Updated: Jul 2, 2020
By Zachary's mom, Tami
Salt Lake City, UT
Zachary Stuart Ziehm was born on August 14, 1991, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He grew up across the river in northern Kentucky in the Ft. Mitchell area. He was a bright and beautiful, healthy boy who was most certainly loved by his family. He loved to fish and loved the outdoors. He also loved basketball and became very good at it. He was not exceptionally tall, so being good at basketball was an even greater accomplishment for him. He played for hours after school practicing and made the team in middle school. Zach was also blessed with natural God-given raw talent. He sang and played acoustic guitar. He wrote music with deep poetic lyrics that moved hearts and souls. Songs about love and Jesus and addiction. Besides all of this, he was a physically beautiful young man. Everyone loves Zachary and he loved the people in his life.
As is the case with most mothers and their children, my son hung the moon in my eyes. I adored him and he was my everything. I was shamelessly proud of Zach, and it was obvious to all who met us. I love loved him unconditionally and still do. He was also very close to his father Jeffrey Ziehm. His dad is a musician, singer, and songwriter. He inherited his talent from his dad, and they spent a lot of time recording music together. His dad also taught him to fish, and they spent Zach's entire life fishing together up until his last days. Zach grew up playing sports and doing normal things kids liked to do. He had lots of friends and a family that adored him. It was not until late middle school and early high school that he began to change. He experimented with pot and alcohol like a lot of his peers did. This quickly escalated and led to harder drugs. Ultimately opiates, namely heroin, would be his demise. You see, Zachary had a family history of alcoholism on both sides of his family. My father died before Zach was even born at 50 years old of heart disease, secondary to his alcoholism. His grandmother on his father's side is still living and has 37 years clean and sober in the 12-step program of AA. We were not a family with our heads in the sand. We had plenty of awareness about the disease of addiction and of recovery. Thus began a season of Zach going in and out of rehab from around 15 years old until he was 21 - which brings me to a memory about him from when he was sober at that age.
Zachary had a great sense of humor. He was hysterical. He could be obsessive when he got fixated on an idea. One of my favorite memories of Zach was when he had gotten obsessed with working out and eating healthy. He was juicing and going to the gym daily. One summer day when he was around 21 years old, he showed up at the house unexpectedly. He was wearing a black garbage bag over the top of his clothes with a belt around his waist to hold it in place. He had made arm holes for himself and was wearing it like a tunic. I asked him what in the world was he wearing and doing. It was hot outside and he was dripping with sweat. He had jogged all the way there from where he was living, which was at least five miles away. It was 90 degrees. He said he was trying to burn more calories and sweat out toxins. He could not care less about what anyone thought or how funny he looked. He was obsessed with his goal of getting in shape. He stopped at every crosswalk and dropped to the ground and did push-ups until the light changed. This is an example of his determination. He was living at a nearby rehab at the time, a residential program for men called Grateful Life Center. He was close to graduating and was able to come out on a pass. He used his time this particular day to jog home in a garbage bag. He cracked everyone up like that all the time. In fact around this same time, which was in 2013, I stopped by the rehab on a day when I could visit, and he was playing basketball outside with all the guys. He was wearing that same garbage bag with the belt over his clothes. I just laughed and so did all of the guys and shook their heads. That was our Zach. He stayed sober after he graduated The Grateful Life Recovery Center for over three years. His sobriety date was January 28, 2013. He died April 24, 2016. He had been sober for three years and two months the day he died. One fatal relapse and he was gone. It was laced with fentanyl.
One of the things I found so disturbing during those years of fighting for my son's life was the hoops we would have to go through to get him in and out of treatment. One time, he desperately wanted to quit shooting heroin and he was trying to get into detox. He had to be homeless, so I had to drop him off at the drop in center for the homeless in downtown Cincinnati. He had to call every day to see if they had a bed. Here is the kicker: he had to test positive for heroin the day a bed came open or they would not take him. It took a couple of days for this to happen. So basically, they said “put your son on the street and tell him to keep shooting up every day until a bed comes open and hope he does not die while he waits.” Now they did not actually say those words, but that was basically what he had to do. Here in Kentucky where we live, there is a law called Casey's Law. Casey died over 14 years ago at 23 of an overdose, and his mother Charlotte fought to get Casey's Law passed so an adult could be court-ordered to treatment against their will if their life was in danger. Obviously the law requires a person be assessed by a physician and a chemical dependency counselor, who would have to recommend treatment in order for a judge to sign off on it. I filed Casey's Law on my son and had him arrested and wait in jail for 30 days until he got into the Grateful Life Center. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I was trying to save his life. Zach would grab hold of recovery in that treatment center and it would change his life.
We watched Zach come back to life in recovery. He became a man before our eyes. He desperately wanted heroin out of his life and fought hard to get clean. He graduated from the program and got a job. He worked at the same place for the last three years of his life. He got his own apartment, bought a car, got engaged, had a baby, and became a daddy. All in sobriety. We had only just begun to breathe again, thinking he had beat this demonic addiction. He played basketball three days a week at a local health club with the same group of young men for over three years. He was talking about going back to college. His son Cannon was starting to walk at only 10 and a half months. What triggered Zach's relapse was something called Kratom. They were selling these energy drinks at the local gas station called Krazy Kratom, K chill, and one other one I cannot recall. At any rate, they marketed this drink as an alternative to NSAIDS and Tylenol. A herbal analgesic that would help with pain and muscle cramps. Well, Zachary played basketball for four hours at a time three days a week. His legs would cramp and be sore. He said, "Mom, it is better than taking Tylenol because of my liver." Like most IV heroin addicts, he had been exposed to hepatitis, another component of this epidemic. He was aware of the potential health implications since I am a Registered Nurse and had educated him at length. He thought he was being cautious. A month after Zach died, there was a nationwide ban on Kratom. It comes from a coffee plant in Indonesia. They had a Kratom epidemic in the past, like we are having a heroin or opiate epidemic now. If you Google Kratom, it states that drinking those energy drinks is the equivalent of taking two Vicodin. It acts like an opiate. It was not being regulated by the FDA here in America and was treated as a dietary supplement. It had major consequences for my son. It made him feel altered. It triggered those opiate receptors in his brain. It made him feel like he was on opiates after over three years sober. It triggered the opiate craving that laid dormant inside him. Five weeks later, that energy drink would not be enough. He would make the fatal choice to use one last time. It proved to be his final time. He purchased what he thought was heroin after being clean for so long, and it was in fact mostly fentanyl. He died immediately, leaving behind a devastated family.
I am hoping his story helps others and am advocating for more funding for treatment and for easier access for addicts when they seek help. Thank you so very much for caring and for honoring my son by allowing me to share his story.