Young panelists share experiences overcoming drug and alcohol abuse at TPHS Red Ribbon week event

By Karen Billing

At this year’s recent Red Ribbon Week at Torrey Pines High School, the message to the teenagers was to “Stop and think” and realize that the decisions that they make regarding drugs and alcohol can affect them for the rest of their lives.

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Guest speaker Cameron Clapp with TPHS teacher Don Hollins.  Photo/Jon Clark

Don Hollins, teacher and PALS advisor who coordinated the week’s events, understands how serious that impact can be more than most. In his 10 years in the San Dieguito Union High School District, he has lost 15 of his students to drug overdoses.

Heroin is the most troubling trend in those overdoses, Hollins said, exacerbated by the abuse of prescription pills.

According to data released by the San Diego County Medical Examiner earlier this year, prescription drug overdoses are at an all-time high. The most common drug in accidental overdoses in people ages 20 to 29 is heroin, a drug that has maintained a yearly increase since 2007.

In addition to a week full of activities and powerful guest speakers for the students, Torrey Pines hosted an evening presentation for parents on Dec. 11 that included a panel of speakers who overcame drug and alcohol abuse at young ages.

One of the speakers, Gabe, is just 20 years old and has been sober for five years; at the age of 15 he had become an alcoholic drug addict.

He said his parents’ separation took a toll on him and created “ a gap in his spirit.” He didn’t see his parents much and didn’t have a lot of structure, leading to him being suspended five times for being drunk at school as a seventh grader — twice he was found passed out on the field at Diegueno Middle School. He said he took advantage of his mom’s vulnerability to get her to allow him to smoke weed and drink beer at her home.

Another panelist, Morgan, grew up in La Jolla, an admittedly “incredibly arrogant kid.” He grew up around a lot of affluence and around adults who had accomplished many things.

“It was inspiring but it also gave me a warped sense of reality,” Morgan said. “It gave me a vision of what was possible in life, it didn’t seem like there was a ceiling. But I had no perspective of the reality of how the rest of the world was.”

His parents were good people but absent, working hard. He first drank at 12 and began stealing and lying to get money to support his habits. As his friends’ parents were also not around, their pool houses became “dens of debauchery.”

Teacher Don Hollins has known another panelist, Taylor, since he was 14.

“Five years ago I thought he was going to die,” Hollins said.

Taylor said he had no idea when he took his first drink at 14 that in a couple of years he would overdose on heroin. The progression moved quickly, he said.

He stole alcohol from grocery stores, pills from friends’ parents’ medicine cabinets and once he started doing heroin he could not stop — he was stuck doing the drug not to get high but so he wouldn’t get sick, he said.

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