“You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously.”
I grew up in a suburb about 20 minutes South of Boston. Though a large city, my neighborhood was an insulated one that felt like a small town within the city. My friends and I lived, played, worked, and attended Church all in about a three-mile radius. Everyone knew everyone; we all worked at the local coffee shop together, shopped at the same grocery store, belonged to the same Parish, and frequented even the same gas stations. It was a lovely upbringing reminiscent of a place time forgot, nestled in the Northern corner of one of Massachusetts’ largest cities.
Junior High School was quite an eye opener for me. Having come from my neighborhood elementary school where most of the students were “walkers” because we all lived so close to the school, I was now a bus student and had to cross a bridge to a part of the city that was not at all like where I grew up; nothing like what I knew. I was a tiny fish in a huge, and for the first time in my life, very diverse pond. As children do, I adjusted, joining the basketball team and making new friends. Soon all of the newnesses wasn’t so intimidating. Instead, it was exciting making new friends and visiting them at their homes in neighborhoods I hadn’t even known existed in my very own backyard. I loved school just as I always had.
When it came time for high school my parent's had some serious concerns about me attending our city’s public school. Though known for having an excellent curriculum and top-notch educators, my parent's believed the combined student, faculty, and staff population of nearly 5,000 to be grossly overpopulated. One of the largest high schools East of the Mississippi River, my parent's worried I would get lost in the masses. Always an excellent student, they wanted to ensure I continued to shine. Despite my persistent protest, tears, and tantrums, they made the decision to send me to a private Catholic School nearby our home.
It didn't even take a full semester for my parent's to realize they had made a terrible mistake. I was fine; I was making friends and still playing basketball, but, truth be told, I missed my friends terribly and it was taking a visible toll on me. Further, the curriculum was so far behind that I was actually bored with my studies. The deal breaker for my parents came when they realized the city’s public school system far outshined this particular private school’s. I completed my freshman year and transferred to our public school for the remainder of my high school years.
I had a wonderful high school experience. Admittedly, my first few weeks were, once again, quite intimidating. My Alma Mata is composed of four separate buildings with two long hallways adjoining them, known as the Core. Both the gym and the fine arts building are also completely separate buildings, so I had a lot of navigating to familiarize myself with. The period between classes was intense as thousands of students poured into the hallways trying to make it to their next class on time, which could’ve very well been in an entirely different building. This was nothing to me though. I was back with my friends, enjoying school, and all of my advanced classes again. Life was good for my 15-year-old self.
Around the time of my junior year (2000-2001) a few of my friend’s started experimenting with drugs. This wasn’t much of a surprise to me. We were in high school and sometimes curiosity gets the best of us despite the best education and awareness programs. What became concerning to me though was when, at my Junior Prom, I realized more than a few of my classmates were definitely high. I was fairly naive and honestly didn’t know what anyone was on. I assumed ecstasy, or “E” as we called it back then because it was fairly popular. I soon found out how wrong I was.
Before long friends were using more and more frequently and the drug of choice had become the prescription opioid painkiller OxyContin. Thank God I never experimented with OxyContin, because what has happened to most of the good people I once knew is nothing short of tragic. I remember walking into a very close friend’s house one night for a party. Having just graduated and with no parents in sight, we were all ready for a good time.
When I walked in I knew something was off, though. All of the lights were off (or maybe on, but very low). It was so dark and nobody was doing anything. There was no music, no dancing, not even any real conversation to speak of. I vaguely remember somebody offering me an “OC,” (what OxyContin became known as to us), and me declining. “They’re fine, they come from a doctor,” I remember hearing next. “Not my doctor,” I said as I left the party deeply disturbed by what I had just seen. In all honesty, maybe I would’ve given in and tried one if anybody even looked like they were enjoying themselves. Instead, everybody looked like a zombie, like shells of themselves. Not to mention, I had parents that were very fair with me. So long as I didn’t give them a reason not to trust me, they gave me more than enough freedom and I wasn’t willing to risk that. The typical Type-A-First-Born, I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them. I was no angel, and I don’t claim to have been, but I was scared of “real drugs,” and from what I had seen OCs were absolutely real drugs.
After that night I lost touch with a lot of my friends. Much of the estrangement had to do with a new boyfriend I had, but a lot of it also had to do with my having no interest in getting high on OCs and they were everywhere. I later found out they were being exchanged in the hallways at school, that’s how bad it had gotten.
For a long time, everybody ignored the obvious; we were in the midst of a full-fledged epidemic. It wasn’t until March of 2008 when the A&E television show, Intervention, did an “in-depth” episode in which they collaborated with our city newspaper, that the severity of the problem was exposed. For the first time, many of the residents of my beloved hometown were learning what I already knew. Now addicted, OxyContin had become too expensive for most of my peers and so they had switched to the far cheaper and all-to-available- heroin. It was exposed that a hit of heroin could go for as little as $5 on the street. As I watched that episode, glued to the TV, I cried. I cried for my peers, for their families, for the lives lost, and for the senselessness of it all. I was a college graduate, happily married, and over-the-moon about the fact that I was due to give birth in a matter of mere weeks. But I knew every person featured on that episode, and I knew I could’ve easily been one of them. Had I said “yes” just one time, the course of my life could’ve been changed forever. The kids featured on Intervention weren’t bad kids, they didn’t come from bad homes, in fact, most came from great families who fought tooth and nail to help their children. These were the same kids I grew up with; lived nearby, went to school with, worked with, and even made my Confirmation with. We all had access to the same resources. Some of us just made one wrong choice that leads to more and more wrong choices down the road. Not one of those kids woke up one morning and said to himself, “I think I’ll become a heroin addict today.”
Thankfully, most of my close friends never became drug addicts and have grown into wonderful, successful people with beautiful children. Sadly though, many never made it out. My graduating class and high school have lost more lives than I can even count. Just this week another priceless life was lost far too soon to a far too powerful and evil demon. More parents in my hometown are outliving their children than ever should, and my heart literally aches for them. Outliving one's child is unfair, unnatural, senseless and no parent should ever have to live that pain. Ever.
People have a lot of opinions when it comes to addiction. While the experts all agree that addiction is a disease, some still insist it's a choice and that these “junkies” should just get their lives together. While I understand the anger behind loving an addict I don’t understand the hate and harsh judgment. These are still people. These “junkies” are somebody’s child, spouse, sibling, or parent, and it is the loved ones who suffer the most. A little compassion and education would go a long way. Personally, I believe addiction is a disease. There’s no way the smart, funny, all around good kids I grew up with would have ever willingly chosen this life. I pray for their recovery and their families every night. Enough is enough.