By Sari Harrar
During October and November, the Healthy Kids blog examines the epidemic of teen prescription drug abuse. Through stories of teens and young adults in recovery, their parents and treatment experts, you’ll get a first-hand look at a problem more widespread and deadly than many parents realize and find real-world advice about protecting your kids.
Today: How one teen got hooked
Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, Tim Rader had everything going for him. Handsome and popular, he made the headlines of the local newspaper often-- as the starting quarterback at Cardinal Brennan High School in Ashland, Pa., as the brave teen who saved his young cousin from drowning in a local swimming pool and as the local hero who faced cancer and survived.
As a high school senior, Rader was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin´s Lymphoma-- ending his football career and ushering in eight months of grueling chemotherapy. But as his hometown newspapers documented his cancer battle and as the community rallied around his family, the pain pills prescribed to ease Rader’s treatment side effects were quietly sending him around a dangerous corner that led to ten years of prescription-drug addiction.
“The pain pills came into my life with cancer treatment,” he says. “I was a strong 17-year-old and the doctors didn’t hold back-- I got codeine, morphine, whatever I needed. I was very young, very scared and kind of in denial about the whole experience. I still remember how it felt when I took a dose. For two brief minutes I didn’t care that I was bald, I didn’t care that I might die, I didn’t care that I couldn’t play football. The fear that had been so strong went away. I cherished that little escape and waited for the next one. It planted a dangerous seed.”
It wasn’t long before Rader thought the pills were the only way to cope. “I think the pain pills rewired my brain,” he says. “I was so young and so afraid, but I didn’t know it. I was just trying to get away from the feelings I was having-- the same reason a lot of kids keep using prescription drugs. The teen brain is still growing and changing. It’s vulnerable-- even though you feel invincible.”
As he healed and the physical pain diminished, his appetite for pain pills did not. “I remember telling my mom I was in pain, even when I wasn’t. At that point, I’m sure I was hooked. My cancer was in remission, my hair started growing back, I had college plans…but I was stealing painkillers from the closet. I couldn’t stop.”
He went off to DeSales University, joined the golf team and even made the dean’s list-- all while using drugs recreationally and having three friends die from accidental overdoses. “I found out that drugs are easy to find. You visit friends or relatives, excuse yourself to use the bathroom and check out the medicine cabinet,” he says. “You buy the pills if you have to. You can always get them.”
After graduation, Rader cleaned up his act. He had a serious girlfriend, a Manhattan apartment and a high-paying job as a pharmaceutical company representative. “I proposed to my girlfriend. We were going to get married,” he says. “I was really successful-- I was the youngest employee in my department. I had everything. And I stopped all the drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t even take a regular Tylenol for a year and a half. I felt so cocky-- I’d saved a life, beat cancer and I was immune to all the consequences of drugs and alcohol.”
It all changed in a split second one day, when the staff in a doctor’s office asked Rader to leave his drug samples in their medication closet.
“There, right at eye level, were the exact same opiate pain drugs my doctor had prescribed when I was 17,” he says. “It was like somebody’s arm was reaching out, taking them all and hiding them. I walked out of that office without saying good-bye.”
“I took one. The next day I took three. Then I took them all. I woke up the next morning still wearing my suit. I started stealing from doctors, forging prescriptions, moving on to other things like heroin. I was out of control. Ultimately, I ended up in a crack house in Philadelphia with a gun in my hand, ready to take my own life.”
Tomorrow: Ten years of addiction then recovery