Robin Wikle stands before a wall of portraits of other people's dead children. The middle-schooler who took his friend's father's cancer medication. The 19-year-old who took unknown pills, sparking a mother's frantic call to 911. The two brothers found dead at home — three weeks apart. "Death is final," Wikle says to a gym full of Dunedin Highland Middle School students, as she warns them about abusing prescription drugs. What the Pinellas County School Board member and mother of three sons doesn't say is why she's here. Her firstborn. Her 6-foot-3 "gentle giant" with brown hair and blue eyes. The son she hoped would become a teacher and work with students like these. Wesley Paul Wikle, 23, sits in a prison 175 miles away, doing time for prescription fraud, driven by an addiction that has turned his mother into a reluctant crusader. Thank you, God, she prays, that he isn't dead.
There is something knock-you-to-your-knees devastating about believing your life is one thing and then learning it is another.
For Robin Wikle, that moment came with a phone call four years ago. Until then, her life was pretty much as she hoped, an enjoyable whirl of marriage, motherhood, a family business, volunteering, friendships and God.
She married her high school sweetheart, Paul Wikle, when she was 18 and he was barely 20. She was the homecoming queen, he was the quarterback at Tarpon Springs High. Together, they went off to Florida State University, earned their degrees and returned to Tarpon Springs to start a business and a family.
She became a mother at 23, striving to be the kind of mom parenting books describe.
Room mother. Team mother. Youth football league president. When she wasn't teaching special education in Pinellas schools, she taught Sunday school, led the PTA and rallied at School Board meetings on behalf of her children's schools.
She embraced her three sons' hobbies, joined in them, too: hunting, surfing, four-wheeling, board games.
On the kitchen wall, she posted a list of the things she wanted to teach her boys: honesty, integrity, kindness, respect, work ethic, treat others as you want to be treated.
"Bloom where you're planted," she would tell them again and again — rise to the occasion no matter what your circumstance.
Wesley, her oldest, was a considerate boy. Once when he was 7 or 8, he cried when he realized he had littered through a car window. His parents turned the vehicle around so he could pick up the trash.
The son of two Type A parents, he was more creative, drawing and designing board games the family would play. Once, he thought up an elaborate weekend "Survivor" game.
He was the kind of boy who wouldn't lie for any reason.
Or so his mother thought.
• • •
Things started to unravel when Wesley was in high school, but his mother didn't see it.
She didn't know that kids at the parties her son attended were experimenting with prescription pills. She had warned her boys about smoking, drinking and illegal drugs.
"That's just what you do as a parent," she says.
But she didn't know to warn them that something legal, prescribed by a doctor, could be just as dangerous.
She didn't know that one of Wesley's buddies shared a relative's Percocet with him — and they took the pills for three days straight.
She didn't know that the woman her son dated after high school introduced him to oxycodone and roxicodone, opiate painkillers that made him feel more energetic, more outgoing, more alive. At first.
She didn't know that the first time Wesley experienced the pain of accidental withdrawal after unexpectedly running out of pills, a doctor in Tampa prescribed him up to 270 30-milligram pills every 28 days.
"I thought I could do them forever, down pills forever," he said. "I really did."
She didn't know that her son, after partying one weekend while his parents were out of town, wrecked his car while high.
She didn't know that afterward he secretly tried to wean himself off oxycodone. He failed, quickly reloading on pills.
Shortly after, Wesley finally confided in his father and headed into his first outpatient detox program.
Looking back, Wikle recalls the clues collecting around her.
The lighter in his pocket and the long, aimless walks. His evasive behavior. His new group of older friends. The missing money and the missing pills from her prescription for a knee injury.
She explained it away: Maybe I spent the money. Maybe I took more pills than I thought.
But now Wesley was asking for help and in his mother's mind it was still a fixable problem. She prayed for healing.
Her boy wanted to do the right thing, she thought.
A few months later, seven days before Christmas 2006, the call came: Police had arrested her oldest after he tried to forge a prescription at Albertson's.
Wikle curled up in a ball on the floor of her living room and cried.
"I literally had the blinders ripped off my face. Ripped off."
• • •
It's hard for a mother to figure out the right thing to do.
What would help? What would hurt? How should she treat Wesley The Addict compared to Wesley My Son?
In the early days when he was out of jail, she sometimes drove to St. Petersburg College, where he was enrolled, and searched for his car.
Was he where he said he would be?
But with every episode, the answers got harder. The ensuing two years were a blur of incarceration, court-ordered rehab and relapse.
Was it better for her son's recovery, she wondered, if he faced the judge alone? Or should family be in the room? Was it wise to spend $30,000 on an out-of-state treatment program or keep him close to home? Should she let a public defender fight for him or hire a private attorney?
They were becoming the hardest decisions of her life. So much was at stake. Not only her son's health but his future.
"My husband and I have been absolutely through a nightmare with Wesley, more than we ever thought possible," she wrote in 2008 to Pinellas Circuit Judge Dee Ann Farnell, who oversaw Wesley's case.
She needed the judge to know that her son was back on the meds. "I'm writing you out of desperation. We yield to your wisdom."
Not long after, she confronted Wesley and begged him to quit. He was so high he didn't even recognize her.
Wikle called police and asked them to Baker Act her son. He turned 21 the next day.
• • •
Wikle has never sought professional help. Deeply religious, she turned to God first. But she gave veiled answers about Wesley.
"I didn't share it with many people because it's embarrassing and you don't want other people to know that your world is spinning out of control and you can't do anything about it," she says.
When Wikle ran for School Board in 2008, she says she kept Wesley's struggle quiet for the same reasons: denial and embarrassment.
"How would it look?" she said. "I can't help my son, but yet I want to help 103,000 students?"
On election night, her son cheered her on from the county jail — a guard updating him of the results. Wikle won, and plunged herself into her new role.
And refocused on her other two sons. Willie, in the middle, was preparing to join the Air Force. Wyatt, the baby, was making his name as a quarterback at Tarpon, getting ready for college.
But a mama is only as happy as her saddest son, she likes to say.
Wikle wonders if she should have been more open sooner about Wesley's problems.
"In the end, me, a mom, trying to control the outcome of their child's issues is not going to work," she says. "They have to take that responsibility."
Willie, 21, has watched his mom struggle with his brother's addiction. "I have one of the best moms in the world and it just killed her," he said. "We're her whole life. She . . . blames herself."
• • •
In October 2009, Wikle was invited to candlelight vigil for the victims of prescription drug overdose.
Officially, she was there as a School Board member. "But I was really going as a parent with some heartache," she said.
The pictures of children, teens and adults flashed on a movie screen. The moment marked the beginning of a new phase in Wikle's journey with her son.
This year, she began warning Pinellas students and their parents about prescription drug abuse through a group called NOPE, Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education.
Her message to parents: Lock up your pills. Her message to teens: One pill can be fatal.
"Any child can go down that path of addiction," she says. "We can't just think we can protect our kids by being good parents."
Last month, she attended the second anniversary of the NOPE vigil, bowed her head over a candle wick and spoke the name of her son.
As she saw the faces of those who have died, she tried to imagine her son healthy and happy, a father and a husband. She imagined him blooming where he is planted.
The more cautious side of her recalls the sight of her son strung out.
"Truly," she says, "as a mom, you have to almost decide, 'I'm going to let go and I have to be ready to plan his funeral.' Because there are three things that happen when a person becomes an addict: They go to rehab, they end up in jail or they end up dead.
"I have already done the jail and the rehab."
• • •
Loving an addict is easiest when they're clean and safe and you know they can't use.
That's how it has been for Wikle and her son most of the past two years. When he's locked up and dry, Wesley encourages his mother to get the word out about these awful pills.
"Mom," he says to her, "you gotta tell these kids not to take this stuff."
Wesley admits he liked who he was on the pills. Normally quiet and shy, he became more social and outgoing. Boredom after high school, he says, spurred the pill taking. "I had the same group of friends and just doing the same things."
He wishes he could tell his pre-pill self to listen to mom and dad.
He is proud of his mother but says he regrets that she has become an expert on such things.
"I think she thinks it's good for her," he said recently from a minimum security prison in Raiford. "But I'd rather it still be the old way in her own little world. I wish I never brought her into all this stuff. I wish I never showed her anything like the things I've been showing her."
The uncertainty of what's ahead weighs on his mother. The day will come in the next year or so when her son will be freed from prison.
"Then," Wikle says, "what's he to do? What do we do?
"Part of me wants to go, 'You know what? You walk out that door, you catch a bus and you go figure out and call us when you're healthy,' " she says, her voice firm and business-like.
"But the mom part of me," she says, her voice dissolving in compassion, "the parent part of me, goes, 'Oh my gosh, we need to do everything we can to help him. We need to find him a place to live, find him resources for counseling . . .' "
Then the question that trails her every step stops her:
"What's the answer?"
Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8707.