Ken Vest wants to “strip all abstractions from the phrase ‘heroin kills.’” The topic is close to his heart. Four years ago, his 21-year-old son Jesse died from a heroin overdose while away at college.
Vest, retired from television news and public advocacy communications, is a writer and actor. He culled his skills, personal experience and knowledge to write “Inside Job.” The two-act play explores addiction, grief and revenge as it chronicles the lives of the fictional Mason family composed of parents Abby and Will and their 21-year-old son Wyatt who has just died of a heroin overdose. In the play, Will secretly plots revenge on his son’s drug dealer.
“I never really felt angry, but vengeance crossed my mind the night we found out he was dead. We had a possible path to the dealer on Jesse’s cell phone texts. Later, I tried to follow them, but it was too much. I put his phone away and haven’t checked since,” said Vest, who lived in the Kentlands for 20 years before moving to Wilmington, N.C., last summer. “Inside Job,” he explained, sheds light on vengeance and its ability to “inhibit grieving and keep you in denial.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, heroin is an epidemic and the use of the illegal, highly addictive opioid drug has increased across the U.S. among genders, most age groups, and all income levels. Its use has more than tripled since 2010, and the numbers are climbing. A 26 percent increase in 2014 resulted in 10,574 heroin-related deaths.
During the play, Wyatt’s father dreams of talking with his dead son who says, “You couldn’t get clean for me. And forcing me to go to years of rehab didn’t make any difference. Rehab is where you meet other druggies, to buy dope and learn about new ways to get loaded. You always thought the right program would ‘fix me.’ Doesn’t work that way. I was more committed to being high than to getting sober. It’s an inside job.”
In the end, Vest said, the person with the addiction has to want to get clean. “We can’t get sober for our children or our friends. ‘It’s an inside job’ means the person who is addicted has to want to get and stay clean. We have to help guide them, be honest, confront them when they’re bullshitting, and keep them in a recovery program.”
“Teaching Recovery,” a phrase Vest uses in a blog post on his website, is borrowed from writer and author Maia Szalavitz who he said “elaborates on the idea that addiction is a mental and physical disorder. … I think it’s vital to take this approach but it has to be done through counseling.” He urges parents to “rigorously research for-profit recovery programs that could cost thousands of dollars” to locate a program or an individual counselor who understands the mental-physical connection.
Vest admits he’s not an expert. “In my opinion, punishment fails and that includes tough love. I realize this is the hardest and most painful thing for parents to reconcile. Many addicts become aggressive, steal money and other things around the house. … But kicking the addict out to the street is not the answer.… Your only hope of reaching an addict is to keep communicating with them,” said Vest who advocates reaching out to experts or groups. He recommends learning all you can about street drugs and addiction and understanding that it “is not a moral failure, it’s a disease … a mental and physical condition that can be treated.” He encourages parents to know the warning signs, look for them early, and seek help from websites such as Broken No More and The Fix.
He explained that his writing process began with a “spine and form” for the play and holding “the characters and the plot at arm’s length.” He wrote biographies for the main characters before he began to compose the story “so they were human beings in their own right.” Certain plot points and character development that echo actual events and interactions with people contributed to “moments of emotional release.” He added, “Early on, there were times I would write something close to the bone and I would cry. But the more it began to take shape, the writer and old reporter in me took over. It was important to honor my son Jesse—to tell his story. In the end, for this play to be viable it had to stand alone with its own story arch and character development.”
Vest would love to see a full-scale production of “Inside Job.” Currently, a staged reading is being considered by two D.C. organizations. If those possibilities fall through, he said he plans to conduct a fundraising campaign to produce a staged reading on his own. He noted that the play is not a public education project, propaganda, or a call to action. He hopes that audiences will “experience the play in a personal way …feel what it’s like to have a broken heart—a punch in the gut.” He added, “If you’re grieving, find a counselor. Don’t try to go it alone.”
He shared that Jesse was on the right path when he died of an overdose. He woke up in his dorm room every morning to a sign taped to the ceiling over his bed that read, ‘try to stay clean today’ and he was about to begin seeing a counselor. “He was trying to stay clean, but he took a chance. … I included a line in the dream sequence in the last scene of Act 1 that I can imagine him saying, ‘It wasn’t supposed to be my last hit, Pops. It was just bad luck.’ My message to people who use heroin is you will become addicted. I hope you live through it.”
For information, visit www.insidejobheroinkills.com.