Rick Werner on what he hopes for his late son’s legacy~
“He never admitted that he had an addiction, but he was well aware that he had a mental health issue. And he would say, “I want to be an advocate for my disease.” And so we’re trying to do that in his honor, in his absence, but as his legacy to help people who both have mental health issues and addiction issues, and try to improve folks’ lives and maybe even save some lives.”
Brian Wilson: At just 27 years old Rick Werner’s son Jamie found himself at the intersection of bipolar disorder and drug addiction. Now, Rick tells Jamie’s story and speaks of the legacy he hopes will
be left by his son who loved life, and died much too young.
Brian Wilson: I want you to tell me about your son, Jamie. First, tell me about what kind of kid he was.
Rick Werner: He was 27 when he died. He was a graduate of Walt Whitman High School here in Bethesda, also a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a huge Terp fan, as I am and as our whole family is. He was also a great high school football player. He was an all-county high school football player at Whitman. And he was also, and this continued right up until when he died, he was a football coach, an assistant football coach back at his high school.
Brian Wilson: This is a young man who was very sports-minded, athletic?
Rick Werner: Absolutely.
Brian Wilson: Yeah?
Rick Werner: He loved sports.
Brian Wilson: Tell me about his personality.
Rick Werner: He had an incredibly infectious personality. He was the kind of guy who when he walked into the room, he lit up the room. Let me give you sort of a funny example about that. When I would drive home from work – and this was after Jamie had moved out – I’d drive home from work – and he lived locally – and if his car was in the driveway, I knew I was gonna come home and we were gonna have a fun time. We were gonna have some drinks and he was gonna cook up an amazing dinner because he was an amateur chef and he loved to cook. And so we would sit there, and we would probably sit there for a couple of hours and he would tell stories, a huge talker, and we were gonna have a lot of fun if Jamie was there.
Brian Wilson: Yeah. But there were struggles along the way.
Rick Werner: Well, I said that he was a big talker. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And he would often talk a lot. He would come in and let’s say I’m reading on the porch after dinner, he would come out and sit and talk to me. And I would have my book sort of out like this, and after a while I just knew I was gonna put that book down because I was not getting any more reading done. And so that was partly his personality, but partly also his bipolar disorder.
Brian Wilson: So when he was up, he was talkative.
Rick Werner: That’s exactly right.
Brian Wilson: But the downside to the bipolar disorder is there are moments when they’re very, very low.
Rick Werner: That’s right too.
Brian Wilson: Talk about that.
Rick Werner: “We’ve learned that people who have mental health struggles very often tend to self-medicate with drugs.”
Rick Werner: Well, sometimes it’s hard to disentangle his mental illness from his addiction, but there were many times when he was depressed and couldn’t get out of bed, maybe again related to drugs too. But there were very many down times that he had where my wife in particular was trying to sort of get him going. So what we’ve sort of learned is that people who have mental health struggles very often tend to self-medicate with drugs. Because I think for many of them, it makes them feel “normal.” They know that their mind doesn’t work exactly the way other people’s minds work. And when they take drugs or alcohol, it gives them that feeling like, “Hey, I’m fine. I’m just like everybody else now because I’ve sort of quieted my mind.”
Brian Wilson: Yeah. When did you start to notice there was a problem?
Rick Werner on Detecting the Addiction
Rick Werner: Probably in the last year or two of his life, although he never admitted using even towards the end. He was also a brilliant, brilliant kid. So to give you an example of how he used that brilliance to further his habit, his addiction … So towards the end, we really did suspect and so we gave him a couple of drug tests. And so this one particular test comes back positive for heroin. And he looks at the test and he says, “Wait a second. This test says that I don’t do marijuana. I smoke marijuana every day. This test is no good.” And I’m thinking, “My God, maybe there really is something wrong with this test. Maybe the test is invalid,” because he’s so smart he figured out a way to get some doubt creeping into my mind, not to mention that he’s my kid and I don’t wanna disbelieve him.
Brian Wilson: Right. Tell me how it ultimately ended.
How Jamie Lost His Struggles with Mental Illness and Opioids Addiction
Rick Werner: His girlfriend had broken up with him and basically because even though she wasn’t quite sure why, she said, “His behavior is inconsistent and he’s not doing what he’s promising me that he’s gonna do.” So she broke up with him and at that point he moved home. So he was, for the last about six months of his life, he was living with us in Bethesda. So one morning, my wife, as she would often do, she went to get his dog to put our dogs out. And she noticed that he was already in the shower. And then she went back up and noticed that the shower was still going a half an hour later, so she opened up the door and she found him in the bathroom just slumped over. And she called me and she … I guess I immediately said, “I’m calling 911.” And then I called 911 and then we went back and using 911 dispatchers’ instructions, we both gave him chest compressions until the paramedics arrived. And they got there and they gave him Narcan. But we later found out that he had taken pure fentanyl and it’s very difficult to bring somebody back from a fentanyl overdose.
Brian Wilson: What were you thinking about? What was going through your mind?
Rick Werner: You know, I actually stood out in the hallway looking into his bedroom. They had pulled him out of the bathroom into the adjoining bedroom, the paramedics had. And I was standing out there with I think maybe two police officers who were there. And maybe it’s just procedure for them, they were sort of standing right with me as if they thought I might do something crazy and they were gonna watch me. And my wife and my son were down the hall. They knew what was going on but they weren’t standing right there. I was standing right there watching the paramedics work on him. And I think I just kept repeating over and over and over out loud, “Come on Jamie. Come on Jamie. Come on Jamie.” And those, if you want to call them prayers, those were not answered. And actually, in the process of saying this, I remember what I was thinking at the time now, and I was thinking that maybe some good will come of this because if he can survive this, he will no longer be able to deny that he is using and we will be able to get him to go into rehab. So that’s what I was thinking right at the time.
And then about half an hour later, I think all of a sudden it hit me. My daughter was living in New York at the time, and I think it hit me overwhelmingly that we had to do the unimaginable. We had to call her and tell her that her brother was dead.
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Brian Wilson: I know that since his passing, you’ve tried to take the lessons that you’ve learned and help others so that they don’t go through the things and the pain that you’ve been through.
Rick Werner: We’re trying.
Brian Wilson: Tell me about that.
Rick Werner: Well, we’ve started a project, in addition to working with the organization Shatterproof, we have our own project called the James Werner Legacy Project with the website JWLP.org. And we have stuff on there just talking about Jamie’s life, a lot of pictures and a bio, a lot of stories about him. And we have also a number of different advocacy things that we’ve done. We do a 5K walk. I’ve done some media interviews and some Congressional press conferences. And that’s all on there. And then maybe the best thing on there really is our blog. And it’s mostly my wife’s work. And she has some very, very sentimental and sort of intimate blog posts on there that many people have found helpful, comforting, insightful.
Brian Wilson: What do you hope is the legacy of your son, given all that he went through and what you’re trying to do now, what do you hope is the ultimate legacy?
Hopes for Jamie’s Legacy
Rick Werner: That’s a great question. Actually, I’m not sure that anybody ever asked me that specific question. Well, it goes back to his words. He never admitted that he had an addiction, but he was well aware that he had a mental health issue. And he would say, “I want to be an advocate for my disease.” And so we’re trying to do that in his honor, in his absence, but as his legacy to help people who both have mental health issues and addiction issues, and try to improve folks’ lives and maybe even save some lives.
Brian Wilson: What would you say to other parents who are now listening to this podcast who may have believed that they’re seeing some of the things that you saw back then, what would you say to them? What kind of advice would you give to them based on what you have gone through?
Werner’s Advice for Parents
Rick Werner: If their child is under 18 and they have a pretty strong belief that there’s an addiction going on, it’s a difficult situation to actually take even a minor, just take a minor and put them into a rehab situation, but you might think long and hard about that. If it’s a situation like ours, where they’re not a minor, just being very honest, it is difficult. You have to have some sort of a meeting of the minds with them. They have to admit it. But I guess educate yourself as best you can, figure out what the warning signs may be. Some of that stuff is on our website, on Shatterproof’s website, on public health websites, etc. Educate yourself as to what the warning signs are, and talk to your kid, maybe try an intervention with his peers and your peers, etc. Just do everything you can to try to keep our loved ones on this earth.
Brian Wilson: I just want to say it’s a tragedy and I’m sorry for your loss.
Rick Werner: Thank you.
Brian Wilson: But thank you for taking this story and sharing it because it does have an impact. And perhaps, though this was a tragic ending for you, it won’t be quite as tragic for some others as a result of your being willing to talk about it.
Rick Werner: I hope so. I appreciate that, thanks.
Brian Wilson: Thank you so much.
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