By Sari Harrar
Prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Ritalin and Valium are the killer new teen high. One in six teens say they’ve taken a prescription drug at least once in the past year just for kicks. One in 11 are drug-dependent and another one in five show signs of dependence, one new study says. But while kids swipe pills from medicine cabinets and purses, trade them at school or pluck them from bowls at “pharma parties,” parents are often clueless. We don’t think it can happen to our kids, so we say little, miss early warning signs and fumble opportunities to educate and protect our kids.
During October and November, the Healthy Kids blog will look at this issue through the stories of former teen prescription-drug users now in recovery, their parents and local addiction-recovery experts working to treat addicted teens and help parents prevent this under-the-radar and illicit drug use.
Today, Justina McIntyre describes how her son Ronnie Powell, 19, of Souderton, died in 2008 after overdosing on prescription painkillers drugs. McIntyre went on to found the group One Life One Chance to educate teens and parents about prescription drug abuse and addiction. Her son, a running back at Souderton High School whose talent earned him a college football scholarship, got hooked while working a summer job at a nursing home.
“When he was 15, I made him get a job for the summer to keep him out of trouble,” she says. “A woman working there knew he was smoking marijuana and enticed him to try something else. She gave him six Vicodin pills. From then on, he used prescription drugs at parties and it spiraled out of control. He moved out of the house.”
Powell graduated from high school in 2007 and went to Tennessee State University -- but played just one game. “I got to see him play his first and only football game,” she says. “I was so proud of him. It’s almost unheard-of for a freshman to play, but he did and he ran for 17 yards. But he was having withdrawal symptoms from trying to get off the opiate pain pills he’d been taking. He had muscle pain and bone pain. He kept coming back home. At one point a friend even drove him to the airport to get him back to school, but he felt like he just couldn’t do it. He kept coming back.
On October 13 of 2008, a Monday, he was supposed to come to my house and go for a job interview. He never showed up. In the afternoon I got a call asking if the rumor about Ronnie was true and my heart dropped. I knew something was really wrong. They’d found a body in an apartment that was ID’ed as Ronnie. He had passed away. Everything after that was a whirlwind -- we went to school to tell his brother, we told his sister. I couldn’t stop crying. I can’t remember a lot of what happened that day. I’d lost my son.”
In the weeks after her son’s death, his friends began showing up at McIntyre’s house -- and opening up about the world they and Ronnie had been living in. “My house had strict rules -- no drinking, no drugs, no porn, so while Ronnie was alive it wasn’t always the popular place to hang out,” she says. “But then the kids starting coming around. They opened up and started sharing with us how they were getting the pills. A lot of times it was from other parents -- parents who were also getting high with them, who were letting them drink and smoke marijuana in their homes. Nobody wants to talk about this, but it’s happening all over, all the time. Parents think, if I let them do a little bit here, they’re safe. The truth is, if they’re doing a little at your house, they’re doing more somewhere else.”
In the weeks before his fatal overdose, Justina says, Ronnie told her “I wish more parents were like you.” The friends who spoke with Justina afterward agreed. “They started telling me they were mad at their own parents for not being more strict, for not checking up on them,” she says. “Everything you hear about kids wanting structure -- even cool kids who seem not to care -- is true. They want to know that Mom and Dad care. And you know what? Sometimes being a parent isn’t easy. You can’t always be a friend. You have to be uncool and do the right thing. Parents need to know that kids want this, as much as they’ll tell you they don’t.”