Leon Worden | Carpe Diem, Unintended Consequences


Jake knew I’m a prohibitionist. Not just a teetotaler but a full-on prohibitionist. Drugs and alcohol shouldn’t exist, much less be legal. Both as a journalist and before that, as a teenage alcoholic, I’ve seen them destroy too many lives. 

Case in point. 

Jake loved me very much and would have been mortified to think he would ever disappoint me. Which of course he couldn’t. Ever polite and conscientious, Jake had more raw intelligence than anyone I’ve known. And I’ve known some intelligent people. 

Those two factors – my aversion to mind-altering substances and Jake’s yen for my approval – might explain his reluctance to tell me what he was doing. 

We knew something was going on. Susan and I had lived in fear of the knock at the door for several months. The knock came at 1 a.m. on Dec. 26. My first question for the two deputies before I started screaming: “Was he driving?” About the only thing possibly worse was if he took someone with him. 

It started six months earlier. Last June. Not long after his 20th birthday. He crashed his car. Our car. Whatever. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t remember it. The stop sign must have jumped out and hit him. Sounded like he blacked out. 

According to the police report, he was dazed and confused but didn’t smell of alcohol and there was no victim, so he wasn’t detained at the scene. That meant no testing for other substances. Maybe college kids totaling their parents’ car is a routine thing for cops in San Luis Obispo? 

Normally Jake would have been home with us between semesters at Cal Poly. Or more likely in recent years, clubbing in Europe or Asia or pretty much anywhere. I like to tell the story of how he spilled Paris Hilton’s drink at a concert in the forest outside of Toronto. Her bodyguards freaked, but she forgave him with a kiss. Or how he called us from a bus bench early one morning, Romania-time, asking us to find him a McDonald’s on Google Maps because his Wi-Fi wasn’t working. Or how he and some newfound friends got held for ransom in Thailand until a consular official intervened. He made friends everywhere he went. 

With graduation on the horizon – it would have happened by now – he was lined up to study in Berlin. Again. This time it would be graduate work under a professor at one of the world’s top engineering schools. 

Blame COVID for being stuck in SLO a year ago, bored to tears. Kids on college campuses were catching COVID, so he couldn’t come home and couldn’t catch a flight. Nobody would take Americans. 

In July, we partitioned the house. He came home and did another college internship online. He had done one previously, in person, with a defense contractor. This time it was with a tech company that did something I couldn’t begin to understand. Both times he made more money by the hour than I ever did in journalism. 

Jake was nothing if not disciplined. He always made the dean’s list, often with straight-A’s. Cal Poly awarded him a posthumous degree, for all the good it’ll do him. He never screwed up during the semester and wouldn’t dream of doing anything to jeopardize an internship. The last one made him a full-time job offer, but he was set on studying ones and zeros in Berlin. 

So, he marked his calendar. Literally, I believe. Every three months in 2020, when the semester or an internship ended, he would go on a bender. 

One day in September, after his last internship, he told me he planned to lock himself in his room and drink beer and play video games with his friends all night. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. 

I might be a prohibitionist, but I’m a realist. He never needed to hide the occasional beer from me. 

The next few days were a living hell. For me, if not for Jake. I have never seen or heard of anyone so severely wasted. He wasn’t coming down. He could barely talk or walk. I was afraid. Of him. For him. I wondered: Fentanyl? Did he even know? 

On the third day, I managed to force him into the car and drove him to Henry Mayo. Belligerent, he agreed to go, only to prove me wrong. Or crazy. 

To be clear, I don’t blame Henry Mayo for what happened next. They were following the law. But the law, you might have heard, is an ass. 

Known by its acronym, HIPAA is, officially, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Colloquially, it is the “patients’ right to privacy” law. Jake was 20. An adult. He didn’t have to tell us what the ER doctor did or didn’t say or do. Thanks to HIPAA, neither did Henry Mayo. It couldn’t. 

I don’t think they gave him a tox screen. How would I know? He could have told the doc it was a hangover. By that time, it might have passed as a hangover. 

Jake spurned my demands for bloodwork to determine what he had actually ingested. He refused to believe my descriptions of his behavior. I was exaggerating. 

Three months later, like clockwork, after another perfect “dean’s list” semester… 

The presents Jake planned to bring to a Christmas party in SLO that night were wrapped and ready to go. When he didn’t show, his friends went to his apartment to check on him. He wasn’t answering his door or phone. They broke in and dialed 9-1-1. 

When the autopsy came back, his friends were horrified to learn his coke and Xanax cocktail had been laced with Fentanyl. 

Call it what you will – “ego” or “self-worth”– Jake had too much of it to harm himself intentionally. It’s the same way former Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs went. He didn’t know. Both cases were ruled accidental overdoses. 

I make no apologies for encouraging Jake to live life to the fullest. I know how freaking short it is. Make the most of it. Why wouldn’t you? I never denied him anything. I didn’t need to. His requests weren’t unreasonable, and he never really asked for much. He handled his money well. He made good grades. He impressed his employers. His trajectory was up, up, up. The sky was the limit. He was going to do things I couldn’t contemplate. 

One thing I would change is HIPAA. I’m sure the reasons for it were valid, but it’s got a giant loophole of unintended consequences. Could I have done something differently, had I known what was going on in September? I never had the chance to find out. Federal law kept me in the dark. 

Mike Garcia or Dianne Feinstein or whoever, you might want to plug that loophole. Create ways for parents to know when their only child is in trouble and doesn’t necessarily realize it. 

Happy Father’s Day in advance. I’ll try not to think about it. 

As if that will work. 

Leon Worden is president of SCVTV and a former Signal editor.

Jake Worden / Courtesy photo

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