In 2011, five young people died of heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley, according to stats from the SCV Sheriff's Station. But heroin isn't the community's only challenge when it comes to illegal or illicit drugs. KHTS News reporter Stephen K. Peeples is on special assignment, going behind the scenes, talking to SCV kids, parents and the front-line professionals, to investigate what’s really going on, why it’s happening, and what we as a community are doing about it. This is the third story in a series. Click here  for links to all the stories.
As community leaders told us in Part 1 of "It Takes a Village,"  heroin isn’t the only thing killing young people in the Santa Clarita Valley. They cited an explosion of prescription drug abuse as the fastest-growing and most widespread problem our village faces right now.
And in Part 2, subtitled "Why Do Kids Turn to Drugs?,"  we heard from experts who work with young people about the reasons they see why kids get into drugs, ranging from peer pressure to bad family environment to experimentation, and the role played by self-esteem, or lack of it.
This week, in Part 3, we’re going to hear from young people themselves. We invited three recovering addicts ranging in age from 17 to 27 to join us at the KHTS-AM 1220 studios on Saturday, March 3, to share their experiences and perspective as users, abusers and abstainers.
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Veronica J., Mindy M. and Tyler G. (pictured from left, with this reporter at lower right) are all Santa Clarita Valley residents who have participated in programs through the local Action Family Counseling rehab centers.
They came forward with the hope that other local kids will use this information to help make better decisions than they made when they started abusing, and that their stories will illuminate the situation for parents who still may be in the dark about drug abuse by their own kids, and the kids around them.
The following are highlights from the conversation; you can also read the entire transcript and listen to the podcast (see the links on the "It Takes a Village" portal page ).
Mindy M., age 27, grew up in Newhall and graduated Hart High School in 2002. She’s studying to be a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor at InterCoast in Burbank, and has been sober several months.
“The first time I smoked pot, I was probably about 12,” Mindy said. “I had been around drinking my whole life; my dad's mother was an alcoholic. My family drank, but it wasn't something where they drank alcoholically. It was more of a social thing for them.
“I just remember my whole life feeling like I was different from everybody else, and I was always looking for something — I don't even know what I was looking for. I just knew I was looking for something that was an answer to — I don't even know what the question was,” she said. “I remember the first time I got high and feeling this intense sensation of relief, because I felt like I didn't have to look anymore.”
Mindy smoked pot and drank occasionally over the next few years, but started to get into serious trouble at age 15, recovering from an appendectomy with a prescription for Vicodin.
“I remember taking the Vicodin and feeling a sensation that I had never felt anything like it in my whole life. My whole life, there was this noise in my head, and all of a sudden it was gone,” she said.
Throughout high school and into her early 20s, Mindy had a series of other medical problems that compounded her addiction. “I was in and out of the hospital a lot, emergency rooms, surgeries, doctors, doctors, doctors, and I was on painkillers a lot,” she said.
Mindy was working in the gun store at the LAPD Academy in Elysian Park when she met and married a Marine Corps reservist who didn’t know about her pill habit — at first.
“I had this life going on — this marriage, and the home, and the job, and the cars, and the whole thing, but nobody knew I was taking 30-40 Vicodin a day,” she said.
While Mindy’s husband was deployed to Iraq, her best friend died of a drug overdose. She felt trapped in her own addiction, using pills like Vicodin, OxyContin and Xanax, often with alcohol. Her family got her into rehab the first time, but it didn’t last. She and her husband split up very early in her recovery.
“Some of the people I had met through rehab and Sober Living had gone back out, and they were heroin addicts,” she said. “As soon as I got out of rehab, I knew I was going to do heroin. There wasn't a question in my mind about whether or not I was going to try it.”
Because Mindy had been in and out of hospitals so much, she had no aversion to needles.
“The first time I did heroin I shot it up,” she said. “It was very rare from that point on, when I kept using, that I didn't shoot up heroin. That was how I did it, that was how I liked it.
“And it was never just the heroin,” Mindy said. “There was a lot of crack, a lot of meth use, a lot of drinking... but heroin was always the one thing I felt like I had to have. Everything else was just 'cause I liked it — it felt fun, and it felt great. But the heroin was the one thing that I felt sort of ‘fixed’ me from whatever — I didn't even know what was wrong.”
She’d been back living with her parents, but once they found out she was using drugs and alcohol again, they told her to leave. She lived out of her truck, and on the couch circuit with friends in the San Fernando Valley, where she could get any drug she wanted, anytime, day or night. Whatever feelings of self-worth she had were pretty much gone by then.
“When I was getting high, I hated myself every time I stuck a needle in my arm,” Mindy said. “But at the same time, after I stuck that needle in my arm, nothing else mattered — and I thought I was the coolest person in the world. I could do anything, I could get away with anything, I could accomplish anything. And in reality, I wasn't even doing anything except getting loaded, day in and day out. That was my whole life.”
She was shooting up so much heroin that her body couldn’t process it. “It was coming out of my skin…these big, big, bun-sized blotches of heroin coming out of my skin on my chest, on my legs…I knew I was going to die.”
Mindy can’t explain it, but something finally “clicked.” She decided to get sober, checked herself into a detox program, and has continued as an outpatient as she attends school. “I’ve been sober eight months now,” she said.
Veronica J., 24, is from Pasadena and has lived in the Santa Clarita Valley since January, after she went through a 12-step rehab program. “I just moved out here to get sober,” she said.
Veronica’s addictions began with alcohol, at home, before she was really old enough to realize what was happening.
“I grew up in an alcoholic family, so my grandfather drank, my mother drank, everyone around me drank,” she said. “So, beer was easily accessible. I could ask them for a drink and they would give it to me at (age) five.”
At age 10, she got drunk at her aunt’s wedding. “I puked everywhere and I wanted more. I’m an alcoholic,” she said.
Veronica said she started smoking cigarettes and marijuana at age 12, then in her middle and later teens, experimented with cocaine and prescription pills, and eventually, heroin. As did Mindy, she preferred the altered reality drugs induced.
“I liked the escape from myself. Just being out of self, and it made me feel free,” Veronica said. “I'm a very shy, reserved person when I'm not using, and so (drugs) kind of took that away, my inhibitions, and I liked that I was able to socialize easier. I wasn't so worried about what other people thought.”
Veronica was 17 the first time she was busted for drug possession. Her first attempt to clean up came when she was 18, thanks to her mother, who had stopped drinking by then. She “bribed” her daughter into rehab, but it wasn’t effective; Veronica just didn’t think she had a problem.
“Growing up in that environment, it seems normal. It doesn't seem odd at all,” Veronica said. “So, to recognize that there is a problem, I think, is a little bit more difficult.”
From then until just several months ago, she continued using and abusing a variety of drugs, from alcohol to heroin. Finally, after an arrest for possession and sales that resulted in probation contingent on her staying sober, she went through rehab and enrolled in an Alcoholic Anonymous program.
By moving to the Santa Clarita Valley, Veronica extricated herself from the temptations and friendships of her old environment, and is trying to start fresh. She’s been sober since the beginning of February.
Looking back at why she started drinking and taking drugs, she has some sage advice for other kids who might be faced with similarly poor examples at home.
“If you do recognize there is a problem, or you feel like what you're doing isn't right or you want your life to be led in another direction, apart from the people that you're living with or who are examples to you, then I'd say…find a passion — something else to put your energy into, like music, or art or sports,” Veronica said. “Find a network of people who don't use and drink that you can socialize with and connect with, and reach out.”
That’s what she’s doing now, as a “very involved member of Alcoholics Anonymous,” she said. “I work a 12-step program. I keep myself busy; I surround myself with clean and sober people, supportive family members, and I stay away from areas where people are using or getting high or where it's accessible to me. I'm in early recovery, so for me, I can't be around bars or restaurants where they serve alcohol at this point. Maybe sometime in the future, but right now, no.”
Tyler G., 17 and a lifelong Canyon Country resident, is a student at Bowman High School. He got into drugs in his mid-teens, mainly because his older brother’s friends were doing them. Both he and his brother wound up strung out on prescription painkillers and heroin, and in trouble with the law.
But Tyler’s first exposure to drugs came years earlier. His father was a methamphetamine abuser who also abused his wife and kids — when he was home.
“He would always be out cheating on my mom and not really home at all,” Tyler said. “And any time he was home, he was either throwing us around, beating us, or — it's just not a really good household to grow up in.”
Tyler’s mother divorced his father, but they shared custody of Tyler and his brother, so the kids bounced back and forth between their mother’s home and dad’s new place, which he shared with a new wife, also a meth abuser.
“They'd always beat the crap out of each other,” Tyler said. “It finally got to the point where it got so bad, my dad wasn't waking up to take me to school. He didn't really care about what I had to do, or if I was even there. So, my mom got full custody and took me away from my dad.
“At first, I thought it was wrong,” Tyler said. “I loved my dad and everything, and then I started growing up. I always told myself, ‘No, I'll never do that, I'll never do that. I'll never smoke cigarettes, I'll never smoke weed. I'll never do any drugs. I'll never grow up like my dad.’”
As he grew into his early teens, Tyler said, “I realized my dad was the drug addict and he was the one doing everything wrong, 'cause my dad was placing stuff in my head, like, ‘No, your mom's the bad one, she's doing all this stuff to me.’”
A couple of years later, when he was 15 or 16, Tyler said, he was with a friend and his cousin when they bought some marijuana and tried it. “A lot of people say they don't get high on (marijuana) their first time, but I couldn't stop laughing,” he said. “I loved the feeling…I just became the biggest stoner there was. I couldn't get enough of it.”
At that point, Tyler said, his brother wasn’t into pot, but his friends were, so Tyler hung out with his brother’s friends, getting high before and after school.
Then one of the older dudes introduced him to prescription OxyContin.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I love this. Screw weed, I don't need weed anymore. I love OxyContin,” Tyler said. “And I started doing OxyContin all the time. Then I got introduced to roxies (Roxicodone), which (are) pretty much like OxyContin.”
At first, he got his pills free, but gradually his connections wanted more — first $5, then $10, $15 and more for each pill.
“It just got ridiculous 'cause I was spending all my money on pills, and I was telling myself, ‘I'll never be a drug addict. I'll never do any of that stuff,’” Tyler said.
He tried to stop, but felt horrible, physically, and the only thing that relieved the ill feelings was another pill. He was addicted. And broke. (Tyler’s mother said later that many household items disappeared and wound up sold to fund her sons’ habits.)
So when one of his brother’s buddies suggested doing heroin instead because it’s cheaper, Tyler said, “OK, let me try it.”
He said he smoked heroin at first, then after about a year one of his brother’s other buddies showed him how to shoot it up. “It was the best thing in the world. The sensation of your body was just so amazing that I couldn't get enough of it,” Tyler said.
Once he and his brother discovered they were both doing junk, they’d smoke it together. At first, his brother didn’t know Tyler was shooting up, but he eventually suspected.
“My brother started going through my room, and he found needles and stuff, and flipped out,” Tyler said. “He just didn't know what to think. He didn't want to tell my mom 'cause he knew it'd break my mom's heart.”
Laid off from a job, and with no immediate prospects for another, Tyler’s brother used his last paycheck to buy $400 worth of heroin and started selling it. He sold that batch, made a profit, bought a larger batch, and “started selling a lot,” Tyler said.
Eventually, both Tyler and his brother got arrested, for heroin possession and sales, respectively. “Since I'm underage, they just let me go,” Tyler said. “Two days later I went straight to rehab. When (my brother) got out of jail like four days later, he went straight to rehab. So, we were in rehab at the same time. And we went into Action’s 30-day program, and now we're in outpatient (treatment).”
Tyler went about 102 days clean and sober without messing up. “A few of days ago, I took a hit of weed, so I pretty much relapsed, so I only have four days now,” he said. “I slipped up a little bit, but I’m restarting, and I’ll have it back.”
UPDATE: As of today, March 14, 11 days after this interview, Tyler is back in a reseidential rehab program after relapsing in his recovery.
Gateways to a Lifestyle?
We asked Tyler, Mindy and Veronica if they think marijuana is a “gateway” drug that leads to abuse of harder drugs.
Pot smoking is more a gateway to the lifestyle of getting high, Tyler said, and the other two former weed smokers nodded in agreement.
And what makes that lifestyle so attractive? “The run, just always trying to get something,” he said. “Just the outlaw lifestyle, not really caring. Some people smoke weed for years and never do one other thing. But to me, weed wasn't enough. I had to go to the next step.”
“I don't even think it's so much that you can say, like, this kid's smoking pot and he's going to turn into a drug addict,” Mindy said. “There's no way to know that. It's just the fact that when you find that relief that we get, it's so intense, there's no other way to describe it.”
“And nothing compares to it,” Veronica said.
“Nothing else can give you that sense of relief that you get from getting high or drinking, whether it be pot or OxyContin or heroin or crack or meth or whatever it is,” Mindy said. “There's something about it that changes the way you feel, and that's all you've been looking for your whole life.”
Finding and Firing Up the Passion
So what’s the solution? How does one replace that sense of euphoria or security or comfort without drugs? How does one achieve all that in the first place, earlier in childhood, without drugs?
Veronica’s suggestions earlier — that young people need to have something they’re passionate about, like art, sports or music, and to hang out only with other sober people — were two very good ones.
Each of the three recovering young addicts is pursuing a newfound passion that helps replace the lifestyle of getting high with something more creative, productive, maybe sometimes even as fun — but at least not destructive. Each young person has also made big changes in their circles of friends.
“Making music’s my passion,” Veronica said. “I rap. I’ve recorded one song. I just started six months ago, when I was in rehab. It's like a newly discovered talent I never knew I had. (laughs) That's what sobriety does for you.”
Veronica said having some sort of spiritual foundation has also been beneficial for her in her recovery. “(To have) something you can believe in, that you can have faith in that'll help guide you through a lot of the struggle you're going to go through trying to overcome the addiction and alcoholism, I think it's very important. And not (necessarily) religion or anything, just some sort of spirituality.”
Mindy said she hated high school, but now she loves going to school as she studies to be a rehab counselor, and works on her 12-step program. Those are her passions now.
“I stay active with people living their lives sober today, because that is my choice, and I'm choosing to change my life in the people I hang out with,” she said. “I've had to change everything.
“Even people I used to get loaded with who are sober today, it's hard for me to associate with them because all it does is bring back memories of when we used to get really loaded together. I still hang out with my friends on the weekends and do stuff,” Mindy said. “We have tons of fun and do great things, and I have a very fulfilled life. But it just happens to not involve drugs or alcohol.”
Tyler wants to attend school to become a music engineer, but not right now. “I'm just trying to take it day by day with my sobriety,” he said. “I really need to focus on my recovery right now, because it's an everyday struggle — it's really hard. But now that I'm sober, it's just nice to wake up and not have to feel sick, not have to go out and search for my drugs. So…my recovery is really my passion right now.”
Where Are Their Parents Now?
We asked Mindy, Veronica and Tyler about their relationships with their parents now. All said they’d improved to varying degrees, and each was grateful for the support their parents and families have given them on the road to recovery.
Veronica said she didn’t know her father, and her relationship with her mother was strained over a lifetime of drinking and drug addiction, but now that both she and her mother are sober, the strain has eased.
“We've been able to talk more openly and form a bond of some sort and she's really supportive of my program,” she said. “We're very open, very honest with each other, very expressive. We really don't hide anything from one another. I'm very open about my situation and about my past, so my mom pretty much knows all of my dirt.”
Her mother wisely lets her be her own person, not just her mother’s daughter.
“She just honestly lets me have my faith, also, and regardless of whether I use or not, I'm still her daughter and she continues to love me. She won't enable me, she won't support my drug use or my drinking, but if that's what I'm going into, she's not the type of person to try to stop me. She just kind of lives and lets live.”
Veronica thinks that’s the best thing a parent should do. “You can't control another person,” she said. “You want to protect your child, and you want what's best for them, but if they make the decision to do drugs, there's nothing that's going to change their mind or stop them. They have to come to it on their own terms.”
Mindy thinks her parents’ tough-love approach — basically throwing her out of the house because she was using drugs — was the right one in her case.
“They had to,” she said. “But that's the only way to truly love someone through this — you can't enable them…(My parents) doing that was the best thing for me, because they got me there that much quicker, where I could go and try to get sober for myself instead of for everybody else.”
Like Veronica, Mindy’s relationship with her parents is on the mend. “I love my parents; I have the greatest parents,” she said. “They support me through everything, and today I'm actually able to have a relationship with my mom and dad and my sister and the rest of my family that I never had before.”
Tyler’s father now lives in Oregon, still battling his own addictions; Tyler credits his mother for, well, saving his and his brother’s lives.
“When she found out (her sons were addicts), she was heartbroken. She didn't really know what to do,” Tyler said. “But she was really proactive and got (us) into rehab…she didn't want to see us die, she didn't want us to be the next kids (you) read in the newspaper (have died of an overdose). And I'm glad I have my life today, 'cause I could've been in that spot. It’s hard to think about that, but it's the truth. It's either jail or death, so there's really nothing in drugs.”
Final Comments: Lies, Empty Promises, Scars That Never Heal, Advice Unheeded
“It seems so appealing or cool the way they make (getting drunk or high) in movies or something, and it's all a lie, it’s empty, empty, empty promises,” Mindy said. “And there is nothing good that comes out of it, except for scars and wounds...”
“Lots of scars,” Veronica added.
“And I'm not even talking about physical scars, but like, emotional and mental and spiritual scarring that takes years to heal, and it's not worth paying the consequences — not at all," Mindy said. “I have done things to myself that... I'll recover from them, but that will never truly heal.”
“I think she put it into perfect words — I don't think you could say it better than that,” Veronica said. “That's the truth.”
All three young people understand sharing their experiences here won’t necessarily sway other young people one way the other, to use or not to use. In the end, that decision lies with each kid.
“No one is really going to listen to us, even though we have the experience and we've been through it,” Tyler said. “People are going to make their own decisions. We can sit here and tell them it's wrong, it's bad, you're not going to get anything out of it, but if they're really going to take that road, they're going to have to live with it.”
Next in Part 4 of "It Takes a Village": We'll talk with parents whose teens have drug problems.