clinical Licensed Social Worker and the author of "Words from a mother in mourning: How to protect your child from drugs"
A little over two years ago, late in the evening, Phyllis Babrove got the phone call that all of us dread and none of us want. Her daughter Sara, who had struggled for most of her adult life with drugs, had died of an accidental overdose. Phyllis shares her daughter’s story and her work to try to help other families understand the problems of substance abuse. Phyllis is a Clinical Licensed Social Worker and the author of Words from a mother in mourning: How to protect your child from drugs. Phyllis’s book, blog, information about Sara’s life, and contact information can be found at https://herstarforevershines.wordpress.com. If you need help for your substance abuse issues, help is available. In Kenosha, contact the Hope Council on Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse; call 262-658-8166 or explore their website at https://www.hopecouncil.org. You can also find AA meetings here: https://mtg.area75.org/meetings.html?dist=7 and NA meetings here: https://sefa-na.org/meetings
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Guitar Music]
[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. There's never an easy way to introduce the topic of today's conversation. A little over two years ago now, late in the evening, our guest today, Phyllis Babrove got the phone call that all of us dread and none of us want. We're gonna talk today about her daughter, Sarah's life, her struggle, and her mom's grief and work to make sure no parent gets that phone call. Welcome Phyllis, and thanks for joining us.
[00:00:49] Phyllis: Good morning, Mike. Thank you for having me.
[00:00:51] Mike: Before we get to the phone call, tell us a little bit about Sarah.
[00:00:56] Phyllis: Well, Sarah is the second oldest of four [00:01:00] children. She was, as a child, a typical child. She had fun. She was happy. She was helpful, always a helpful kid. And she was very bright. School-wise Sarah was an excellent student. She always wanted to, you know, do something positive, to get rewarded, to get thanked. She wanted to be helpful to people and that's something that continued through her life. She unfortunately got involved with the wrong kids, started making the wrong decisions at the age of twelve, and then the behaviors just escalated from there throughout her life.
[00:01:37] Mike: At twelve.
[00:01:38] Phyllis: At twelve. And she told me later on she had started with cigarettes and then it was marijuana. She got into trouble in school. She was defiant. She would leave campus and at that point that was middle school. She would go and they'd catch her down the street smoking cigarettes with other kids. And the defiance set in at school and at home, so there were always phone calls and things like that[00:02:00]
[00:02:00] Mike: This is a long journey then, because she passed away, how old was she?
[00:02:04] Phyllis: Fourty-six. So it went on for over thirty years.
[00:02:07] Mike: Thirty years. Let me ask you then, when she was younger, did you have any inkling? Like did the school call and say we've caught her with cigarettes or?
[00:02:18] Phyllis: Well, that happened in middle school where she would be suspended for that, and it carried on into high school where she skipped a lot of classes and the behaviors escalated at that point. She was older, became more defiant, and on top of all of it, I mean, she was a good student, and throughout her life she was very bright, but you know, the defiance was bad. And talking back to teachers and things like that through the years. We did take her for help when she was about twelve or thirteen, we did take her for therapy and that was never successful.
[00:02:50] Mike: Well, and professionally, you're a social worker.
[00:02:54] Phyllis: Right. That happened later in life, is when I became a social worker and at that time we didn't have [00:03:00] resources or anything.
[00:03:01] Mike: So how many times before she was an adult did you think that you had this like, "Okay, we've turned the corner." Did you ever say, okay, she gets it now?
[00:03:12] Phyllis: No, we never knew how bad it was. She would get involved with the wrong guys. And you can always look back and see what you didn't see at the time. And she had her tonsils out when she was eighteen, and just kept wanting more Vicodin. So what she had done before that, I don't know. You know, she never told me ages or times or anything. I do remember not getting more Vicodin, not calling the doctor, but I remember her wanting it. So I don't know if that was the first opioid she had, or, I don't know.
[00:03:44] Mike: And take us through the latter parts and then we'll fill in the gaps.
[00:03:49] Phyllis: Okay. The latter parts, she was using drugs throughout the year, she could not maintain a job throughout the years. She actually ended up going to a private [00:04:00] university and working there and got a master's degree. So through the years, the drug use increased, and I don't know if all of your listeners, I'm sure you're aware of the opioid use that was especially bad down here in South Florida with pain management clinics and all of that. So she started doing that. Again, I don't know all the details of age or anything. She had various boyfriends and they would go from county to county and just get the pills, you know, from these clinics. They'd sell them, use them. And so opioids were her addiction. And it later on led to cocaine. It led to, or maybe before that, it led to heroin and to - and she told me she used anything that she could. The only thing she didn't really use was meth. She tried it once and didn't like it.
[00:04:49] Mike: Wow. I'm not sure everybody does know that part of it. For those of you that don't, Florida had a heck of a problem back in the day with pain clinics, almost every other block in some [00:05:00] locations. In fact, I think that more opiates were sold in Dade County, if I'm getting that right?
[00:05:08] Phyllis: Yeah. That's Miami. Mm-hmm.
[00:05:10] Mike: Yeah. That like half of the opiates in the country were sold there at some point, or some unbelievable statistic. I remember stories where the feds would be busting one pain clinic and the people would just farm a line next to the other one.
[00:05:23] Phyllis: Yeah, it was really bad. I had read they had billboards signs up in Georgia, Alabama, to go to South Florida for pain management.
[00:05:31] Mike: Yeah. I work with pro athletes and some of the ones I worked with would wait till they got to Florida to get their haul for the year. So, you know, not unusual.
Did she, did she have periods of time where she obviously struggled with addiction, where she was not on anything?
[00:05:48] Phyllis: I don't think so. I would offer to pay for counseling through the years. She stopped living with us when she was eighteen, so I offered to pay for a program for her to go to, and she said the same thing every time, "I can [00:06:00] do it myself if I want to."
[00:06:01] Mike: And she didn't want to.
[00:06:03] Phyllis: She apparently didn't want to, and she couldn't have done it herself.
[00:06:07] Mike: No. Very few people can, right?
[00:06:10] Phyllis: Right, right. Very few people can.
[00:06:12] Mike: And so, since she moved out at age eighteen, did she stay connected to the family?
[00:06:17] Phyllis: I would say for the most part, but there would be months that I wouldn't hear from her, and then I would try to track her down, make sure she was okay. And that that was pretty often. But then we'd go through periods where I'd hear from her all the time. I mean, she stayed in Broward County, she lived here, so it's not like she left, but there were always different guys and legal problems and things that she got into. Her biggest thing was she could not keep a job. Eventually couldn't get one.
[00:06:45] Mike: Yeah. Not surprising. Did she have children of her own?
[00:06:49] Phyllis: She has a daughter who's seventeen.
[00:06:52] Mike: Does her daughter stay with her father then?
[00:06:56] Phyllis: No. No.
[00:06:57] Mike: So talk about a little bit [00:07:00] what you and her siblings tried to do to get a whole - I mean, did you ever confront her? Did she work this system and get money from one of her siblings, then another one? I mean, how did that go?
[00:07:16] Phyllis: No. And as far as it goes, there was little contact with her siblings, but she would hint from me that she needed money, but the only time I ever helped her was towards the end. Unless in between they needed food, then I would have food delivered. Those were in the later years. I didn't give her any cash. Confronting her, she was never enabled, but she was also not confronted with what they call family interventions. She was never open to anything and that was just part of the whole problem.
[00:07:47] Mike: And the night you got the phone call, what happened?
[00:07:50] Phyllis: Well, she, I'll back up a little bit.
[00:07:54] Mike: Sure.
[00:07:54] Phyllis: Four years before that, she had overdosed on heroin enough to scare herself to go into a [00:08:00] program. So for the first time, she did go into a treatment program, residential for three or four months, and then into a sober house after, which wasn't a good choice for her, but it was part of the program.
And then after that, she got an apartment. She got a phone job. She got a car. So for the first time, in many, many years, if not her whole life, she was really on track. She had stopped using, you know, and then the phone call, four years later, she couldn't maintain the apartment. She barely maintained the car, she lost the job. So she moved in with one of her relatives, with an aunt. She, and it was good. It was good for four years. But then the phone call that day, she had gone to a dermatologist and had something very minor done, and she was complaining about pain and I said, take some Advil. You know, take some Advil, you'll be fine.
And that was about, five-thirty in the afternoon and she said she would call me back and I never heard from her. About [00:09:00] three-and-a-half hours later, I got a phone call. At this point, her daughter was living with her at the aunt's and they found her unconscious. So there had been no signs of anything. I thought maybe after all the years of using her heart gave out or something like that happened. But when we got the results of the autopsy six weeks later, it was an accidental overdose of fentanyl.
[00:09:24] Mike: Fentanyl again, right?
[00:09:25] Phyllis: Right. Fentanyl again.
[00:09:27] Mike: So you have no idea what she took, just that there was in her system, right?
[00:09:33] Phyllis: I personally think that she thought she was buying an oxycontin for the pain. And she was aware of the fentanyl problem because she talked to me about it. So I think that that's what happened. And as we know, everything has fentanyl in it.
[00:09:47] Mike: You know, Phyllis, we've had several mothers on this podcast who have went through very similar things. Where their children were taking or thought they were buying or taking something [00:10:00] else, and then it was one-hundred percent fentanyl. You know, there's a lot of fake stuff out there.
[00:10:05] Phyllis: Right, there's a lot.
[00:10:07] Mike: So you've written a book, right? Let me make sure I get it right, Words from a Mother in Mourning: How to Protect your Child from Drugs. How did writing the book help you?
[00:10:18] Phyllis: Well, it started with a website. I put that together shortly after she passed away. And it was to give parents some information because when Sarah started using, there was nothing out there. There was no information, there were no resources. And it's a long time ago, so I thought if I can help parents help their children from taking the path that Sarah took, that even if I help one, I'd be helping.
And from there, a few months later, I decided to write a book. I had written some fiction and also I wanted to put this together for parents to have in their hands. And I have background, I'm a licensed clinical social worker, so I did a lot of research. I know from working [00:11:00] with parents and as a parent, I know what they need. And parents just aren't aware. Writing the book was difficult. It was, you know, not long after she died, so it was really hard to do it, but it became a mission and I called it a journey. It was a journey I needed to complete. So it was helping me with the grief process, I guess, in a way. But my goal was to really help parents, to help people.
[00:11:26] Mike: Yeah, when I got the book and I read it, it was totally different than I expected it to be. I thought it would be about your grieving and it's really a primer for parents. It's got a lot of really good information in it.
[00:11:40] Phyllis: Right, and I have the resources, early interventions, the risk factors that can lead to later addiction are so important. Little bit of parenting, and I put, as you know, Sarah's personal stories in there, some of them. My personal stories with her. So it's basically meant to be for parents just [00:12:00] to help them.
[00:12:01] Mike: Well, I'm amazed with all of the publicity and everything else that it just isn't such common knowledge now, but I guess we just have to keep working, right?
[00:12:10] Phyllis: Right. Well, and I was working part-time in a diversion program some years back, working with a parenting group, and the kids were getting arrested in school for vaping, and parents didn't understand why they were there. "What did my daughter do? What is vaping? I don't know." I mean, they don't know. And they need to, they need to stay on top of it.
[00:12:31] Mike: Yeah. And of course now you can get a vape pen and anything can be in there as well. Right?
[00:12:36] Phyllis: That's right. Right. And then the things being made to look like candy and chips and all of this stuff, and parents need to stay on top of it as much as they can. I know it's hard, I know they're busy, but all it takes is the DEA has out there, one pill can kill.
[00:12:52] Mike: Well, and it's not like your book is a 300 page difficult to absorb tome. You know, I got through it [00:13:00] in a day. It was very well laid out, so I appreciated that a great deal as a parent.
[00:13:06] Phyllis: Right? And, and it was just meant to be simple, you know? And, and that's what I wanted.
[00:13:12] Mike: Well, what kind of reception have you gotten from people? Supportive and otherwise? I mean, have you found other people in similar spots that you're in, you know, when you speak, or you write, or your blog, what do you find?
[00:13:25] Phyllis: And I also have joined several of the groups on Facebook, and then they contact me, you know, through the blog. And unfortunately a lot of people have similar situations. They've lost a child. It's almost like you can't talk to anybody now that doesn't have somebody in their family or know of somebody that has passed away from the fentanyl.
So I've gone to a lot of different events with some of the organizations down here, United Way in Broward County does a fantastic job, and I go with them and talk to people one on one. This is my second [00:14:00] podcast, I've done a Facebook Live and I attend a lot of opioid coalition meetings. I've joined them, not just in Florida, but in the country, and I attend their meetings monthly and I've spoken to their groups and I'm continuing to do that. So people are receptive. You know, people want to know.
[00:14:18] Mike: Have you had local politicians reach out to you at all?
[00:14:22] Phyllis: No, and that's something I haven't done yet, I'm just waiting now until the election is over and I'm gonna do that.
[00:14:28] Mike: Well, you know, being a parent, there isn't a manual for how to handle this, right? So if you don't mind, you said you have four children?
[00:14:36] Phyllis: Yes.
[00:14:36] Mike: And she was the second?
[00:14:38] Phyllis: The second one.
[00:14:39] Mike: Any of the others - did any of them dabble in even experiment with anything that you're aware of?
[00:14:46] Phyllis: Not that I know of. Nope.
[00:14:48] Mike: Now, did you feel, you seemed rather centered, but sometimes parents take some of the burden on himself. Did you?
[00:14:55] Phyllis: I did in the beginning. I did in the beginning of the using and everything. I don't know that [00:15:00] I did after she died. I don't know that maybe from, going back to the years, what did I do wrong? What could I have done differently, you know? But my therapist told me that it wouldn't have changed. So I've been in therapy for a long time to deal with that. And just everything in general. She refused, she refused therapy through the years and it's unfortunate. She did go to NA meetings after the program, but I don't think she bought into it the way she would've had to.
[00:15:31] Mike: Yeah. I work with a lot of people and we've had a lot of people on these podcasts, and you can, it becomes a lifestyle in a way, and they're just, you know, when they buy in, there's a happiness factor. It's almost like they break through the wall and it's just fun to watch.
[00:15:46] Phyllis: Yeah. It's very strange. And, and then the fact that she did go back at some point, there were signs after she died of some of the things she was probably doing, but there were no signs before that.
[00:15:57] Mike: When you said you took on some of the burden, I always say to [00:16:00] parents, did you also take credit for your other three children? And that it was all you?
[00:16:05] Phyllis: No, because it was them.
[00:16:07] Mike: See, isn't that a typical parental thing? You know, we won't take the credit when they do well, but we'll shoulder some of the burden when it isn't. That's part of why we need therapy, I think sometimes.
[00:16:17] Phyllis: I think so too. And it's there for the kids, it's there for the parents, it's there for the family.
[00:16:22] Mike: How have her brothers and sisters coped?
[00:16:24] Phyllis: They had a hard time with it. And I think they still do. It's gonna be three years in February, and I think they still do for probably their own reasons. I mean, these are now middle aged people, so, you know, whatever they feel, they don't really discuss. But I think they've had a hard time with it, but they had a hard time with it for thirty years.
[00:16:43] Mike: Right, right. I mean, when you got together for Thanksgivings and stuff, did Sarah show up?
[00:16:49] Phyllis: No.
[00:16:51] Mike: She was always invited, I assume?
[00:16:53] Phyllis: Well, don't forget, we didn't really know any of her lifestyle. We didn't know where she was half the time or anything. [00:17:00] When she left home at the age of eighteen it was her choice because she was with this guy and getting into trouble, and she had already left three times. So I told her that day, if you leave again today with him, you can't come back. That's something I question. Was I right or was I wrong? But there were other people involved. I had a five/six year old child at home that was really close to her and it was hard on him.
[00:17:27] Mike: You know, that's, boy, that's a really interesting question, I think. Was I right or was I wrong? Every counselor I know, every professional would say, no, you were right. You know, you need to draw a line, you need to draw boundaries. And then when this happens, it's tough though, right?
[00:17:44] Phyllis: It is. Because I go back all those years and did I make a mistake? And then I look at it and I tell clients that I work with, when we do something at the moment, if we think it's through, then it's the right decision for that moment. And [00:18:00] that's the way that I have to look at it.
[00:18:02] Mike: I think that's a great way to put it because like you said, you look backwards and you wonder, but in that moment - and that's why I think it's important to not be judgmental of people.
[00:18:11] Phyllis: Right.
[00:18:12] Mike: Because we don't live there. I remember the actor, Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker among other things, had a son die of drug overdose. And he said, he followed all of what they told him to do and at the time it seemed like the right thing and the son died and he said he wishes he had a do-over. Right? He said, because it's his son. And I, I think, boy, that encapsulates it for a lot of us, right?
[00:18:38] Phyllis: It does. It definitely does.
[00:18:40] Mike: How's Sarah's daughter doing?
[00:18:42] Phyllis: She has issues. She's had a lot of behavior problems, been in a lot of programs and she's - she's difficult. Because of lack of parenting all those years. She has, she has a lot of issues.
[00:18:55] Mike: Hopefully she can continue to get some help and resolve some.
[00:18:59] Phyllis: I hope [00:19:00] so. She has been getting therapy and, you know, she's been getting services and all of that, so she's the one now who has to put it together.
[00:19:09] Mike: Yes. Again, there's a really good boundary there too, right? What would you like to leave us with? Phyllis, we're obviously gonna put the link to your book and your website and your blog on here for those that wanna follow up, but what would you like to leave us with?
[00:19:23] Phyllis: You know, this takes and changes your whole attitude. I never worked in the area of addiction as a social worker. And so we have our own thoughts, right? Whether it's judgmental or not, like you said, we can't be judgmental. Everybody is human. Everybody makes their mistakes. The one thing that, you know, if people read my book that I really want to press to parents. I was thinking about it this morning, is the communication and I have that in there. Keep the communication open with the kids because if we do, we start when they're young, we talk to them, we sing to them, [00:20:00] and we have to keep that open as they get older and, and not be their friend. We can't be their friend until they're maybe in their twenties, but we have to be the parent. We have to be the bad guy. Put those boundaries in place, and you know, check on them. It's even worse nowadays than it was when Sarah was growing up, what with the internet, and with they bring drugs through Snapchat, the kids. So you have to educate them.
[00:20:25] Mike: What you said is always interesting to me, and I know it, but I think a lot of people don't. Just because you became a social worker, just because, you know, my training was in the same area, I waited in school for them to address addiction. And they didn't. And so if you're a parent and this is what's going on, you have to seek somebody out who actually knows this stuff. Because not everybody who hands out a shingle does.
[00:20:52] Phyllis: That's right. And it should be somebody who specifically deals with addiction. If you've got a child, a teenager, whoever, [00:21:00] that's using drugs, you can't really work up any other issues. Until you stop them from using drugs.
[00:21:06] Mike: Well, Phyllis, this can never be really easy to do, but you know, I've had so many of these conversations, I just so admire the work that all of you who have suffered this kind of tragedy have done to help the rest of us. It's incredibly appreciated and you're so brave, I think.
[00:21:25] Phyllis: Well, and it's not an easy thing to do, but it's a necessary thing to do because this is the only way it's going to take all of us to put a stop to this. Yeah.
[00:21:35] Mike: Well, and actually I think that you all are the ones that are making a difference. Up here, a couple of ladies that we have had on are campaigning to get Narcan on college campuses, you know? I'll tell you what? The college campuses weren't gonna do it without the pressure from the moms, they weren't gonna do it. So, you know, it's how stuff does get done is at this level.
[00:21:59] Phyllis: It seems [00:22:00] to be hard to get into schools, even locally, and it's hard to get in with the schools, but they do have different agencies that go talk to the kids, you know, things like that. But it's not enough.
[00:22:12] Mike: Oh, no, it's not. Well, Phyllis, I greatly appreciate you being with us today and can't thank you enough for your story, your bravery, and your continued work. For those of you who are listening this is why we do these, to make a difference. So please listen in next time. Until then, stay safe and keep the lines of communication open.
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.