Why We're Here: Jake Rozell

by Jason Rozell

My son's story is not like a lot of the other stories from victims at MADD.  He was not hit by a drunk or drugged driver and he wasn't an impaired driver himself.  My son's story involves underage drinking consequences, mental illness, and bullying.  It's not easy to write and it's not easy to read.  But, if it can save even one, then it's worth sharing:

Jake was my only son.  I had big dreams for him, but mostly I just wanted him to grow up to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society. 

He was an adorable little boy with blonde hair and blue eyes.  For awhile it was kind of cute that he didn't really speak.  We just thought he was shy.  But when he still wasn't speaking at age 3, we knew something was wrong.  It took awhile for doctors to finally diagnose him with severe anxiety.  That may not sound like much, but it was debilitating. 

He was a sweet kid who, when he was young, really wanted to please.  He played junior league football, did karate, loved video games, and thought the craziest things were funny.  He was the only boy with three older sisters and one baby sister who adored him.  And he loved all of them!  He loved chasing his baby sister and making her laugh by tickling her.  He was good with little kids and they were drawn to him.  He enjoyed helping out in the nursery at church.

But I always said no one knew how hard it was to live inside his brain.  He processed things differently than everyone else, perceived things differently than everyone else.  He was always extremely insecure.  With a late start in language, he was developmentally behind in school, which only added to his anxiety.  He worried constantly about what people thought of him: peers, teachers, strangers, even family.  No matter how careful I was, everything I said or did, he internalized and worried that it meant something negative about the way I saw him or felt about him or thought about him.  As he got older, the diagnoses piled up and included things like ADHD, conduct disorder, and eventually bipolar disorder, to name a few. 

If you think adolescence is tough, try adding severe anxiety to it!  Jake desperately wanted to fit in.  But because of his insecurity, he was socially awkward and tended to try too hard which put people off.  That made him angry and frustrated.  He was bullied.  People said cruel things to him adding to his low self-esteem.  Nothing we said or did seemed to help.  He was too focused on his frustrations. 

We think it was somewhere around 12 or 13 when he started to drink and use drugs.  He wanted to block out how he felt and he thought he'd found a place of acceptance with a group of people who would be his friends - other drug and alcohol users.  He quickly became addicted.  He would steal beer from neighbors' garages, raid our medicine cabinets for cold medicine, steal over-the-counter-meds from stores, and take things to sell for drugs.  We had to put every drug in the house under lock and key.  But he always found a way.  Psychiatrists already had him on various medications to try and help him cope with anxiety and control his rage. But it was difficult to find a successful combination when he insisted on self-medicating with illicit substances. 

At school, he often reacted inappropriately to authority and couldn't control his anger.  He was picked up by police for theft and possession of drugs and got sent to alternative schools multiple times. During his high school years, he spent more time institutionalized than he did at home:  He would get into trouble.  A doctor would recommend that he needed a treatment facility.  He would go for sometimes 30 days, sometimes 60, sometimes 90 before the insurance companies would determine that he was better and refuse to pay for further treatment, sending him home.  He would be home for a month, maybe 2 or 3, before the cycle started again. 

I spent hours trying to find facilities that could address his needs and hopefully help him.  But I always ran into the same issues.  For juveniles, there were facilities that would treat his mental illnesses, but did nothing to address his addiction problem.  In fact, they would often refuse him BECAUSE of his addiction problem.  If we sent him to an addiction program, they had no idea how to factor in his mental illness, which made their techniques completely ineffective. 

In July of 2012, he was 17.  He was home for a weekend visit from his stay in another facility.  He snuck out of the house early Saturday morning, took an empty backpack, filled it with beer and over-the-counter medications he stole from Walmart, found himself a quiet place to hide in town, and attempted suicide by overdose.  When police finally found him, he was unconscious and had laid on his side for about 24 hours, cutting off circulation to his arm and leg and causing severe damage to both.  They had to put him on a ventilator and for awhile, we thought he might lose his arm.  There was surgery to save his arm, several skin graphs to cover where the damaged tissue had been removed, some permanent nerve damage to his leg, and some undetermined brain damage, but he survived. 

He spent a year in a psychiatric hospital after that.  They put him through detox, but doctors told us that he was a poly substance abuser.  He could not indulge in just one illicit substance without adding more.  Any kind of drug, even cigararettes, would send him right back into a spiral of abusing drugs and alcohol again.  They worked hard at getting him onto a steady set of medications that worked for him, but they warned that he would likely attempt suicide again before the age of 21.

In October 2014, he seemed much better - more like the old Jake.  After pursuing some other options, we helped him get his own apartment.  I was going to drive him to GED classes and he began searching for work within walking distance of his apartment.  (He was 19 and had never graduated from high school or gotten a driver's license.)  But soon, his cooperation and new optimism faded.  We started seeing signs that he was using again. 

About a month after moving into his apartment, on Thanksgiving weekend 2014, he called to say he was being evicted.  (Too many complaints from neighbors about parties.)  Shortly after that, he said he was going with a "friend" to Florida.  In early December, he called his older sister to say he was heading to Sarasota.

On Sunday, December 14, 2014, we had just gotten up to start getting ready for church when the doorbell rang.  I answered the door and there stood two police officers.  I saw the picture of Jake in their hands.  I said, "That's my son."  They saw our 6-year-old daughter and asked to talk somewhere away from her.  My wife put her in the bedroom to watch cartoons and we went to the kitchen table where they told us that Jake had stepped in front of a Mack truck on an interstate outside Sarasota at about 3:30am.  He was gone. 

I knew right away what he had done.  A few months before, his mother had found a suicide note where he had described how he planned to kill himself.  She had called the cops, he had gone for some additional treatment, and we had hoped his return to the "old Jake" meant that he was better.  But... he had followed through with his plan.  We still haven't told his baby sister that it was intentional.  Suicide is not something easy to explain to a young child.  The loss was hard enough.  But one day, we'll have to help her understand something we can't even fully understand ourselves.

We didn't know how to help our son when he turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with his mental illness.  And we couldn't get the kind of help from the system that he needed when he was young - when he really needed it - despite our best efforts.  No matter how much we tried to let him know he was loved, he could never really believe it.  He couldn't see, either, how drugs and alcohol were only making his problems worse - only making it harder to live with his illness. All he could see was that he wanted a way of escape.  And when drugs and alcohol could no longer provide it, he chose to take his life.

People tried to reassure me by telling me I had done everything I could for my son.  And I did.  I did everything I knew to do.  But as a father, you can't help but look back and see so many places where you wonder, "What if I'd done this?" or "What if I'd done that?" "Would that have made a difference?" 

What would I say to parents of children with mental illness?  Do everything in your power to keep them away from drugs and alcohol!  Do anything you can to help them find acceptance in a positive way.  Never stop showing them how much you love them!

To parents of healthy children?  Teach your children that their actions can be life-threatening.  A cruel word or look of repulsion or annoyance towards someone who's different might not seem like a big deal to them, but it can literally be life-altering to someone else!  Show them how to be more tolerant of others who aren't like them, how to offer a kind word or even a smile to someone who is otherwise invisible or who is always attracting negative attention.  You never know what's going on in their head.  And, of course, tell them not to drink under 21 or do drugs.

Jake would have been 21 this month on April 12, 2016.  But we celebrated his birthday without him: with his favorite seafood dinner, a birthday balloon, and a birthday song you couldn't help but notice was sang only half-heartedly as we stood over the cake his baby sister had picked out for him.

My son thought that he would be easy to forget, that his story didn't matter because his life didn't matter.  But it did!  It mattered to me!  It mattered to our family and to so many people who mourned him when he left us!  If his story can help one child, one family, then it's worth sharing - because then, it will matter to them too!