Some of Petra Ward’s best memories of her son were when he spent nine months in jail.

That was when they had some of their best talks, when his eyes were the bluest, when he worked out daily and talked about his goal of becoming a personal trainer.

That was when Kevin Wade was sober, his mother said.

She lost her son to an overdose when he was 25. One question that still haunts Ward — and likely always will — is whether Wade overdosed on purpose, she said.

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According to the coroner, Wade had four times the lethal limit of Fentanyl in his system when he died, and he had only taken half of the syringe, she said. But she also doesn’t think Wade would have deliberately sought out the powerful drug, she said.

Still, she clearly remembers what he said when family members brought him back from a previous overdose.

“He said, ‘if it happens again, let me go.’ I said no,” Ward said.

Her son didn’t want to be an addict, but once he started using, he lost any choice he had, she said.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to get high; I just want to stop the withdrawal. I don’t want to steal from you; I just have to get drugs,'” Ward said.

Wade battled anxiety from a young age, his mother said. She remembers she would have to pick him up from school or being out with friends when he would break out in hives.

He was diagnosed with anxiety around 12 or 13 and given medication, but he would take too much of it, she said.

“He just wanted to feel normal,” Ward said.

“He would do anything not to feel.”

Soon after, around 14, her son began hanging out with a friend and the two found a relative’s medication stash and began popping pills. He also began smoking marijuana but passed it off to his mother as hay fever or just being tired.

She believed him.

“I’d never, before Kevin, even seen a drug,” she said.

“I never thought my son would get into that.”

By age 15, Wade had been caught with marijuana and taken to the juvenile detention center on a possession charge. He got in trouble again and was sent to the Indiana Boys School, Ward said.

At age 18, Wade was arrested on a driving under the influence charge and was sent to drug court and began a 10-month stint of being clean, having a job and helping his girlfriend care for her children, until he was arrested again on another DUI and possession charge, his mother said.

Initially, Ward always bailed her son out, but later she stopped, she said.

When he was arrested in Shelby County after a fight with his roommate, he stayed in jail for nine months until his case was resolved. The visits they had were some of her best memories of him, she said.

But when he got out, he soon began using again, she said.

They had already tried treatment options, including a sober living house in Lafayette and Fairbanks. But he would leave or get kicked out of the program and would begin using again.

Soon after, Wade got arrested again for a possession charge in Marion County and was routinely failing drug tests required as part of his probation, which made up the majority of his criminal history, she said.

“Nobody wanted to see him locked up. The person he hurt was himself,” she said.

At one point, Ward knew there was a warrant for his arrest since he had failed a drug test, and she decided to turn him in, hoping to get him sober in jail, she said.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, you betrayed me.’ I said, ‘I’m trying to help,'” Ward said.

But within three days he was back out of jail and overdosing, Ward said.

By that point, Ward had lost track of the number of times her son had overdosed — in a car with friends, at their home when firefighters had to break down the door to get inside. She still clearly remembers the first one though, when he spent 36 hours in what amounted to a cage at the hospital to stop him from hurting himself. He was hallucinating after taking bath salts, a synthetic drug, and hadn’t been able to sleep for days. The only way to keep him calm was for Ward to agree with whatever crazy things Wade said, she remembered.

And she lost count of the number of times they had tried treatment. She wouldn’t agree to take him anymore. He never took it seriously, she said.

When he was prescribed Suboxone to help get off heroin, he sold the strips for $20 a piece. When they wanted to try Vivitrol, the drug that takes away the high of opioids, they struggled to get insurance to cover it. When they finally did, Wade ended up taking methamphetamine because he was afraid of withdrawal, and then spent a few days in inpatient treatment because of the mental impacts the drug had on him, she said.

He had stolen from his mother, pawning the items for cash so he could buy drugs. He stole his sister’s birthday money. His mother kicked him out, more than once, but then would get the call from her son that he was cold and hungry and just wanted to come home, and she would give in, she said.

“I never once gave up. I couldn’t give up,” she said.

But then the cycle would begin again, she said.

Each time he got sober, Wade was forced to remember what he had done when he was desperate to get high — stealing, lying, hurting his family. And it was too much for him to bear, his mother said.

“He didn’t want to think, he didn’t want to feel that. He couldn’t live with it,” she said.

And then he also faced the struggles of his past, trying to find a job or housing with felony convictions. The best he could do was often an $8-per-hour job and after paying his bills, he had nothing left.

“Once they’re in this, they can’t get out,” she said.

“He wanted help, but he felt there was no point. He would do good for a year, and then mess up. It was exhausting.”

But his mother still saw glimmers of hope.

She knew who he was underneath his gruff, tough guy exterior. She had seen him playing with his teenage sister and her friends. She had listened as he sang “The Wheels on the Bus” to his sons.

Wade would talk about wanting help. He worked to get his girlfriend into treatment. Their family had gotten some interest from the TV show “Intervention,” which focuses on drug and alcohol abusers and pays for them to attend treatment and follows them through the process.

They had a mother-son talk — one of their best in years — and Ward offered to use her tax check to send him to rehabilitation in Florida. They talked about him moving there, starting new. They hugged at the end of the night.

But the next morning, Ward checked her son’s phone and saw he had been lying to her again. Frustrated, she headed to work and later texted him asking him to not get high that weekend since they would be visiting with his sons.

It’s a text she regrets. She wishes she would have instead sent him positive words of encouragement and said, “I love you.”

She got no response. And she knew something was wrong.

She asked her boyfriend to check on him and knew even before he said anything that her son was gone, she said.

They found him sitting on a couch, looking out the window. Ward rushed home, beating the firefighters there. She sent her younger children to a neighbor’s and then went into her bedroom, not wanting to see them bringing her son’s body downstairs, she said.

No longer did Ward have to worry about her son overdosing in the car and killing someone, or having to go to a morgue somewhere to identify his body.

But now she also has to see the hurt in her 13-year-old daughter’s eyes when she talks about missing her big brother, or her 6-year-old grandson who misses his dad and doesn’t have a father at his school’s breakfast with daddy event.

The autopsy report showed Wade had taken heroin laced with Fentanyl four times the amount that would have been toxic, she said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever know if he did it on purpose,” she said.

“Did he just give up? Or maybe he just wanted to relax.”

Finding a solution

We asked families touched by addiction what would help address the crisis.

Petra Ward

Drug addicts do not need to be locked up. They come out and they get locked back up. And once you have a felony conviction, try getting a job. There needs to be ways to clear their record.

There should be a separate place for addicts. Yes, there are costs and it would need staff, but we need it. They need longer stays and training so they have the skills they need when they come out.

The 10 days insurance pays for doesn’t help. The urge is still there. And if they get put on Suboxone, then they have to get off that. There is no way out and they just get stuck in a rut.

About the problem

Addiction: Addiction is considered a brain disease and a chronic, relapsing condition. Opioid drugs change the brain.

Stigma: Families affected by cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease get help and support from the community. Families affected by addiction often struggle in silence due to the stigma attached to addiction, which is an obstacle to recovery.

Number of deaths: 32 in Johnson County in 2017, not including people who die at an Indianapolis hospital.

Hospital visits: 105 people in Johnson County went to emergency rooms for treatment of an overdose in 2015, which is similar to numbers reported from other, larger counties, such as Allen or Hamilton counties.

Prescription rate: For every 100 residents in Johnson County, 84 opioid prescriptions were written in 2016.

About the series

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in history.

Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are killing Americans.

The Daily Journal is taking a yearlong look into the public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and crosses all socioeconomic lines, from families who lost loved ones to health and law enforcement workers on the front lines.

Addicted & Dying also will explore solutions and a path forward.

Got an idea for our project? Contact us as 317-736-2770.

Author photo
Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at or 317-736-2718.