OxyContin Activists: The Rubin Family

The Rubins were once a typical suburban family in San Diego, Calif., but that existence was shattered when Sherrie and Mike’s then-23-year-old son Aaron overdosed on OxyContin on Oct. 5, 2005. Many Oxy overdose victims either die, or recover and continue to battle their addiction. But Aaron was thrust into a different kind of living hell. A loss of oxygen to his brain had brought him to the brink of death, and after suffering a series of heart attacks and strokes, doctors had nearly given up hope. Miraculously, Aaron survived. Now confined to a wheelchair, Aaron is 29 and can no longer walk or speak. He can only communicate using his fingers, using one for yes, and two for no. The Rubins are committed to spreading the word about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. They founded an organization, H.O.P.E Drug Awareness, Education and Treatment Inc., that provides support for families needing early intervention in overcoming addictions to prescription drugs and/or heroin. They also travel the country giving presentations to students and parents, using Aaron’s story as an example. Oxy Watchdog spoke with Mike (far right in picture) and Sherrie (third from left, next to Aaron, in wheelchair) about their journey.

Watchdog: Tell us about Aaron’s overdose.

Sherrie Rubin: Aaron had been at a party and went to spend the night at a friend’s house who he had known his whole life. Unfortunately, the family didn’t immediately call 911 when he was found blue and unresponsive, and every second you don’t have oxygen results in another level of debilitation in the body. In Aaron’s case, there were about 24 minutes of wasted time. When we got to the ER, the doctors told us we were going to lose our son that day. They told us to get a funeral plot, we called our rabbi, we did prayers. We had no hope that he was going to live at all.

He was put on life support, and we were pretty much just crying on the floor of the ER. His lungs collapsed, but then they got him breathing a tiny bit. He was off and on, living, dying, living, dying. We signed a DNR [do not resuscitate order] and started making funeral arrangements, and they said it was time to let him go. But I noticed that every time I spoke in his ear, he moved his head back and forth, and I felt he could hear me. We ordered another round of tests, and the next day, they pulled us aside and said he was improving.

W: When was it clear that even though Aaron was incapacitated physically, he could hear and understand you?

SR: Aaron was the leader of the gang, he was “the man.” He had a softball team, and they won the championship when he was in the ICU and brought him a t-shirt they had all signed, it was hanging in the room. One day I decided to read him the things the guys had written, things like “you always shot it out of the park, this one’s for you.” Aaron started crying, and I knew then for sure that he was in there and could understand. It was joyous, but at the same time, this was another type of death. Aaron was unable to speak, he was trapped in his body and unable to use his hands or express his needs or thoughts. So the devastation was also tremendous.

W: What was Aaron like before the overdose?

Mike Rubin: Aaron was a great athlete, he went to good schools, and had good friends from good families. There is no rhyme or reason as to why he got addicted, or why anyone gets addicted. These kids are popular and fun, they’re great to have at parties because they’re the life of the party. Well, Aaron doesn’t get invited to parties anymore. Sometimes you don’t get a chance at tomorrow.

W: Why did you decide to go public with your family’s story?

SR: Aaron’s high school asked me to speak regarding prescription drugs, and he heard me rehearsing my speech and started crying. He wasn’t quite ready for me to go out with it publicly at that point. But later, life came back into his face when the DEA asked him to work with them. I constantly ask him if he wants me to share his story, and he says yes. This comes from him. As long as Aaron is willing to share his story, I’m willing to help be his voice to educate about the dangers of pills that most people probably don’t even think about.

I also asked him at one point if it was okay for me to read from his rehab journals, and he said yes. That was how I learned it was OxyContin [that caused his overdose]. I remembered being in the ICU and two of Aaron’s friends were visiting. A nurse came in and asked how long Aaron had been Oxy-dependent, and his friends looked down at the floor and didn’t answer. I didn’t know what the heck she meant. Later when I was reading Aaron’s journals, he wrote that he had been at the gym with friends, who were addicts, cooking Oxy to shoot. The bell went off in my head.

W: Were you aware of the extent of Aaron’s addiction before the overdose?

SR: In high school, there were rough times, but I just didn’t have the knowledge about prescription drug abuse. I thought all of his mood swings, the agitation, the not showing up for family events were all just typical, but they were warning signs that now I wouldn’t dismiss so easily. The complaints about his legs and muscles hurting, I thought maybe he was developing an autoimmune disorder because that runs in my family. I looked at the problems by what I knew. I would let my grandkids dig around in the dirt with spoons, and later when I wondered where all the spoons were, I thought it must have been them, not Aaron. I wish six years ago someone would have talked about pills more openly, because the one thing every parent thinks is that it will never happen to them.

MR: We couldn’t have done anything more. If we could have, we would have. We tried very hard to get him into counseling, and he wasn’t ready to embrace it. The disease of addiction is so strong, but for those of us who aren’t addicted, we can’t understand the strength and the power of the addiction. You can’t stop a train from wrecking. Aaron’s story is like that of most addicts: he didn’t want to use, he was ashamed, he wanted to stop.

W: Do you see a lot of denial on the part of parents who are in the dark about the widespread extent of the prescription drug epidemic?

SR: Yes, many parents really think their families are untouchable. But no one is untouchable. We all go to the doctor, we all have prescription drugs in our houses. There has been a lot of resistance from parents, but now the tide is turning a bit because there have been so many recent deaths. Unfortunately, many parents are ashamed and don’t want to come forward. But I volunteered at my son’s school, we were involved in every aspect of his life, and it still happened. I gave up my career, I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to provide a good future for my children. Aaron was just a regular kid, people loved him. But this takes over your brain. Yes, the first few times you use, it’s a choice, but at some point it will become a disease. That’s what more people need to understand.

And the kids now – Generation RX – they have been inundated since birth to take a pill for everything. When I was growing up, we had Vicks and Pepto Bismol. The medicine today is different. People think that because it comes from a doctor, it can’t be dangerous. This perception has to be changed. It can be good medicine when you need it, but if you abuse it, you will end up an addict, dead, or with the challenges Aaron now has every single day.

W: It is such a difficult question, what’s more terrible – living in the purgatory of an ongoing addiction or experiencing the death of a loved one. But Aaron’s situation is something a lot of people probably don’t consider.

SR: Exactly. Aaron’s death was my worst fear, but never in a million years did I think his life would be what it is today. Our family dynamics will never be the same. He survived, but he’s not the son I knew. Emotionally, I wake up every day and I grieve for him. I see him struggle, and I see the wasted potential every day. There is no putting it to rest. Every day is hopeful, but every day is also sad. All we can do is try to have a good day. We’re happy and grateful that he’s here, but we’re not happy about the challenges he now has.

I have asked Aaron whether the quality of life he has to today is anyone else’s fault but his own, and he says no. And we can accept that, because we know we did everything possible for him. You always wish you could have done more, but in all honesty, if the overdose hadn’t happened that night, it would have happened another night. I know that there is nothing more I could have done other than chain him up in a cell, which I was not empowered to do.

W: How did Aaron’s overdose affect your family, besides the obvious changes in your day-to-day lives?

MR: Aaron’s younger brother also became addicted to pills, and later heroin. And two years to the day of Aaron’s overdose, we relived another overdose [with his brother]. He recovered, only to resume using, went into rehab and therapy, was ten months sober, and came out and relapsed. It’s a disease that haunts these kids, and we will be haunted forever by it. You worry every day that you’ll get a call. What’s the call, are they alive or are they dead? It’s terrible.

W: What advice do you have for parents with kids addicted to pills?

SR: If you see the warning signs, get help now, before they’re 18 and you can’t help them. Aaron wanted help, but we didn’t understand the disease of addiction. Addicts can manipulate you into believing any story. They really do believe they’re okay. But it’s so hard with opiates, because they’re so strong. At some point, if it doesn’t kill them, it becomes a habit. That’s why so many youths are dying. They think it’s okay because it’s not a dirty street drug, but it’s just as powerful as heroin, if not more powerful. Oxy is synthetic heroin. And it gets expensive trying to feed a pill habit, while $40 in black tar heroin can get you through two days.

Our goal is to try to make schools and parents understand that it’s necessary to have this kind of education in middle school, prior to these kids making the choice to have some “fun.” Not one pill, one person or one party is worth your future and your independence.

W: What level of responsibility do you place on doctors or the pharmaceutical industry for playing a role in the prescription drug abuse epidemic?

MR: Sherrie and I are unified that it won’t help to blame anybody. It’s an unfortunate thing that anyone can become addicted to pills, and that it’s an easy segueway to heroin, and those who don’t use can’t understand it. I used to think “just stop, what’s wrong with you?” I didn’t understand that it was physically, emotionally and psychologically powerful, this addiction. We have to do a better job of educating our kids. The federal government has enough problems, and we’re losing way too many of our loved ones to this war. The only way to have a better shot at the next bunch of kids is through education. We have to be unified. It doesn’t matter what your persuasion or race is, we are one people, and we are the biggest consumers of drugs here in the U.S.

W: Did you ever personally struggle with feelings of shame as a parent because of what happened to Aaron?

MR: I have never felt ashamed. Like most families, we were good parents and loved our children. We raised them to be good people. The way I look at it is that Aaron got injured in a war, just like a soldier. Our youth is fighting a war against the accepted tolerance of drugs in our society, and he didn’t have a good outcome.

W: What does Aaron’s future look like?

MR: His prognosis medically is not good. He’s unique in that he survived a serious drug overdose, and 90% of people who overdose die. So he’s one of the unlucky to OD, but has been “lucky” enough to survive with life-changing disabilities, the loss of his speech, his mobility, his whole future. He’s there, he’s happy, but he’s stuck in a prison inside his own body. I always say I wish he went to prison, then I would have more of him. That said, we are always hopeful there will be a day when he will have more independence.

Aaron always loved attention, and he gets a great deal of pleasure out of sharing his story. He likes shaking everybody’s hand afterward and embracing people, and they really seem to enjoy hearing his story and opening up about their own family’s issues with drug and alcohol abuse.

Watch a video about Aaron below, or visit H.O.P.E.’s Facebook page for more information. You can also contact Sherrie directly at At Rollin’ With Rubin – Prescription Pill Education, (858) 943-1697.

About Erin Marie Daly

I’m a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. My book on prescription drug and heroin addiction was published in August 2014 by Counterpoint Press.
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