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Generation Rx

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America’s pill-popping culture has fueled a disturbing new trend. Think your child is immune? You might want to check the medicine cabinet.

 

(*First names used to protect the privacy of those interviewed.)

 

 

BY THE TIME RAY* found his mom’s Xanax and Valium, he’d been drinking and taking drugs for about a year. He was 13.

 

 

In his mind, he was “using, not abusing,” sampling different buzzes to see what would happen—like mixing chemicals in science class. It didn’t take long for him to glean the upside of pill popping: no odor, no paraphernalia and, for the short-run at least, no cost. “All I had to do was open the medicine cabinet,” he says. “Getting stuff off the Internet was pretty easy, too; I just needed a credit card and a mailing address.”

 

 

Ray’s mom had been using heavily for years, and when he was 16, she “kind of went off the deep end.” His dad, whom he’d never met, stepped in and got his son out of the house. He’d known Ray was using, but he had no clue how much. Ray maintained his double-life with ease. “I figured the more involved I was, the less anyone would find out how much I was using,” he says.

 

 

Clean-cut and intelligent, Ray could be the poster-teen for Generation Rx, taking his place among a growing population of young people who are abusing prescription drugs with alarming regularity. Most are good students—maybe a bit bored but not aiming to fail. Plenty are superior athletes from the best public, private and parochial schools—places like Woodlynde School; Malvern Prep; Cardinal O’Hara; St. Joe’s Prep; Monsignor Bonner, Downingtown East and Penncrest high schools. Like many others, Ray began using in middle school—a time when kids first succumb to peer pressure and high-risk behavior.

 

 

“There’s a lot of denial out there,” says Dr. James Berman. “But misuse of prescription painkillers is definitely [something] all responsible parents should be aware of. [It has the] potential to affect someone close to them, including their own children.”

 

Certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, Berman can tell you stories that’ll make your hair stand on end. He’s out there every day, treating kids hooked on Xanax, OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and worse. On Wednesday nights, he meets with about 20 young addicts in various stages of recovery.

 

 

Berman’s Haverford address drives home the fact that most of his patients are Main Liners. Ray is one of them. He discovered cocaine and Ecstasy in high school, touching off a steady progression of abuse that led to OxyContin and eventually heroin his senior year. At first, Ray thought he was playing it safe by snorting it. But he quickly moved to a needle.

 

 

A talented hockey player, Ray was eventually expelled from Cardinal O’Hara. But his prowess at right wing earned him the spot at Bonner, where he kept up the façade of normalcy, practicing at twice a week and playing games Fridays and Saturdays. His teammates knew about his drug use, but they turned a blind eye. After all, Ray was hotshot on the ice—and he wasn’t the only one at school using.

 

 

For a long time, Ray felt invincible. Then, in December of 2002, his friend and former O’Hara classmate, Brian Fleagle, died of an overdose. What should have been a wake-up call sent Ray into a tailspin. The day after Brian’s funeral, he invited some friends over to hang out. By the time they arrived, he’d OD’d on heroin. He was in a coma for a week. As his mom and Brian’s parents looked on, last rites were administered.

 

 

Miraculously, Ray survived. But the near-death experience did little to quell his risky impulses. For the next few years, he’d use, get clean and use again. Apparently, it would take even more misery to set him straight.

 

 
LIFE IS MORE INTENSE than ever for today’s teens. “Our expectations are outlandish,” Berman says. “Our kids are expected to perform at the ultimate level in everything. The bar is so far above the ground, kids feel intense pressure.”
 

 

They watch adults unwinding with a drink—perhaps even a joint—and easily come to the conclusion that alcohol and drugs provide relaxation and an escape. Busy parents, meanwhile, often have little time to steer their kids in the right direction. “Too many have no idea what their kids are doing after school, on the weekends, online,” says Dan Collins, a psychologist with Philadelphia’s Pastoral Counseling Network.

 

 

And at many schools, there isn’t enough nurturing from teachers. “When we were kids, everyone was like a guidance counselor,” says Carolyn Falcone, student assistance program coordinator with Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems in Exton. “Today so much time is devoted to test preparation, and there is very little relationship-based interaction.”

 

 

To kill time spent alone and fill the void, many kids turn to the Internet. “Too many teens have computers in their room,” says Troy Brindle, a clinical social worker with Associates of Springfield Psychological in Havertown. “They’re isolated. You think they’re studying, but they could be Googling 10 new ways to get high and then sharing that information with their friends.”

 

 

Internet drug buying has become so pervasive that an international think tank is attempting to hold Google, Fed-Ex and more than 50 illegal websites accountable for enabling anyone with a credit card to make purchases. “Kids can get any medication they want, and they are smart enough to time deliveries for when their parents aren’t home,” says Michael Blanche, adolescent coordinator for Rehab After Work and Rehab After School, Paoli-based outpatient drug and alcohol treatment programs. “They have no idea what they’re getting. So many [drugs] are knockoffs manufactured in Third World countries. You might only have a couple of kids buying, but the audience is widespread.”

 

 

Blanche and others say the pervasiveness of ADD medication in schools—a trend that spiked in the late ’90s—helped legitimized pill popping with kids. “There’s an underlying assumption about the safety of prescription drugs directly related to the high incidence of kids and adults legitimately taking medication for depression, anxiety and learning disorders,” he says. “They seem safer to kids because unlike street drugs, which can be tampered with, they come straight from the doctor.”

 

 

Feeling invincible, most kids never think about addiction—or realize that certain prescription drugs are highly addictive. Scarier still, many teens are ingesting them in amounts far higher than any doctor would dream of prescribing—and mixing them with other drugs and/or alcohol. The right combination, and one beer can feel like a six-pack.

 

 
ON A FALL NIGHT not long ago, Chris came home a complete mess. He stormed in and out of the house, shoving his father and spewing nasty comments. His mom, a professional drug and alcohol counselor, saw it in his eyes—“a mind eraser,” a volatile combination of OxyContin and Xanax.
 

 

Three days of detox and 12 outpatient sessions weren’t enough for Chris. Within a few months, he was using, depressed and suicidal. Less than a year before, he’d earned a sports scholarship to Widener University—amazing considering he’d been popping up to five pills a day his sophomore and junior year. If it wasn’t Xanax or OxyContin, it was weed. At one point, Chris was selling drugs to teens at Malvern Prep, Springfield and Radnor high schools, and elsewhere. His customers were fellow swimmers at Lower Merion Aquatic Club.

 

 

“You never had to worry about hurtin’,” Chris recalls. “Kids came to me all the time for rides downtown. The rich girls I hung out with from Gladwyne and Haverford—their moms would get them prescriptions and they’d give them to me. Once the Internet got hot, everyone started buying steroids, then Percocet, Vicodin, Valium and Ativan. If you had a bank card and somewhere to send it to, it was simple.”

 

 

As he got more involved, Chris’ list of connections grew. “I had the numbers of 10 different people I could call. My sister was in [nursing] school, and she had a book with pictures and info on all kinds of drugs,” he remembers. “I figured out which were narcotics and tried them until I found one I liked.”

 

 

Over a period of six months, Chris was admitted to five different hospitals. Every time he promised his parents he’d never use again. And every time, it got worse. Over the next five years, he was in and out of hospitals and rehab centers. Then, one day in March 2004, things got so bad his parents got desperate and used a bit of trickery to get him into rehab. His dad agreed to drive him to North Philadelphia so could he pay back a dealer with the $300 his parents gave him. He also bought more drugs, which he used in a bathroom on the trip back. While he was high, his father headed straight for the Malvern Institute, where his mother was waiting.

 

Chris was so out of it by the time he reached rehab that the admissions staff at the facility couldn’t take an interview. Instead they took him to Paoli Hospital, fearing he might stop breathing. Then it was back to Malvern for detox and rehab. Once out, Chris started using again.

 

 

Chris’ mom thought she’d been doing the right thing by keeping her son active and involved. And she naturally assumed that a kid with so many accomplishments must have been thriving. For Chris, being a top athlete didn’t bring him the sort of notoriety he craved. But using and dealing drugs did. “When you’re trying to meet people, you have to prove something,” he says. “You gotta be with the ‘in’ crowd to impress them. I liked the popularity that came with selling—people seeking me out.”

 

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