A Life Cut Short by Drugs

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Laura Berman

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Laura Berman

By Jennie Lathrop, Art Director

“One and two and three and four and…” EMS continued their CPR for 30 minutes before realizing Samuel Berman Chapman could not be brought back to life. 

It was Superbowl Sunday when Dr. Laura Berman, a well known relationship therapist, author and TV and radio host, walked into her 16-year-old son’s room to find his lifeless body. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Sammy was in what is known as the fentanyl death pose, where he was on his back with vomit around his mouth. He had overdosed on a pill he believed to be Xanax. Sammy didn’t know that the dealer he bought it from on Snapchat had sold him a drug laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is twice as addictive as heroin and takes only two to three milligrams to kill someone. That tiny amount he ingested would forever damage the lives of his family. 

“Overdose” in this instance, however, is the wrong word. This fentanyl-laced death is being looked at as a poisoning and a murder, since most people who die from fentanyl never intend to take it. Sammy’s tragic story has made national headlines in recent weeks as Berman and her husband, Sam Chapman, are trying to warn teens and families about the dangers of fentanyl and buying drugs on social media apps. Berman feels that awareness and education about this will save lives. This is why she spoke out immediately after Sammy’s tragedy.

“On the night that Sammy died, I was just beside myself and in a tremendous amount of pain, but I was also filled with so much rage and helplessness,” Berman said. “I was just pacing around the house and crying, and I just didn’t know what to do. My husband knows me and knows that I like to share and help other people… so, he’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you just let your Facebook group know so that this doesn’t happen to another kid?’… It didn’t make the grief any better, but it helped the helplessness, which made the grief easier to hold.” 

The unexpected enormous response to her Facebook post made Berman realize just how many people share the same exact story. She was shocked that she had not been made aware of the extreme dangers of laced drugs sooner and before it had happened to her Sammy. To keep spreading awareness, and to allow others to share their stories, Berman created a safe-space on Facebook to increase interactions between these families and to build a support base.

“I just wanted to get the word out there, and it has kind of become a groundswell because…I was hearing from hundreds and hundreds of parents,” Berman said. “I didn’t even know what to do with it all, so I just made a Facebook support group so they could just talk to each other because I couldn’t deal; I was so in the thick of it.” The group she created is called Parents for Safer Children and has already amassed over 10,000 members. 

Given that Berman is a public figure, she was contacted by the media for interviews. In the immediate days of Sammy’s death, she appeared on Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, The Tamron Hall Show, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, NBC Nightly News and a lot of local L.A. and Chicago news shows. The story was posted all over social media as well. Fighting to prevent this from happening to anybody else and educating people about this epidemic became an important cause for her life–even in the midst of her deepest pain.

The pandemic has played a prominent role in teenage experimentation with drugs. Isolation from peers, loss of social interaction, depression and anxiety, boredom and an overabundance of screen time have weighed into the decision by teens to try new drugs. Experts say the crucial development still occurring within the teenage brain also adds to this risky behavior.

“We know our brains don’t fully develop until we are 27 or 28, and the part of the brain that is last to develop is what is called the prefrontal cortex,” Berman said. “That is the part of your brain that really weighs and reads consequences of actions, which is why teenagers often do stupid stuff, because they don’t have a fully developed radar to really think through the consequences of your actions sometimes.”

The CDC released recent provisional data that shows the immense increase of drug overdose deaths. Within the 12 months up to May 2020, over 81,000 people died from a drug overdose, the highest number of overdose deaths the United States has ever recorded within a 12-month period. With this spike in mortalities, Berman feels that the drug traffickers must be held accountable. When EMS and police arrived at her home, Berman presented them with information on the dealer.

“When the police were here the night that Sammy died, his friend sent me a screenshot that Sammy had sent him with the menu that the dealer gave him, with the dealer’s Snapchat handle and Twitter handle,” Berman said. “I was all excited and went to the police like, ‘Here, here! You can go get him now.’ And, they were like, ‘Nope, sorry. Don’t get your hopes up, because we don’t even bother calling Twitter or Snapchat because they won’t give us any information.’ which blew my mind.”

Many parents are oblivious to the fact that drugs can be sold through social media, until a tragedy like this happens to them. Now, lawmakers are working towards pushing a new law that criminals will not be protected by social media outlets. In most of the popular social media platforms, there is nothing within the terms and conditions that says that if users conduct illegal activity, they won’t be protected. This seemingly makes it “okay.” Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are all companies that are looking to make a lot of money, and by no longer protecting criminals, they could be losing thousands of users, which would drive down the profit. 

“The way that the laws are currently set up, social media, not just Snapchat, can claim privacy laws and free speech as a reason not to give any identifying information on these murderers and dealers to the police,” Berman said. “…I now have thousands and thousands of parents who are ready to go to war on this, and lawyers and congressmen… [Social media sites] are thinking, ‘That is millions of users that won’t join our platform, because they won’t be protected from the law,’ and they shouldn’t be protected from the law.”

Although justice and the changing of laws would be a huge step in the right direction in fighting the drug epidemic, it will never heal the pain that families are put through. Most importantly, it will never bring back a life that was taken by laced drugs.

Berman will remember Sammy not by the tragedy of his death but rather by the beautiful life he led. “My favorite memory of Sammy is his smile and his belly laugh,” Berman said. “You know, in his teenage years, he didn’t give me his belly laugh too much, because he was too cool. But, when he cracked up, it was just this deep, rumbling belly laugh that could light up a room. He was just so sweet and just a really sweet guy.”