`

Sons' struggles fuel state rep's battle against heroin use

November 30, 2015
It is a moment Rep. Cindy Ziemke will never forget: finding her 23-year-old son unconscious in the basement of her home.
 
"Something told me to go check on him," she told The Indianapolis Star. "I went downstairs, and he was unconscious. I'm shaking him. He's taking these deep, shallow breaths. I'm slapping him. Then I yell for (my husband) Tim and say call 911."

She didn't know it then, but her son had overdosed on heroin. When the paramedics arrived, they administered the overdose antidote naloxone and rushed him to the hospital. Twenty more minutes and he would have been dead, a doctor later told her.

It's not something the Batesville Republican likes to recall. Nor is it something she is eager to talk about. After all, she is an elected official and a restaurant owner in the quintessential small town of Oldenburg.

But increasingly she is sharing her story in an effort to bring awareness to the scourge of heroin abuse that has hit her district—and her family—so hard.

"I wouldn't be talking about it if it wasn't so important," she said. "I don't want the stigma to win."
 
More than 1,000 Hoosiers a year die from drug overdoses, with heroin deaths more than doubling in the past two years. Indiana lawmakers are expected to tackle the growing problem when they convene in January. House Speaker Brian Bosma has said it will be one of his top priorities, and a drug task force assembled by Gov. Mike Pence has already made several legislative recommendations.

But for Ziemke, the effort will be especially personal.

She shared her story at her family's Brau Haus Restaurant, a frequent stop for this southeastern Indiana town's 672 residents. Her son Sean, now 25 and recovering from his addiction in California, also joined via phone.

Their family's battle with heroin— which also would ensnare Ziemke's younger son, Connor—began in 2009. That's when Ziemke first learned that Sean was using.

At first, it didn't make sense to her. Her son had grown up in a tight-knit, Catholic family, had always done well in school.

"It was completely shocking," she said. "I had no clue."

Her first reaction was to find help for her son. But it wasn't easy.

"I called our doctors, I called the hospital, I was like 'What can I do?'" Ziemke said. "They were like, there's nothing in Indiana. There's nothing you can do."

Finally, she found a rehab facility in Michigan, where Sean would spend several months. Before he left, though, he began to experience symptoms of withdrawal, prompting a visit to the emergency room.

It was at the hospital where Ziemke felt exposed publicly for the first time, where she first felt the weight of guilt and self-doubt.

"How could I let this happen?" she wondered. "Maybe there were things I didn't see. Maybe there are things I saw and didn't choose to see. I don't know. One of the things you'll find if you talk to parents is the tremendous guilt a parent feels."

After rehab, Sean continued to struggle. He eventually moved home and began going to a methadone clinic in Lawrenceburg but fell back into using marijuana and Xanax.

Ziemke launched her political career in 2012, anxious to talk about taxes, jobs and economic development. She and her husband hit the campaign trail that spring, knocking on 2,400 doors in House District 55.

At one home in Connersville—a city that has been rocked by heroin abuse—the conversation turned toward the rising epidemic of drug abuse. Ziemke took a risk and mentioned that her son was a recovering addict. She braced for the man's response.

"You'll get brownie points for that in this town," he joked
.
Soon her family's struggles became far more public.

Just before the primary election, Connor was arrested during a traffic stop after a drug-sniffing K9 found heroin in his car. He later pleaded guilty to obtaining a controlled substance by fraud or deceit and possession of paraphernalia.

Then, in August, Sean was arrested in a separate drug bust. He later pleaded guilty to dealing a controlled substance.

The local paper ran stories about both arrests.

Ziemke would go on to win the November election, but not without people criticizing her—often anonymously—on the Internet.

"Ironic that residents informed her that they were concerned about drug use when her son was just arrested for felony drug dealing in Batesville," someone posted on an online message board at topix.com shortly after Sean's arrest. "She's bringing 'real' conservative values to the table."

"She enjoys Business and Politics more than parenting," another post said.

Despite assurances from her sons that she had no reason to blame herself, her feelings of guilt and self-doubt were stirred up once again.

"That was kind of crushing," she said. "Not only did I have mommy guilt, but I had Catholic mommy guilt, which puts you way over the edge."

Shortly after she took office, Connor was sentenced to four months at the state prison in Plainfield. Ziemke visited on Sundays and remembers how thrilled he was when she would bring him something as simple as a Coke or a candy bar.

"That's what he needed," she said. "The reality of, 'I don't want to be in this place.'"

Sean, meanwhile, returned to rehab in Michigan. With several months of treatment left, he returned home for two days to have some dental work done. That's when a nearly fatal thought entered his mind.

"I decided I want to get high before I went back and got clean," he said. "It was that famous 'one last time.'"

It was the next morning that his mother found him unconscious in the basement.

He was rushed to a hospital in Batesville, then to Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, where he finally regained consciousness.

"When I woke up, neither of my legs were working. They had atrophied. It was terrifying. It took me two or three days to even move my feet. The pain was unparalleled to anything I've been through before," he said. "It was a new low for me."

Today, Sean and Connor are doing much better. Both went through an outpatient sober living program in California and have been clean for the past two years.

After spending time in a halfway house, Sean now manages his own, informal step-down residence in Orange County. Connor and two other men who are recovering from addiction pay rent to live there. They all have jobs and attend 12-step meetings together. They call Ziemke "Momma Cindy."

She is proud of what her sons have accomplished, though she acknowledges her expectations have changed over the years.

"I used to think they were going to be doctors or lawyers," she said. "You want to know my proudest moment lately? Sean got a new car. He's got a clean driving record, a 750 credit score, and he can afford a car payment. That was my proudest moment lately."

She still worries about her boys. It's hard not having them close, though she visits them often.

But she also recognizes that the new environment has been important to their recovery. Unlike Indiana, Southern California boasts a wide range of treatment options and, as a result, a much larger sober living community. There is a wider array of housing options for those in recovery, and employers are more open to hiring recovering addicts, she said. There are 12-step meetings available any night of the week.

It's a stark contrast to Indiana, with its limited treatment options. Fostering a stronger recovery environment in Indiana will take time, she said, but it begins with recognizing the need. And that means spreading the truth that heroin abuse can affect anyone.

To that end, she's sharing her experiences more frequently. She mentioned Sean's struggle during the last legislative session, when she sponsored a bill expanding the availability of naloxone, the overdose antidote that helped save her son's life.

And just last month, she spoke to about 500 people at Mental Health America of Indiana's annual gala.

"It's hard to do," she said. "But it gets easier."

The morning before that event, she attended the funeral of a young woman in her district who died of an overdose, leaving behind a toddler.

"The only thing I'm able to do quickly is share this story so that the stigma can be lessened, so people will talk about it, so they will talk to a professional and say,

'What do I need to do?'" she said. "I'm not doing anything tremendously brave. My sons wanted me to share our story. And I just decided, Cindy, put on your big girl pants. What kind of public servant am I if I am not willing to go through some uncomfortable moments?"
ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Associated Press

Comments powered by Disqus