HIGH RIDGE • There is no parenting manual for this, at least none that Stacey Burke saw. How, she wondered, can a parent help a child survive the grip of heroin?
Through a turbulent ride that lasted three years, Burke did plenty to try to help her daughter, Natalie, overcome her heroin addiction. Burke, 51, of High Ridge, lost that struggle in November, when Natalie shot herself to death while high.
Natalie Burke, a graduate of Northwest High School, was 22 when she died. She had worked at a department store cosmetics counter and was newly enrolled in a college to become a medical assistant.
On the day she died, Natalie stole her father's gun, perhaps to hock it for drugs. She went to a Lumière Place casino parking lot, climbed in the back seat and injected heroin. When a security guard approached the car, she shot herself with the gun.
Stacey Burke, devastated by the death of her only daughter, hopes that by speaking out, something good can come of her nightmare. She wants parents to know what to look for and schools to push for prevention.
In hindsight, Burke said she wishes she had known about a newer treatment option, a drug called Vivitrol. She also wishes her extended family had presented a more united front.
Burke said she wishes heroin had been on her radar earlier.
But Burke did many things right, said Rebecca Mowen, a licensed clinical social worker and chief executive officer of Recovery 360° in St. Louis. Burke went to Mowen, who works with heroin addicts and their families, after Natalie's suicide.
"She did as much as she knew how to do," Mowen said. "And she's done a lot more than most (parents) I've seen."
In general, Mowen says, parents should start setting boundaries and teaching coping skills when their children are young and keep in mind the example they are setting. Well-meaning parents often make the mistake of bailing their kids out of trouble rather than letting them suffer consequences that might stop problems earlier.
Mowen urges parents to parent, not be their child's friend. If a child starts smoking cigarettes, squash that right away. Mowen also recommends drug-testing kids early — as early as their preteen years. Make it a habit, and later children can use the drug testing as an excuse if friends try to pressure them to try drugs.
Burke thought she was doing many of those things.
For years, Burke had preached to Natalie about staying away from heroin, which Natalie's uncle used. Burke was proud when Natalie won a school award in fifth grade for an anti-drug essay; she figured the message had sunk in for good.
But Natalie first used heroin at a party before she turned 17. Burke didn't find out about it until years later. Natalie said she was looking for Ecstasy and someone gave her "china." She didn't realize it was heroin.
When Natalie started sleeping a lot and neglecting her appearance, Burke didn't suspect drugs — especially because Natalie wasn't hyper and behaving like someone on meth, the drug Burke thought of as a temptation in Jefferson County.
"Never once did heroin cross my mind," Burke said. "As far as I knew, heroin was the guy in north city, living on the street, who had to shoot it up."
Later, as Natalie's rebellion got out of hand, she confessed she was addicted to heroin.
Once Burke knew, she put up every roadblock she could. She got a judge to order drug testing as a condition of probation in a minor assault case. She provided a home as long as Natalie was drug-free, then threw her out when she wasn't. She called parents of Natalie's friends, yelling at them not to let her stay with them.
There were plenty of ups and downs. Treatment, followed by relapse. Several times.
Burke wasn't alone in trying to save Natalie. Natalie's father drove her to a methadone clinic for five weeks. Her stepfather paid for an out-of-state rehab center. In all, the family spent at least $15,000 for treatment programs, including two residential centers that kicked out Natalie after two weeks for not following the rules.
Though they can be expensive, Mowen recommends 90-day residential treatment programs. After-care is key, especially if a family can only afford a short residential program, she said. The program needs to last long enough so the person can understand why he or she started using drugs.
"In my opinion, 28 days isn't going to cut it," Mowen said. "The first 28 days in treatment, you're thinking about how you're going to get out."
In the days before Natalie's death, she had been fired from her job at a cosmetics counter and got caught misusing her parents' credit card and stealing from them. Through tears, Burke explained recently that she suspects Natalie committed suicide because she saw no hope.
Burke now offers this advice: "Do not enable your child. Seek treatment and don't give up. But put your seat belt on, because you are in for one hell of a ride, and it ain't pretty."
But with heroin, Mowen said, even if a parent follows best practices, there are no guarantees.
"There's always a chance it's not going to work," Mowen said, "because it's ultimately the addict's decision."
Stacey Burke is scheduled to talk about her daughter Natalie's death at a public forum on heroin use, "Community Response to Heroin," at 7 p.m. Thursday at Webster Groves High School auditorium, 400 East Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves.