4: Life or death james faces sobriety or death -- and mom

By Jim Holt

Signal Senior Staff Writer

When heroin addict James Fusca walks into the tiny room at the center in Piru, he finds it markedly different from what he found there the day before, when two counselors and eight of his peers held him accountable for his bad behavior.

Where he found distrust, disappointment and anger in group intervention participants – who, for a brief moment, kicked him out rehab but who then reeled him back in for a second chance - today he finds love.

“Hi mom,” James says with a sudden smile. Taking a one-step lunge, he embraces his mother, Sunny Ludlow.

His voice is not defiant as it had been the day before, nor is it as abusive or sarcastic as it had been during the group intervention. The bad-boy bravado is gone and there’s no sign of the tough guy who talked back to the group 24 hours earlier.

Today, quietly, the voice of James Fusca is soft and tender. When he speaks, the lanky 19-year-old sounds as if he’s 10 years old.

As they embrace, his mother does all the talking. Although muffled and hard to hear what she says, the emotion Sunny Ludlow conveys is loud and clear.

She does not want the boy she gave birth to - to die.

A month ago, Sunny reached out crying to Cary Quashen, from the other side of the country, over fears her “little boy” would die from a potent batch of heroin blamed for one SCV death and eight overdoses.

Sunny, divorced from James’ father and now living in South Carolina, set in motion with a single phone call, a series of steps designed to save her son’s life, beginning with family intervention, then rehab.

Today, her first visit to California since making that call, she wastes not one second on small talk.

“I miss you. I miss you so much,” she tells her son as he held her.

“I love you,” she says, still refusing to waste a single second. “You get better. I do not want you to die. Because I think if you keep doing this you will.”

With tears in his eyes, James tells his mother how much he loves her after Quashen prompted him to repeat "I love my drugs more than you" to her as part of the family counseling session at Action in Piru on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Get sober or die

Quashen is Henry Mayo Executive Director of Behavioral Health and Director of Action Family Counseling on Soledad Canyon Road.

He interrupts the tender mother/son moment, interjecting with a reference which frames the mom’s life and death concerns. “In the last three days, three people have died of the same drug,” he tells them.

As the hug continues, Quashen presses his point.

“When we came to get you, it was either you get sober or you die,” he tells the son.

In the end, it was a mother’s love and the stark fear of losing her son that compelled her to act.

Sunny contacted Quashen the day after she read in The Signal about a Castaic man who died of a heroin overdose, and of the eight others who showed up near death the next day in the emergency room of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, each having overdosed on heroin.

“Every night, I would pray,” she says clearly. “I would pray not to wake up and get a phone call you were dead.”

James speaks to her with his 10-year-old voice. “I love her so much.”

Quashen orders James to tell his mother what he told his father on the day of his first intervention. “I love my drugs more than you, mom.”

And, although everyone in the room knows it’s a lie, James repeats it: “I love my drugs more than you, mom.”

He follows up quickly with his own words: “I love you so much.”

But, now that the subject of drugs is addressed, James’ mother is back to not wasting time.

“Please, please stop,” she tells her son.

James looks sheepishly at the floor between them.

“And, you can’t smoke pot either,” she tells him.

Sunny Ludlow tells James, her son, the dangers of continuing with his addiction during a family session at Action Family Counseling in Piru on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

The Promise

The promise James made in a loud voice the day he came to rehab - the same promise shouted during the group intervention - is repeated now for his mother.

The tone of this promise, however, sounds sweet and innocent. “I’m going to stop doing drugs and get my shit straight, so that my family can come back to me.”

His mother responds with the same amount of tenderness. “You had all of us.”

Quashen interrupts them. “But look what it took.”

Mother and son don’t seem to hear him. “My baby,” she tells James, holding his face.”

She tells him he needs to be there - at rehab.

At one point, Quashen orders James to confront his demon. “What do you want to say to drugs?”

“F--- You,” James blurts out as if confronting the drugs that have held him since he was 12. “You ruined my life.

“This is my ‘F--- You’ to drugs,” he says to no one in the room, then hugs his mom.

“I know this program works,” he says.

“It works for everyone who wants it,” Quashen reminds him.

“They want me to stay sober,” James says of his family.

“Why?,” Quashen asks.

“Because they love me,” says James.

Quashen guides him to the finish line: “And - “

“And, because I’m worth it,” James says.

James reads his "f*** you" letter to drugs to his mother, Sunny Ludlow, during a family session at Action Family Counseling in Piru on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Worth it

As if sharing an incident that happened at school that day, James reaches back into his past to find a moment when he was 10 to talk about.

“I wasn’t emotionally growing,” he says, prefacing his recollection.

“I was standing on the roof of the school throwing rocks at the teachers who wanted to get me down,” he says.

But, Sunny stays focused on one day a time.

“I need you to stay sober,” she tells him. “You need to do what people tell you to do because you don’t know how to do it yet.”

She says it as if she’s talking him down from the roof of the school.

James hugs his mom Sunny Ludlow during a family session at Action Family Counseling on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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Photos by Katharine Lotze/The Signal

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