The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An overdose and a mother’s search for truth

Susan Stevens in her daughter’s room in Lewisville, N.C. Toria died last year of a drug overdose at 22. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)
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LEWISVILLE, N.C. — She had spent the past 13 months retelling the story of her daughter to anyone who would listen, and now Susan Stevens, 53, sped down the highway, needing to tell it again. Thirty people were gathered at a Cracker Barrel restaurant to hear a local sheriff discuss the opioid epidemic. Maybe, Susan thought, she could talk to the sheriff about her daughter, Toria. Maybe this would be the time when the pieces fit together and the ending finally made sense.

The car had belonged to Toria, and as Susan pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot, she could hear Toria’s lip gloss rattling around under the front seat. Her anti-overdose medication was still in the glove box, unused.

“It’s our special guest, straight from the White House!” said a hostess, greeting Susan at Cracker Barrel, and it was true. Two days earlier, Susan had been telling the story in the Rose Garden with President Trump. Before that was an anti-drug march. Before that was a middle school assembly. And before that was everything that had happened since the day she saw her 22-year-old daughter dead on the bedroom floor with her eyes open and blood on her face, and a police officer responding to the scene of another drug overdose in America asked Susan whether she might have something important to say about it.

“Will there be time tonight for questions and answers?” was what Susan said now, to the hostess. “I want to talk about Toria.”

“Yes,” the hostess said, leading her past the buffet to a back room of the restaurant. “I can’t believe you still have time and energy for a little thing like this.”

“I’ll go anywhere,” said Susan, who had talked about addiction to the paramedics who tried to revive Toria, to the drug dealers who sold her heroin, to the doctors who failed to help her, and to every elected official who answered her phone calls. She had collected and alphabetized hundreds of business cards in a binder, working her way up from county prosecutors to state senators to the U.S. attorney general, until last month she was seated next to Trump in the Oval Office as they talked about how 90 percent of drugs entering the United States come across the southern border. “We have new angel moms,” Trump announced, at a news conference minutes later, gesturing to Susan as he declared a national emergency to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Stand up, just for a second, and show how beautiful your girl was,” he told her, and Susan held up a photograph of Toria as she listened to the clicking of camera shutters.

“It’s clear my daughter died because of these drugs coming through our border,” Susan said afterward, to a bank of TV news cameras, and then she returned to North Carolina, where the more complicated truth was that nothing about Toria’s death seemed clear. Susan, a former private investigator, was trained to work a case and then solve it, but this time, she kept going back over the story, looking again for causes, reassigning blame, interrogating her own mistakes as she tried make sense of one drug death in a national epidemic.

She listened to the sheriff’s presentation as he recited drug statistics she’d already memorized, and then Susan followed him to a corner of the room. “I just have to tell you that my daughter was a superstar,” she said, and before he could say anything, she began describing Toria, her older child, the winner of middle school art contests, an aspiring chemist who had already been admitted to the University of North Carolina when she was caught during her final week of high school with one of Susan’s pain pills in her backpack. The high school called Susan, and instead of making up excuses for her daughter or pleading for lenience, she decided to let the school handle it.

“I thought I was doing the right thing, forcing her to learn a lesson,” Susan said, explaining that the school decided to call the police, who filed charges. Susan had gone to the courthouse with Toria to find a lawyer, who instead of helping Toria had assaulted her in his office. “That was the breaking point,” Susan said, her voice faltering as she described the belt marks on her daughter’s back, the exam at the hospital, the night terrors and the pain pills Toria began carrying around in a gallon-size Ziploc bag.

“Why did I let them call the police?” she asked, going back over the questions she had spent the past year trying and failing to answer. “Why couldn’t I find a way to help her? I mean, what was I —.”

“This isn’t on you,” the sheriff said. “These drugs don’t discriminate. The blame is on the drugs.”

She wiped her eyes with a napkin. “The blame is on the drugs,” she repeated.

She had spent the past year mastering the talking points and learning the data behind a historic epidemic in the United States: Eleven-million people addicted to opioids. More than 71,000 dead by drug overdose in 2017. The highest percentage of drug-related deaths in the world. In the 12 months preceding her daughter’s death, overdoses had killed more people in the United States than car crashes, guns or HIV ever had in one year, shortening overall life expectancy in the country by four months, the first regression since World War II.

And yet as difficult as it was for Susan to describe to officials the full scale of the problem, it was so much easier than returning to her house. Toria’s cats were on the couch. Her “Safety Crisis Plan” was on the entry table. Her last message was saved on voice mail. “I just . . . I really need to talk to you. I’m all alone right now. Please. Help me.”

Susan had moved into the house with her two children a decade earlier because she thought it might solve their family’s problems. She left her violent relationship in Florida for a rural area and enrolled Toria in a top-rated elementary school. Susan decorated the walls with annual school portraits, which lately sent her searching back over Toria’s life, looking for the moment at which her problems began. What if Susan had moved from Florida earlier, before her daughter, then in kindergarten, witnessed the abuse and started clinging to her leg during the worst of it? What if the mistake was moving at all, uprooting her children to a state where they knew nobody and where Toria was sometimes bullied?

Or maybe the real cause came a few years later, after Susan’s car accident, which broke her back in two places and required a spinal fusion, forcing her onto permanent disability with chronic pain in her chest and neck. Doctors prescribed 90 pills of Percocet each month. Why hadn’t she known to lock them up?

She took out her phone. She opened her binder of business cards. She dialed a state lawmaker and waited through the rings. “I’m calling to talk about solutions,” she said, leaving a message.

Across the room, she could see the dent her 19-year-old son, Jorian, had punched into the door when she told him about Toria’s fatal overdose.

On the wall was one of Toria’s last pieces of art, a self-portrait titled “Love Yourself,” and on the edges, she’d written: “anxiety,” “panic attacks,” “ugly,” “sexually assaulted,” “low self esteem,” “stupid,” “scars.”

On the kitchen table was one of Toria’s journals, which Susan had found a few weeks after her funeral, with a bucket list written on the first page: “Gamble in Vegas,” “Have a kid,” “Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro,” “Kiss under the Eiffel Tower,” “Have an art show,” “Smoke pot in a legal state.”

Susan grabbed her keys. She’d been up since 3 a.m., retelling the story even when nobody was awake to hear it, outlining chapters for a book comparing addiction to a hurricane and posting her daughter’s poetry on Facebook. Now she drove to a small office in downtown Winston-Salem. The space belonged to her friend Kenya Thornton, who ran a nonprofit to support victims of sexual abuse. Susan had come to Thornton hours after Toria’s funeral to ask for help starting her own nonprofit to end opioid abuse, and within a few weeks, she had incorporated, written 17 pages of bylaws, recruited a board of directors, created a website, and applied for permits to march on the Mall in Washington. She had named her organization Tealdrops, after the official color of recovery, and then she purchased a custom “tealdrps” license plate and bought a new wardrobe of teal dresses and jackets at Goodwill.

“Are you taking care of yourself?” Thornton asked, when Susan arrived at her office. “Did you get any rest last night?”

“I think so,” Susan said, and then she got to the point of her visit. “We need to do more joint programming,” she said. “Toria’s addiction came straight out of the sexual abuse. They went hand-in-hand.”

“Addiction grows out of something,” Thornton said.

“For her, it was that brutal assault,” Susan said, but now she was also thinking about everything that led up to the assault: the medication she didn’t know to lock up; the pill Toria had stolen; the decision to let the school call the police; the day in 2014 when Susan first took Toria to see her lawyer, a 53-year-old public defender named Stanley Mitchell. They met in Mitchell’s office, and afterward Toria said he looked at her in ways that made her uncomfortable. She told Susan she wanted a new lawyer — that she would pay for one herself — but Susan reassured her it would be fine. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” she remembered telling Toria, and a few weeks later, Toria was back at Mitchell’s office for a second meeting, which ended with her calling Susan from the car, screaming into the phone that she’d been attacked.

Susan met her at the hospital so doctors could examine her, and Mitchell was subsequently charged with two counts of forcible sex, assault on a female and sexual battery. He was disbarred for admitting to having sex with a client and convicted of assault as part of a plea deal in which the other charges were dismissed. Toria deferred her acceptance to college and began seeing a rotation of doctors, who diagnosed her with anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress and depression. She came home with prescriptions for Prozac, Xanax, Trazodone, Ambien, Hydrocodone and whatever else she could get.

“Why is your solution always another pill?” Susan wrote to one of Toria’s doctors, blaming him, but by then Toria was wearing long-sleeve shirts to hide needle marks and disappearing for long stretches into the bathroom, where Susan occasionally found her passed out.

“She had so much pain,” Susan said. “When I start digging into the reasons, it always goes deeper down and further back.”

“That’s why we focus on the things we can still do,” Thornton said.

“I know,” Susan said. “But maybe if I understand how it happened, I’ll be better at solving it.”

She thought there was one person who knew as much about Toria’s addiction as she did, so one afternoon she drove to a Jimmy John’s restaurant to see Toria’s former boyfriend, Zach Ward. He and Toria were in an off-and-on relationship for the last five years of Toria’s life, and for some of that time, Zach had lived in Susan’s house. She had referred to him as her “future son-in-law.” Now she stepped up to the register and opened her arms. “Hey you,” she said.

He hugged her and then came out from behind the counter to sit with her at a table in the empty restaurant. “How have you been?” she asked, and he said he was “adulting” — managing a Jimmy John’s, preparing to buy a house, settling into a new relationship that felt like it could last.

“So she’s really the one?” Susan asked, and Zach glanced down at the table.

“You deserve something good,” Susan said. “She would have wanted that.”

Zach had met Toria during her senior year of high school when she started working at Jimmy John’s. They dated for a year before the assault, and then he supported her through more than three years of addiction as she cycled between recovery and relapse. Once, she managed to go a year without using drugs, and Zach encouraged her to re-enroll in college. Then he left for a few days to attend managerial training for Jimmy John’s, and when he came back, she had relapsed.

“She fought it so hard,” Zach said. “I’ve never seen anybody try harder at anything.”

“She was so close,” Susan said. “Why couldn’t she pull out of it?”

“It was never a choice,” he said. “She was so ashamed. She would have chosen anything else.”

They had watched her addiction accelerate after the relapse — three overdoses within a year, twice on life support, fears of suicide that compelled Susan out of bed every night so she could look into her daughter’s room to make sure she was still breathing. In a desperate effort to change their routine, Susan had drained her savings to book a family cruise because she was suffocating in the house and Toria had wanted to visit Mexico. Then, the day before they were supposed to leave, Toria had gone into the shower, put her leg up on the wall and begun twisting it and slamming her arms against it, injuring it so badly she was unable to walk. She told Susan she had done it on purpose so she wouldn’t have to spend a week offshore with no access to drugs. Eventually, Susan asked her to move out, and Toria moved in with Zach a few miles away.

He came home from work one afternoon to find her overdosed and managed to save her by administering Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an overdose. Then he returned home the next day, and she had overdosed again. He called 911, gave her Narcan and tried CPR even though her lips were blue. By the time Susan arrived 15 minutes later, her daughter was dead, but she told police she wanted to see her anyway. They led her back to the bedroom, where at first Susan saw the Lilly Pulitzer comforter Toria had bought with her pay from Jimmy John’s and the pillows she had embroidered with her initials. Then she glanced below the bed and saw Toria, naked on the hardwood floor under a thin sheet with a needle at her side. Susan kissed her forehead and said she loved her and was proud of her.

“I needed her to know I was going to talk about her,” she told Zach now. “I was going to do something about it.”

“I think she knew that,” Zach said.

“I wonder about so many things I could have done differently,” she said.

“I don’t think there was anything anybody could do,” he said. Customers were coming into the restaurant, and a line was beginning to form at the counter. He stood up, hugged her and put on his gloves. “Go easy on yourself,” he said, but she was already up from the table and heading toward the door.

Outside the restaurant, she handed out business cards for her nonprofit. “My daughter was a superstar,” she told people.

On the drive home, she wrote to a member of the school board. “The cartels are running this stuff directly into North Carolina. What if we instituted an anti-drug pledge?” she asked.

She called a pastor to ask about outreach to churches as she walked back into her house. “I want to talk about this everywhere. That’s how I’m celebrating my daughter,” she said, and then she hung up and noticed her son, Jorian, sitting in the living room.

“You know how much I hate it when you say that,” he said.

“Say what?” she asked.

“Celebrating,” he said, holding the word for a few extra beats on his tongue. “We don’t celebrate the Holocaust. We don’t celebrate 9/11.”

“But I’m just, I’m thinking that if we can save a life in her memory, that’s honoring —”

He held up his hand. “I know,” he said. “I get it. I don’t want to argue about the whole thing, but it’s almost a slap in the face when you say that word.”

“I’m not going to apologize for honoring her,” Susan said. “She was amazing.”

“Yes, but there’s more to it than that,” he said. He’d seen the report card that showed her missing nearly 50 days of school during her senior year and somehow still pulling off straight A’s. He remembered the way, after the assault, she had begun yanking at her hair and skin. He remembered finding her overdosed once on the floor of her closet, and he remembered his own high school graduation, where she had stumbled around and then nodded off at the table during dinner.

“She was so smart,” he told his mother now. “I was in awe of her. She had a huge heart. She was basically a genius, and then I watched her piss it all away.”

“She wasn’t trying to hurt us,” Susan said.

“I know, but I’m telling you how it felt,” he said.

He started to tell Susan about another memory, his last one of Toria, a story he’d never told Susan before. Toria had called asking for help in the winter of 2017, and he answered only because he had deleted her from his phone and didn’t recognize the incoming number. She was always needing things, and he didn’t want to enable her. This time, she said she hadn’t eaten in three days, and she begged him to buy her food. He told her to meet him at McDonald’s. Then, on the way, he bought a $25 gift card for food and another for gas.

He sat at a booth and waited for her to arrive, and then she was tapping on his shoulder, eerily skinny and wearing big sunglasses. She had scabs on her face and needle marks on her arms. He bought her a meal, and she asked him to sit with her while she ate. He stayed for as long as he could manage it, about 15 minutes. Then he gave her the two gift cards and said he loved her, and she started to cry.

“What else did she say?” Susan asked, because this had happened several weeks after the last time she saw Toria, on her 22nd birthday. Maybe there was a clue in it somewhere, a piece of the puzzle she had somehow missed.

“Nothing, really,” Jorian said.

“Yeah, but 15 minutes,” Susan said. “She must have said something, right?”

“I didn’t want to get into some deep conversation,” he said. “I didn’t want her to know about my life.”

“I never realized she was that hungry,” Susan said.

“I know a lot you don’t know,” Jorian said, and then he told her about how Toria would sometimes brag to him in high school about experimenting with drugs. She’d shown him the marijuana scale she kept under her bed, and she told him about taking pain pills at school and how they made her feel “floaty.” Once, when the two of them were driving home during Toria’s senior year, she told him that she’d just tried heroin for the first time. He had screamed at her and called her an idiot, and she said she wouldn’t do it again.

Jorian knew his mother traced the origins of Toria’s addiction back to the stolen pain pill and lawyer, but now he told her: “The drugs started before.”

Susan looked at him.

“That made it way, way worse, but it started before,” he said.

“I wish you would have told me this back then,” Susan said, and as soon as she finished the sentence, she regretted it.

“What the hell was I supposed to do?” he said. “I would have betrayed and lost my sister.”

“It’s just, maybe if you’d told me, I could have —” She stopped herself. She took a breath and reached toward his arm. “It was stupid,” she said. “I never should have said anything.”

“She should have never gotten to that point,” he said. “Those were her steps. She laid that path.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” Susan said again, but now she was walking backward down that path, reassigning blame, searching again for causes she might still be able to fix. Domestic violence. Bullying. Sexual assault. Prescription drugs. Heroin. The U.S.-Mexico border. What more could she have done? What else could she still do?

She walked into the kitchen, flipped open her binder of business cards, and started dialing on her phone. She waited for an answer and then began telling the story again. “My daughter was a superstar,” she said.