Zoe's Story

My name is Robin Kellner.  My daughter Zoe was a bright, beautiful loving child.  She grew into a vivacious teenager with tons of friends.  She went off to college -- and began a struggle with drug misuse.  At 22, she died at home in her bedroom.  This is her story. 


(If you want to email Robin, please click on this link.)




I want to start the story when my daughter Zoe was in the 9th grade at a wonderful school in New York City.  It is a lovely, nurturing, very sweet school, small, like a family, a community. She started in the first grade and went all the way through high school and graduated from there.


But in the 9th grade something happened that I can’t help thinking back to now. 


One of Zoe's classmates was very suddenly removed from school and sent out west to rehab. The next day, the school called a parent breakfast, because the kids were buzzing about what happened, and the parents didn't really understand. 


As I sat at this breakfast, and they explained what had happened to this young man, who was a good friend of Zoe's, I thought to myself, “What am I doing here? This has nothing to do with me, because it's so not Zoe.” 


Fast forward. This young boy – now a young man -- lives out in California, has a band, owns part of a restaurant, is smart and handsome and successful and thriving.  Zoe is gone. 


As parents, we don't want to think our kids could get off track. In a million years, I never thought that I would be the parent who would lose a child to drugs.  I never, ever, ever thought that could happen. 




Zoe was an amazing person.  Popular.  Pretty.  Smart.  Creative.  Her interests were broad. She was fascinated with everything from religion to neuroscience to fashion. You met Zoe and you fell in love with her.


Zoe went off to college with many of the same trepidations that I think many young people have when they go away to school. 


By the time her second year came around, she had settled in and she had started to make friends and all of that. 


But one day I got a call from her in the middle of a day in the middle of a week,  and she just did not sound right. I didn't know what it was, it didn't sound like anything, she just didn't sound right.  She sounded high. And I was alarmed.


The next day I spoke to her, and I heard the same thing.  She told me she was on her way to class. And I thought, "Oh my god, this is really not right."


I dropped everything, and I told her that I was coming to visit, that I missed her and I really wanted to spend the weekend with her. So I flew down and we spent Friday, Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night together.  I took her and her friends out to dinner. Everything could not have seemed finer. Perfectly, perfectly fine. 


On Sunday we made plans to meet for brunch.  One of Zoe's favorite things with me was going for brunch.  I went to the restaurant, and she didn’t show up. 


I'm calling her cell phone and it's ringing and it's ringing and it's ringing. Long story short, a few hours later, I get a call from the emergency room at a hospital. She had passed out, on the street near her apartment, the night before. 


Someone found her, called 9-1-1, and she was taken to the hospital.


By the time I got there, she was sitting on a gurney. Her mouth was all black, because they had charcoaled her, which is what they do. She was so incoherent when she got to the hospital that she couldn't even tell them what she took. So the charcoal apparently sort of acts like a sponge, and it absorbs everything.  


She was still very incoherent and, the hospital decided to hold her for 36 hours, which it had the right to do. 


Kids are so used to having their parents fix things for them, and she wanted to leave the hospital. But, not only could I not fix things, but the more I spoke, the more they said to me, "Look, we're allowing you to stay with her.  If you say anything else, we're going ask you to leave." 


So I sat for 36 hours on a chair. 


She spent the 36 hours trying to become coherent, lucid. Straightening out. And she and I are talking, and they are talking to her: "What happened? Why did this happen?"  She said what happened was that she lost track. She started taking Xanax, and she lost track of how much she had taken. 


At the end of the 36 hours, the doctor decided that she should be further evaluated. So they sent her, with me, to a state psychiatric hospital. She was absolutely hysterical about it, but there was, once again, nothing that I could do. 


The next morning, they release her. So I decide to take her back to my hotel with me, and we spend the next two days together, in bed, talking, eating together, trying to figure out, how did this happen? Where did this come from? 


And we talked and we talked, and she showered 12 times and she really looked like she had had the scare of her life. I thought to myself, "Oh my god, I hate for her to be in discomfort, but sometimes you need to get the scare of your life, and maybe this was it." 


So I left her to go back to school.


I fly home, and the next day I call her, and sure enough she's high again. So I drop everything, I fly back down, and I said to her, "Look, you know what, I just want you to come home. Because I don't know what's going on and I want you with me. Leave everything here." I told her she could return, but I had my doubts. 


She got on a plane with me and came back to New York, and when we got home, I decided that it would be dangerous for her to go back to school. And that we'd get her stuff and all of that, but that there was something wrong.


I wasn't even sure where to begin, I didn't even know what was going on, but I knew her judgment was off. 


She was enraged. She did not want to cooperate. She wasn't talking to me. It  wasn't like those cozy two days in the hotel room.  It was very different. I had pulled her out of her life, and she didn't see that there was a problem.


So, over the next year and a half we struggled—struggled to find what to do, what treatment, where, who—and she finally wound up in a dual-therapy treatment. Someone to treat the psychological and psychiatric aspects of what was going on, and someone who was a drug expert.


And it was really hard in the beginning to get her to cooperate and participate. I literally took her to her appointments. The doctors were saying "well, she has to want to," and I was like, "Please trust me, I need to get her there, because if I can get her there, and it catches ..." 


And it did.  She did start going to therapy, and she started going on her own. And she started back at school in NYC.  She got a job working as a stylist. I thought to myself, "Oh my god, I feel like we just dodged a bullet." It seemed that life was like little pieces coming back together. We talked about getting her an apartment. It was starting to happen.


But one day I came home from work, and she was high, again -- that same thing. 


And this time she wasn't a thousand miles away at school.  She was right here at home with me. So I could see her, I could hear it.


That was January of 2007.


She was getting into worse and worse shape, and I was getting more and more scared.


So I started to try to talk to her doctor who was the drug addiction person. 


But because Zoe was over 21, no one would talk to me. It was a matter of patient privacy.


The only time that they would talk to me would be if I was in a session with her. 


And we went to some sessions together.  We'd gotten to a point where all we were doing was screaming at each other. I was terrified. Here's a young pretty girl who's really out of control, and we live in New York.  People prey on girls like this. And there was nothing I could do to protect her. 


She was staying out at night more, and when she finally came home, she would go into her room.  Sometimes she would stay there, sleeping much of the time, for as long as 36 hours. Really scary.  So I started leaving messages frantically for her doctor.  Her friends, who I love, were afraid to talk to her about it, because they didn't want her to be angry. They didn't want to lose her friendship.


I was calling rehab places all over the country, asking what I should do, telling them what she was doing.  And they were wonderful, but unless she wanted to go, there was nothing they could do. 


I could hear their hearts breaking for her and me. Finally someone recommended that I talk to someone here in New York, a professional who might be able to help get her into rehab. 


So John, who's now my husband, and I went to see this person.  He asked, “what do you think Zoe values the most?" 


John, looking at me, said, "I think it's you, I think it's her relationship with you." 


I mean, she's my heart. So we decided that it was me that she really valued the most and that I was the one that meant the most to her. 


So, the professional suggested that I narrow my communication with Zoe. He said you should say to her: "I can't watch this. I can't watch you destroying yourself. I love you with all of my heart and I can't watch this.  So, I'm not going to speak to you. I’ll allow you live here for the time being, but the only thing I'll talk to you about, the only thing, is going into treatment." 


I said it to her in person, in a letter, in emails. She would come home, and say, "Hey Mom!" And I'd say nothing. And she'd say, "I said 'Hey, Mom.' " And I'd say, "The only thing I'm going discuss with you is going into treatment," over and over and over, like a broken record. She'd ask me a question, and I'd say, "The only thing I'm going to talk to you about is going into treatment." I hated it.  I wanted to hug her, talk to her comfort her.  But, I stuck to the script.


At first she thought, "big joke," but finally after several weeks – it was impossibly long, you cannot imagine—she got really angry.  And one day, unexpectedly, she said to me, "What the fuck do you want?" And I said, "I want you to go into treatment." And she said, "Okay, okay, just make an appointment, I'll go with you! Just stop this!" 


So, I called the professional.  It was a few days before Easter.  He was away.  


But he returned my call, and I made an appointment for us to see him the next week, immediately on his return. 


That was the Thursday before Easter.


The next day – it was Good Friday – she came home, not in good shape at all. 


John and I were sitting down, and there was a shoe box on the table.  


She came in and asked, "Oh, did you get new shoes?" 


And I said, "Yes, I got a pair of shoes." And she said, "Oh, could I see?" – both of us loved shoes – and I said, “yes.”  But, I didn’t want to just say, “yes.”  I wanted to hug her, and it was clear we both wanted to have our relationship back the way it used to be.  But, I was still operating on the narrow communication prescribed by the professional.


The next day was Saturday.  She went out that night and didn't come back until Sunday night.  So Sunday night, it must have been 8:00 at night, we were in the kitchen—I had started dinner.  She came in.  She looked so tired, she just looked exhausted, she looked so thin, and so pale. So she came into the kitchen, and I said to her, "I'm making dinner, do you want to have some dinner with us?" 


And she said, “You know what, I'm so tired. I'm going make myself some tea, and I'm just going to go to my room." Which she did. She made herself a cup of tea and then she went into her bedroom. My husband and I had dinner.


The next day, I went off to work, and she was sleeping.  That evening, John and I went out for dinner and came to my apartment.  


Zoe was still in her room.  Her room was dark.  I checked on her, looked in her room, and she appeared to still be  sleeping. It didn't surprise me — there was a pattern of her sleeping through whole days.


John said, "Maybe you should go back and check on her again." This time I turned on her light, and I saw that she was in her bed, in a fetal position, and she was all blue and purple.


We called EMS.  They came almost immediately. They told us she had been dead for some time. 


She had taken one too many of something -- it had stopped her heart. Her heart just couldn't take anymore.   And all those hours she was just in her room and I didn't even know. 


What I do know is that Zoe never wanted this to happen. Afterwards I looked at her calendar.  She had all these appointments and all these plans and she was going to do all of this stuff. She didn't get to do any of it because at 22, on April 9th, she passed away.


A lot of what happened immediately after, I can’t remember. The police came.  

They found drugs in her room.  It was clear she had died of an accidental overdose. 




I think Zoe started by experimenting. But I think there are some people for whom a switch gets turned on, and that switch doesn't get turned off on its own. Zoe was like that. She was going need some serious treatment to get into the "off" position. 


I believe—I really believe—that Zoe could have been treated. She would have been an in-patient some place, it might have been six months, and it would not have been easy and she probably would have been kicking and screaming the whole time.  But eventually, I think it could have worked.  She would have wanted to get better, to continue leading the life that was so full of promise for her. 


And, now I talk to other kids about Zoe.  She would want kids to know what really happens. Not what you think is going happen, but what the real deal is here.  This is what happens. 


I try to tell kids all of this with the hope that maybe one day, one of them will be in a position like Zoe was when she was in college, and maybe she'll think just for a minute about my beautiful young daughter who only got to 22 when she died.   And maybe my telling Zoe’s story will save a life. 


One day recently, I was talking to the seniors at Zoe's former school, and one of the girls said to me, "You spoke to us when I was in the 10th grade, and I was doing all kinds of shit then." And I said "Really?" And she said "Yeah, but you know something, when you spoke to us, it made me think that I would never want to do to my mother what's happened to you." And she said -- she stopped. 


I feel like I owe it to Zoe and I owe it to these kids to just tell them the truth. And even if there’s one or ten or whatever who can hear this story, then I've done a good thing in my life. 


And what I say to parents now is "think the worst." 


Because I didn't think that it was as bad as it was, until it was too late.  Because even when we were desperately trying to figure out what to do to get her to rehab, we never saw this happening.


I know it can be very, very difficult for parents, because I know what it feels like to not really know what to do. To feel so helpless -- to not be able to help someone you love so very, very much.  And there really aren't any answers. There's no clear, "Do this, and that's going happen." 


So, what we can do is tell stories, be open, admit what's happened, and hope it helps.




To honor Zoe's memory, we’ve started two initiatives.


One is an effort to support the distribution of naloxone, a medication which reverses opioid overdoses. In doing that, it saves lives and provides second chances. 


We have also begun a campaign to help fight stigma which is pervasive, dangerous and prevents all too many from getting the help and treatment they need.  


Zoe was so much more than what took her life away.  As is the case with most people who struggle with drugs.  We can't bring Zoe back.  But, maybe, we can help others.  We think Zoe would have loved that.




@ 2019 Robin Kellner