In April 2014, The Indy Star published a story on Aaron Sims, my son, who died last October due to a heroin overdose
Justin Phillips arrived at a coffee shop one recent afternoon clutching two photos of her son, her late son. One shows the young man smiling, his reddish hair cut short and his green eyes looking as if they would spend the next several decades soaking in life's experiences. In the other photo he is kneeling on a football field, a Lawrence North High School uniform covering his tall, athletic frame.
It's hard to believe, Phillips says, how much her son's life changed, how much it deteriorated, in such a short time. It's amazing how quickly the power of heroin can pull a person into a death grip, and how it can so easily grab a strong young man and leave him helpless. It's devastating to learn, she said, how your child can grow so
quickly from a boy obsessed with all things sports into a young man focused on his next fix. "Everything happened so fast," Phillips said of the tragic journey taken by her son, Aaron Kent Sims.
There he was one Friday night in the fall of 2009, running onto the field with so much excitement and adrenaline during a game against Lawrence Central, passing for 205 yards as he filled in admirably for the team's injured starting quarterback. And then there he was less than four years later, sitting dead in his bedroom not long after turning 20, a needle and spoon sitting nearby, a shoelace transformed into a makeshift tourniquet wrapped tightly around his right arm.
The story is fresh and still hard to accept, says Phillips, a lifelong resident of Indianapolis who has a master's degree from IUPUI and works as a program manager at a state government agency.
"I want people to see what's happening out there," she said. "I don't think I look like the mom of a heroin addict. I don't think Aaron was raised in a home where people think heroin addicts come from."
Phillips was one of many parents who contacted me after a series of recent columns about the heroin epidemic that is spreading across Indianapolis and the nation. Moms and dads have called and written to share stories of the children they are trying to save, or of the children they sadly were not able to save. Their stories are heartbreaking and they tend to revolve around a central theme: Young people ravaged by the worst of drugs; their dreams and opportunities tossed aside.
That was Aaron Sims.
Good looking, charming and clever, a lover of skateboarding and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was born on Aug. 5, 1993 and grew up in Lawrence Township. He loved sports from the beginning, insisting on dressing as a baseball player for Halloween at age 2 and playing Catholic Youth Organization football by third grade. He once wrote while in elementary school that, "I want to stay in school, do good and play in the NFL." Always sensitive, he excelled at sports but would often comfort and defend classmates prone to on-the-field errors.
He wasn't the biggest football star in town, not even close, but he loved everything about the sport, and by the time he was a sophomore in high school he was good enough to play on Lawrence North's varsity squad. He started at quarterback in the 2009 season's final games and while those nights were filled with excitement for him and his family, his mom had already begun to worry.
"The thing about Aaron," she said, "was he always got caught. He never got away with anything. He always got caught."
When he was in seventh grade, he'd been caught by his mom smoking pot. She took him to a counselor after that experience, keenly aware of an addiction history within her family. Aaron continued to smoke marijuana and his once-good grades began to drop. Still, sports and therapy seemed to help, his mom said, telling me that "I feel like we kept him off the ledge for a long time."
But that ledge was always there, always tempting Aaron. And even after his success on the football field in 2009, drugs distracted him. In the summer of 2010, as he was set to compete for the position of starting quarterback, he skipped a practice without a good reason and that hurt him in the eyes of his coaches. Things were never the same. He suffered a concussion in one game during his junior year and was frustrated with his seat on the bench in others. His football days soon came to an end.
Around the same time, Aaron's older brother caught him with a bottle of prescription drugs. More therapy followed, but other family members began to notice pills missing from their medicine cabinets, and Aaron began to use other drugs, such as ecstasy. He was getting in trouble and spending time with people who worried his family. He dropped out of school after a fight. He was a suspect in a home burglary and police patrolling a crime-ridden apartment complex late one night found a gun and ammunition in his car. He was smoking pot regularly but insisted to his mom and dad that, "I can stop whenever I want."
He never made that claim about heroin, however. The drug came into his life like a storm when he was 18, upsetting everything in its path. Talk of going to college or the military faded. He was often tired and sick. There were outbursts and displays of erratic and scary behavior. His mom still doesn't know every part of her's son's story.
But, she said, "We all knew for a long time that something was really wrong."
One day in 2012, a friend told Aaron's family that he'd seen him at an Eastside heroin dealer's house, looking jittery and out of place. "I want you to help him," the young man, locked tightly in his own addiction, told Aaron's father.
Aaron denied the allegation, promising his family and a therapist that he had never used heroin and never would. But he was lying, and months later he admitted that he was addicted to the drug and had failed to kick the habit on his own. He said the grip of heroin was stronger than anything he had experienced.
"We had a good conversation," his mom recalled, "and he expressed a deep embarrassment that he could ever be a heroin user — he couldn't believe that was who he was —and he said that he wanted to quit but he couldn't do it on his own."
Family members begged him to enter an in-patient addiction program and he agreed, with one condition: He wanted to get high one last time. It left his mom in an unimaginable position. She could let her adult son go off to inject heroin into his body with the hope that he'd then get the help that he needed, or she could say no and risk having him run off.
Her son got high that night.
The next day, though, he entered a treatment program as he had promised. He stayed for 42 days and emerged stronger. He got a job painting apartments and made plans with a group of new friends from the treatment program to build a sober life together. His mom carries in her wallet a letter Aaron wrote her around this time, in which he said he was "giving 110 percent to my recovery" and thanked her "for believing in me."
But heroin addiction is uniquely brutal and he relapsed around Christmas of 2012. His mom doesn't know how often he used in the weeks that followed, but she remembers vividly a call he made to her in February 2013. The friend who had warned Aaron's family about his heroin use had just died of an overdose and Aaron told his mom that, "He died so I could see what it's really like and so that I could live."
The second time we met for coffee, Phillips talked through details of the rest of 2013. There were good times — the hard work Aaron put into his jobs and the money he was saving. He bought a used pickup truck and got a dog. He had a girlfriend. He wanted to remain clean.
But he developed insomnia as summer arrived — anxious, he said, about life and his future and his past — and he wasn't taking any steps to solidify his recovery. He began scoring prescription pills that he said helped with his anxiety, and that was the beginning of his end.
A friend of Aaron's recently told Phillips that her son had slipped back into heroin use late last summer. That didn't come as a surprise; she'd felt in July and August that he was inching closer to that ledge. As fall approached, she'd asked him to get help and, on a whim, she would often call him with the hope that the ringing phone and her voice would distract him from whatever mistake he might have been about to make. She arranged an appointment with a psychologist and hoped he would go.
Justin Phillips last saw her son on Oct. 6, 2013. It was a stormy Sunday and he'd stopped by her house before going to watch that afternoon's Colts game with a friend. He was in a good mood and seemed to be in a good place, Phillips says, though she spent the rest of the day with a nagging concern about one little thing: He had declined to have anything for lunch. She called him at his house Monday and then again on Tuesday to check in, but he didn't get back to her.
On that Wednesday, Phillips' phone rang while she sat at her desk at work. Her ex-husband was on the line. He'd found their 20-year-old son's body.
"I cried all the way there," Phillips said. "I kept saying, 'Please make it not be true. Please make it not be true.' But I pulled up and saw the police cars and the chaplain."
Six months later, she often stops by Aaron's grave at Crown Hill Cemetery. She thinks about what she could have done differently. She thinks about the sweet little boy that he was, the introspective teenager that he became, and the man he could have grown to be. Like so many parents who have suffered similar heartbreaks, she now feels a need to help. She thinks about getting a master's degree in addiction therapy, and she hopes to form a nonprofit organization for parents who feel lost and confused.
"People need to understand that this is out there, that the stigma against using heroin is being reduced, and that's scary," she said. "They need to know that this is a part of the world for a lot of kids these days. I don't think we can make this better unless we talk about it and share our stories."
And, so, she talks about her athletic, red-headed charmer of a son and his big heart and big smile. And then she talks about the threat of gateway drugs, the horrors of addiction, and the reality that it can hit any family. Talking helps, Phillips said, and she hopes it can help others.
"I don't know what else to do," she said. "I can't let this beautiful kid who had a heart of gold disappear without trying to make a difference. I think he tried to ask me for help at the end but he couldn't do it. I don't want there to be another kid out there who can't ask for help."
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @matthew.tully.
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