Members of the St. Bernard’s Academy Associated Student Body organized an addiction forum that took place this morning in the main auditorium.
Student body president Emily Gardner and vice president Adam Jager moderated the event, which featured a panel of five adults who answered a series of questions posed by the students in attendance. The focus of the forum was to raise awareness among the student body that addiction — to painkillers, heroin, alcohol, meth — does not discriminate and it’s a social and public health issue that touches everyone’s lives in some form or fashion.
“The obvious fact we all recognized is that we all see addiction,” Gardner said following the forum. “Whether it’s in our families or walking down the street, we see people who suffer from addiction. We have all these issues so we decided let’s have a panel and discuss them.”
The panel included Tim Toste, who spent three decades working in county probation primarily with youth offenders; recovering addict Allyson Dugan; addiction counselor Chris Evans; recovering alcoholic Isaac Gildea; and Laura Berreth, whose brother was an alcoholic. The group shared heartfelt thoughts and memories about addiction and the toll it takes on the addict, their friends and their families.
Dugan, who battled her way through a painkiller addiction that began after suffering an injury at work, pointed out that by ignoring the fact she had a problem with abusing pain medications allowed her to find excuses to get high every day.
“The hardest part was realizing I was an addict,” Dugan said, saying she held a job, went out with friends and appeared to lead a normal life. “Every day I had to use. One of the hardest things was the impact on my entire family. I made some terrible choices and I ended up in federal prison and I’m still on federal probation.”
Dugan and Gildea provided the point of view from the person who is addicted and the lengths they went to keep that addiction hidden, whether it was from family or friends or by deceiving themselves.
Gildea, who played professional basketball for nine years, broke down at one point while describing the moment he realized he had hit bottom, and it didn’t happen just once, but many times.
“There are many bottoms for an addict,” he said. “They just keep coming. There are a lot of you in this gym right now who are thinking, ‘this isn’t part of my life’ but it will be and it’s going to affect you.”
Gildea used an analogy of walking into the boxing ring to face heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson in his prime to describe what it’s like to battle addiction.
“I don’t think you ever beat addiction,” Gildea said. “If alcohol and you as an addict get into the ring, you will lose every single time just as if you were fighting Mike Tyson. Eventually, my brain said, ‘Why do you keep getting into the ring?’ “
Toste, who has spent a career working with at-risk youth, said the one sure way to avoid addiction issues to avoid the use of addictive substances.
“It’s an easy road to walk down but it’s a long way back to recovery,” he said.
Toste added that particularly as teenagers who are still growing, the use of alcohol, marijuana or other drugs can have an adverse effect on physical and mental development. If students think they may have a problem or see one in a friend, the best way to help is to reach out and tell someone, he said.
“You feel like you don’t want to admit it and it’s a hard topic to broach with someone,” Toste said. “It’s difficult to talk about and it causes friction in relationships. That’s why they have interventions, families and friends get together to help the addict confront the issue.”
Berreth, who played basketball at Humboldt State University, related the story of watching her brother drink himself to the point it led to his premature death at the age of 34.
“It makes you feel crazy. It made me feel like I was the one with the problem,” Berreth said of dealing with someone who refuses to recognize their addiction. “They can’t stop. Denial, enabling behavior — it affects entire families. They are isolated. They have to want to help themselves. My brother’s addiction was alcohol. He was 34 when he passed away. He drank himself to death.”
For Dugan, the day her family finally confronted her about her addiction — at which point she was facing a federal indictment for money laundering and narcotics activity — she looks back now as one of the best days of her life.
“The best feeling ever was when they offered me rehab,” Dugan said. “It saved my life and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. To be sober today is a blessing.”
For Evans, getting the attention of kids still in middle school or high school is key.
“It’s a community problem and no addiction is worse than the other, it’s not a moral judgment,” said Evans, who runs a private addiction counseling service. “Heroin is a huge issue in our community, it’s killing people and addiction changes your brain. Alcohol is normalized. Marijuana is normalized and if you’re at a high risk of dependency and your peer group is experimenting, you may get caught up as well.”
Evans answered the final question — how do you help those who don’t help themselves? — pointedly.
“A good friend gives hard counsel,” he said, pointing out that a real friend will address head-on what they see as a problem. “Love each other and be tough with each other. A good friend gives hard counsel.”
Dan Squier can be reached at 707-441-0528.