A Sister’s Story

Kelsey Bowlby

It would seem that drug abuse has a new face. It is increasingly prevalent, more subversive, harder to recognize. Today’s user might be a successful student, an athlete, or a stay-at-home mom. And today’s drug of choice doesn’t require a sneaky back-alley transaction. Prescription drugs are as lethal and addictive as the illegal narcotics whose effects they can imitate, but they can be acquired by looking no further than the local pharmacy or your own medicine cabinet. Perhaps this ease of access and the partial legitimacy provided by a doctor’s signature on the bottle lend the abuser or casual user a sense of safety or security. If it was given to me by someone with a medical degree and it’s legal for me to have it, one might think, it can’t be that bad.

Unfortunately, the misperception about the very real dangers of prescription drugs has led to an overwhelming increase in prescription drug-related deaths right in our own back yard. My family was awakened to this frightening reality when my younger brother, Justin, passed away unexpectedly of an accidental overdose of the synthetic opiate methadone, four days before his 20th birthday. He was an amazing, personable, funny, smart kid, and did not display any of the signs of addiction that one thinks of as “typical”. It was only in hindsight that we could see a slow, almost imperceptible pattern of behaviors indicative of a problem. In the aftermath of his death (and, tragically, the deaths of several other young people by near identical causes), as his friends and classmates began to come forward, a startling and disturbing picture developed of the substance abuse taking place right here on the Plateau, in our homes and schools.

And this substance abuse is taking place in epidemic proportions. Beyond enormous levels of peer pressure, beyond experimentation, beyond partying a little too hard, kids often play pharmacist to their own needs. Most teens diagnosed with ADHD smoke marijuana. A teenager that feels depressed might like how coke or Adderall gets them up a little bit. Kids might find that, with enough drinks in them, suddenly they don’t feel so awkward or out of place any more. And addiction is an equal opportunity disease. As I learned when Justin passed away, it can literally happen to anyone. Here on the East side, we live in an affluent area with unsettlingly easy access to these highly addictive, highly harmful substances. Parents might be the unknowing enabler, funder, or even supplier for this crisis of abuse. Do you know where the cash goes that you hand out on weekends? A methadone pill costs about what a movie ticket does. Do you lock your medicine cabinet, or dispose of old painkillers leftover from wisdom teeth removals, broken bones, surgeries? I know one student that sold the Vicodin she found at her aunt’s house to her friends at parties. I know another that bought methadone from a girl he worked with at his after school restaurant job. I know another who watched her friends smoke Oxycontin in an apartment complex on the plateau with little kids sleeping in the next room. I know another that has never tried drugs herself, but knows that if she wanted to, it’s as easy as a trip to the QFC parking lot on any given weekend night. This problem is chronic, and it is immediate. Parents cannot afford to be naive or ignorant, disengaged or dismissive. The risk is too great, and the price is too high.

In the darkness that accompanied losing my brother, my family sought to find meaning, and a way to turn his tragedy into something positive. We could not bring him back, but perhaps by raising awareness about the terrible issue of drug abuse with students and parents, we might be able to save somebody else.

Perhaps by talking about our experience, we could lift some of the stigma associated with drug abuse and addiction and encourage people to take off the blinders…and ask the tough questions. Perhaps, by sharing Justin’s story, we could open people’s eyes to what might be going on in their own families before it was too late, so that they might have the second chance that we did not get with my brother.

As my family looked for a positive channel to impact change, we were introduced to the SAMA foundation. SAMA stands for Science and Management of Addictions and their mission is to eliminate the disease of substance addiction in youth by advancing research, education, and treatment. in embracing this mission, SAMA hopes to improve detection and treatment of substance addictions and expand resources for families of young people who suffer from addiction.

SAMA’s founders, Dr. Robert Day, President and Director Emeritus of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and CJ Taylor, Founding Executive Director of the Susan G. Kormen Breast Cancer Foundation, faced this difficult situation when their adolescent daughter became addicted to drugs. They saw a lack of resources and treatment options for adolescents, as well as discouraging laws and insurance policies. If these two well-connected individuals were at such a loss to find help, what about everybody else? Recognizing the insidious prevalence of adolescent addiction, they founded SAMA to start to combat the social stigma, lack of funding, and lack of options for those suffering from this disease. A critical first step was to create a phone line to help families to navigate treatment options and support groups. SAMA’s founders are stake holders in this mission, and it is a crisis of epidemic proportion. As Bob Day observes, if we treated diabetes or cancer with the attitude and funding that we do addiction, bodies would pile up.

SAMA recognizes that addiction is a disease of youth, as more than 95% of those addicted to alcohol and other drugs started using before the age of 20. Along with that statistic, an estimated 8% of 12 to 17 year olds and 22% of 18 to 25 year olds have substance abuse disorders. Of those young people suffering from these disorders, less than 9% receive treatment. Substance abuse is particularly dangerous for young people, causing dysfunctions in the central nervous system during a precarious period of neurodevelopment. For the young person who becomes addicted, the part of their brain that tells them to stop is attacked by the drug; they are quite literally hijacked. it is important, then, to recognize that addiction is a disease. As SAMA family navigator Frank Couch asks, “Why are we treating sick kids like they’ve been bad kids? We penalize them instead of helping them.”

My brother was only one of the one-in-five teens that abuse prescription drugs. his was also only one of the 120,000 deaths that occur each year in the United States from the use of drugs or alcohol. It overwhelms me to consider the number of families that are dealing with the devastation that we experienced in losing Justin, and it makes SAMA’s mission all the more compelling.

Even for those families whose loves ones are not killed by their addiction, they are still, in many ways, lost to it. As young people struggle with substance abuse and the desperate behaviors that accompany the disease, families are often at a lost as to where to turn for help, and how to support their child.

As the organization grows, SAMA is working to build the SAMA Research Fund and the SAMA Research Treatment Institute right here in Seattle. SAMA is fast becoming a world pioneer in information, research, and treatment options for young people suffering from addiction. We all can help make a difference with this vision, through contributions of time, advocacy, or money, to accelerate the development of the research center, which would be the only one of its kind, and also to sustain the vital programs that SAMA already has in place. As we have grown more involved with and vocal about addiction, it has become overwhelmingly evident that almost everyone is in some way or another touched by this disease. It’s time to share our stories and bring the reality of substance addiction out into the light, so we can move toward change together.

Awareness and support is growing. The Issaquah Rotary sponsored the annual Salmon Days run, and selected SAMA as its beneficiary for the 2008 annual event in October. if you’d like to help raise funds and awareness among those you know, consider hosting a SAMA House Party. Coming up this spring is SAMA’s annual fund raising luncheon, and there is always a need for volunteers, donations, and support.

Parents seeking more information are invited to RSVP for the January 31st Parent Information Forum, or call the family navigator, who can be reached by phone at 206.322.7262, and who provides free services in connecting youth and families with pre-treatment, treatment, and recovery services. For more information on how to get involved with and support this growing foundation and their mission, visit SAMA’s web site at www.samafoundation.org.

It takes a village to raise a child, and in our community, it will take all of us working together to protect the most vulnerable among us from the terribly relevant and urgent issue of substance abuse and addiction. In many ways, I feel like we, as Justin’s village, let him down. He needed us, and there are so many young people out there that still do need us. It is my hope, in understanding the gravity of that responsibility, we take it upon ourselves as individuals and as a community not to allow this epidemic to continue. maybe the good of eliminating substance addiction altogether is lofty. Maybe not. But the young people suffering from the disease, and the families suffering in isolation with them, deserve our honest efforts.