Friday, December 28, 2012

Former addicts warn teens about dangers of substance abuse

By Robert Nott 
“Donald,” now in his mid-50s, recalled getting drunk when he was in seventh grade. “I wanted to be cool. I was so cool that I threw up all over myself.” By the 9th grade, he was smoking pot. As an adult he began using cocaine and then crack cocaine. “My life went way downhill,” he said.
“John” — whoa is a few years older than Donald — didn’t start drinking too much until after the death of his brother, “Jim.” Jim was a star athlete in high school who relied on scotch and water, and later cocaine, to fuel his fun. “He essentially lived his life to get ‘more,’ ” John said of his brother’s habit. When Jim died from conditions related to his addiction, his brother went to the morgue to identify him. “I almost didn’t recognize him … he had no face,” John recalled.
Marck Romero — who, unlike John and Jim, is comfortable having his real name published in the newspaper — is in his mid-30s and has been clean and sober for three years. Alcohol first nabbed him when he was a teen. “I didn’t have control,” Romero said. “I was a puppet. The alcohol was controlling me.”
The three former addicts, alumni of St. Michael’s High School, spoke to an attentive crowd of over 600 teens in the school’s Tipton Gymnasium on Thursday morning. The event, organized by the school’s Student Wellness Action Team, was moderated by teacher Lisa Bybee, who said the purpose of the forum was for the students “to see what not to do” when it comes to substance abuse.
Last February, St. Mike’s — a private Catholic school that serves about 650 kids in grades 7 through 12 — announced that it would start random drug testing of students this semester. The goal of the tests, principal Sam Govea and president Marcia Sullivan stressed at that time, was not to pull a “gotcha” on the kids but to educate them and hopefully discourage substance abuse.
Part of that education plan, according to Bybee and some members of the school’s SWAT group, was a drug-and-alcohol-use survey that went out to all students last week. The surveys were returned this week, but the results have not yet been analyzed. The school expects to have that information soon.
The three former addicts spoke in relatively subdued, somber tones of the downward slide their lives took once they became hooked. The two older men, who both work in professional fields in Santa Fe, sometimes had a hard time keeping back the tears as they spoke of the personal cost of addiction. Romero, a musician who is attending Santa Fe Community College, displayed a matter-of-fact attitude that suggested he was tired of all the bad choices he had made in his life.
“If we save just one life here, it will have been worth it,” Donald, who graduated from the school in 1976, said after the talk. Marijuana and alcohol, he told the assembly, made him feel important at school because, as he put it, “I didn’t feel special within myself.” A millionaire at 38, he found himself broke and undergoing rehab a year or so later. He was neglecting his family, including his young son, who would sit for hours waiting in vain for his father to come pick him up for an appointment.
Donald knew John’s brother Jim, another grad from 1976, and watched Jim waste away. “I’m an addict,” Donald said. “My friend was dying and I didn’t do anything.” He has been clean since 2004. “I don’t have to drink to dance,” he said. He urged the students to find a way to connect with their peers who may be falling under the influence of drugs and alcohol. “It’s not about ratting out,” he stressed, but rather, reaching out, “with love, care, and concern.”
Romero said he first got drunk (on Jack Daniels) at age 13. He got kicked out of St. Michael’s for his behavior and transferred to Capital High School. There, he joined up with the wrong crowd, including older teens who encouraged him to drink. At 17, he became a father after an incident of unprotected sex. “I drank and drank and it wasn’t fun anymore,” he said. So he turned to cocaine.
Now, he realizes his actions affected his brain development. “I was just cutting off my personal growth … my intelligence,” he said. “I’m sort of 18 again, and starting all over.”
Donald told the kids to communicate with their parents. “We were your age once,” he said. “We’re not stupid.” If a teen tells his or her parents that he or she is addicted, he said, “Your parents are gonna get mad — but they won’t love you any less.” And their love, he said, could save a life.
After the event, junior Soren Brown, a member of the school’s SWAT group, said the assembly was important because “a lot of kids tend to think that they know everything all the time.” The three recovering addicts, he said, “are real people, so the students can recognize that this can happen to anyone.”
According to Sullivan, St. Michael’s has tested 11 board members and seven senior administrators voluntarily and seven faculty members and nine students randomly. She said the school plans about 40 random tests next semester.
The school uses hair samples to test for the presence of cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamines, and phencyclidines, but not alcohol. Students who test positive get 100 days to clean up their act before being tested again.

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