By Patrick McCallister and Jeannine Gage
For Hometown News
DELAND - When Erika Webb began noticing that her teenage son - a good kid; smart, well-liked - was becoming sullen, stubborn and constantly frustrated, she attributed it to the normal ups and downs of adolescence.
She was wrong. Two weeks before her son's 18th birthday she was called to the hospital. He had overdosed on mushrooms and other "unknown opiates." Thus began a long, hard road of unsuccessful stints in rehab and arrests, culminating in a 7-and-a-half year prison term for brandishing a gun in the parking lot of a local bar.
"It was a nightmare," Ms. Webb said. "I thought my life was over."
When Ms. Webb saw her friends Robyn and Rob Schmidt going through the same thing with their son, she realized she could help them.
"I vowed to make something good come out of it," she said. "To help others, to never let anyone feel as alone as I did then.
Thus was born Supporting Towns Against Narcotics, Drug Use, Pills, or STAND UP. It is a support group for people, especially parents, whose families are affected by prescription pill addiction and abuse.
Ms. Webb and the Schmidts want "provide a safe haven to talk, share knowledge and education and to draw awareness to this vast growing issue and bring about change."
Ms. Webb said prescription-pill addicts are, like others, remarkably manipulative and cunning. She was unable to help her son as he spiraled into drug abuse.
"I wanted to believe him," she said. "I was an enabler. I'd sit there and sign off on his (expletive)."
Ms. Webb said her son's arrest, prosecution and incarceration was the best thing that could have happened for the family.
"I think he would have died out there on the streets," she said. "At least he's safe, he's had a chance to mature." The Schmidts said they, too, had a home full of drug addiction that ended up costing them heirloom jewelry, money and self-esteem. They said it started when their son was in his late teens. He's now 24 and incarcerated. The couple said the boy learned early on how to fake injuries and illnesses to get prescription pain killers, popular opiates such as oxycodone.
"(Our son) knew how to work the system," Ms. Schmidt said. "And of course when the doctor gives them a prescription, it's 'OK.'"
The Schmidts said they missed growing signs of their son's drug addiction.
"He kept it hidden," Mr. Schmidt said.
Eventually, the adult son robbed them to get drugs.
"I pressed charges against him," Ms. Schmidt said. "I knew he needed to go to jail, or he'd die."
But that choice didn't end the confusion and shame, Ms. Schmidt said. The parents couldn't help but to mentally replay their son's childhood looking for their blame for his drug addiction. Ms. Webb was familiar with those thoughts and feelings.
"When I went through what I went through, I felt so alone," she said. "I felt like a failure."
Ms. Webb reached out to her friends to share her experience. She wasn't the only one reaching out. The Schmidts said they learned about families suffering with prescription-pill addiction that seemed far removed from such troubles.
"All these other parents started calling us, saying, 'Oh my god, my niece is hooked on those pills,' or 'my son,' or 'my brother,'" Ms. Schmidt said.
It's a relief, Ms. Webb said, for these families to have a safe place to talk.
"These mothers have told us they are so glad to have someplace to go where people understand what they're going through," Ms. Webb said. "Where they can vent and listen, without feeling ashamed."
According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports, prescription pills are the fastest growing segment of abused drugs in the state. About 2,500 people have died annually in recent years due to prescription drug overdoses. Most are believed to be accidental.
Another part of STAND UP's mission is to fight for legislation to help control the growing drug abuse problem.
"Pawn shops and scrap gold and metal places should be held more accountable when dealing with stolen property," Ms. Schmidt said. "Maybe once the Pawn Shops start losing money, they'll think twice before completing a transaction that is shady."
Wendell Bradford, a Seminole County deputy sheriff who is running for Volusia County Sheriff, is helping the group with law enforcement statistics and information about the rights of families of drug abusers. They also discuss the development a prevention program for juveniles.
The Schmidts and Ms. Webb had the first meeting of STAND UP in April. They said average attendance quickly grew to about 30 a meeting.
Ms. Webb said she holds out the same hope for her son that she doles out to people who come to the meetings.
I don't know what the future will bring," she said. "But I think my son is already a different person."
STAND UP meets at 10 a.m. the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at the House Next Door, 121 W. Pennsylvania Ave., DeLand.
For information, visit www.facebook.com/stand.up.5, or call Ms. Schmidt at (386) 337-2993, or Ms. Webb at (321) 295-4010.
Editor's note: Erika Webb is a contributor to Hometown News.