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.
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.
“At 17 years old I was a full-on heroin addict, that was scary,” said Taylor, admitting his life was full of anxiety but instead of telling anyone about it, he lied. “I have five years clean and sober and it’s phenomenal when I think where I was five to seven years ago. It’s incredible to do life instead of running from it.”
Hollins thanked the panel for their courage to say what really happened in their lives as they aren’t easy stories to share.
“It’s their courage and honesty that has been resonating with kids all day long,” Hollins said.
All assemblies during Red Ribbon Week had between 1,500 to 2,000 students, including a parent whose 21-year-old son and La Costa Canyon graduate died from a heroin overdose in September, and a parent whose daughter died at 22 in a drunk driving accident.
One of the speakers, Cameron Clapp, a triple amputee, spoke to about 2,400 students and staff. At 15, after a night of drinking, Clapp passed out on a railroad track and was hit by a freight train and lost both of his legs above his knees and his right arm below his shoulder.
Now a motivational speaker, he had a powerful message to share with students about how their decisions can have life-long impacts and about perseverance — how Clapp worked hard to become an amputee athlete and advocate.
One teacher, Sarah Morawa, sent a note to Hollins about how incredible the speakers were, remembering when college basketball standout Len Bias’ NBA career was over before it began when he overdosed on cocaine two days after the draft in 1986.
“I was an athlete and it scared me to think about how one mistake could cost so much. The news of his death honestly prevented me from ever doing hard drugs,” Morawa said. “Hopefully, some of the stories heard today will do the same for a lot of the kids in the audience.”
One parent admitted that it was scary to hear the panelists’ stories, especially because many of them came from very good homes. How could they prevent the same from happening to their kids?
Hollins said nothing can prevent for certain that a kid won’t end up with a drug or alcohol problem, but the best thing parents can do is to keep open communication between them and their children.
As Morgan said, it’s a problem if a parent is more attached to their phone than they are to their child. And it’s a problem if they work so much that they forget the value of family. He said there should be an “off-switch” to parents’ professional lives and that time is given to building trust and relationships with their children.
Hollins advised parents to pay attention and really listen to their children, spend one- on-one time with them and just be a presence in their lives.
“It goes a lot further than we give it credit for,” Hollins said. “We all want to feel like we matter and that people care about us. These kids didn’t feel like they mattered and drugs and alcohol were a way to feel connected. Being a safe harbor for your kids is really important.”