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JOE: A Teenager's Struggle


For much of his teenage life, Joe was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Joe, now 19, is a recovered addict who counsels other teens. He knows, he says, that he can't stop someone from using drugs or alcohol, but he hopes his own story can "sort of nudge them into a different direction and explain there's a different way of life." Nobody in his peer group did that for Joe, he says; things might have been different if someone had.

Drinking and Using

Joe began drinking alcohol when he was 13 years old, he says, "out of curiosity." He grew up in Chile, where underaged buying of alcohol was relatively easy. "Nobody would ask for IDs in Chile, so it quickly caught on to be a trend with my friends to go out and drink," he says.  "I always had the power to buy whatever type of liquor was at the corner supermarket. . . . I really, really loved that."

Joe started out drinking beer and cheap liquor, but eventually he developed a liking for good bourbon. By 14, he was downing hard liquor regularly. "Every chance I got, I pretty much drank until I blacked out." Joe remembers one drunken experience at age 15, when he landed in the local police "shack" after a Chilean Independence Day celebration. Joe says he had too much to drink, and he woke up in the repository for drunks set up by the Chilean police. "I was just surrounded. . . . They would pile people on top of me and I would go on top of somebody, and it reeked of vomit. It was so awful." The police also beat him. He was still drunk when his mother and grandmother came to pick him up.

That didn't stop him from drinking, however. He started a routine of drinking heavily every night, but he was able to keep his parents in the dark about it. He would make arrangements to stay at people's houses in order to avoid his parents. "I knew I was going to get drunk, I knew I was going to black out, I knew at some point I was going to throw up . . . so I always made arrangements to have my friends sort of cover me from my parents so that I wouldn't have to deal with [them] again."

Joe was still living in Chile, with his parents, who frequently threatened to divorce, when he discovered marijuana. When a close relative offered him a joint, he was initially reluctant to accept. Despite his drinking, Joe was a self-proclaimed "Just Say No To Drugs" teenager and had been an anti-drug zealot. (He didn't consider alcohol to be a drug.) When Joe gave in and tried the pot, he was surprised that it had such a minor effect on his behavior. "That just contradicted everything that I had ever heard about drugs. . . . It sort of took everything that I had read and I had learned and kind of flushed it down the toilet, because [the pot] wasn't as bad as I was being told that it was."

I couldn't imagine a world without drugs -- there was nothing else

When he was 17, Joe moved with his family to Miami, where getting drugs was a lot easier than in Chile. "Over here, I kind of discovered that you could sort of order stuff like pizza." Joe said he just would get a bunch of beeper numbers and beep suppliers when he needed drugs.

One of the first friends he made when he first moved to Miami was another teenager who lived down the street and sold marijuana. "He didn't even know me. He just knocked on my door, and he introduced himself, and he offered to smoke me out." Joe says they became great friends, and he began to use marijuana heavily. Eventually, he moved on to other drugs, including LSD and cocaine.

Looking back, Joe says teens have a hard time avoiding drugs because they are so easy to come by and are often supplied by close friends. "In my school alone, there's so many kids that sell, you know, and a lot of time they're friends of yours." Joe says the stereotypical drug pusher whom kids are warned about is the exception. "I used to have this preconceived notion that somebody who sold drugs was, like, some filthy, grungy guy in a parka . . . but some of my first exposure to drugs was [through] close friends, sometimes even immediate family." Joe says it's a mistake for a lot of anti-drug campaigns geared to teens to portray drug dealers as looking like demons. "I think it's a little exaggerated . . . a lot of the kids that I did a lot of the heavy drugs with were just as regular and probably a lot more pleasing to a general crowd to look at than I was."

Ignoring the Problem

When Joe's cocaine use got out of hand, his girlfriend, Amy, became worried. She tried to confront him in a letter, which he dismissed and tossed in one of the many piles of papers in his room. Joe didn't think he had a problem. "I thought cocaine was the most glamorous thing on the face of the planet, even though I was doing it in some rundown, cockroach-filled apartments with some guy who was just living off nothing."

Amy surreptitiously showed the note to Joe's mother, and his parents talked him into visiting a hospital. They admit that they tricked him into the trip by telling him that it would be only for a brief checkup. Once he was at the hospital, they had him kept in the detoxification unit. After several days in the hospital undergoing detox, Joe was sent to an adolescent treatment program. Although he's forgiven his parents, at the time, he says, he was extremely angry at them for taking him away from his "lifeline." "I couldn't imagine a world without drugs. .  . . The way I saw it, I got a lot more out of a movie if I was on acid or drunk. I got a lot more out of everything. To me, drugs were like the spice of life. There was nothing else." Joe says he resented his parents for admitting him to a treatment center and, when he returned home, lashed out at them routinely. "I was just flipping out on a daily basis. . . . I just blamed my parents for all the wrongs in the world."

Every chance I got I pretty much drank until I blacked out

Joe says he began to calm down when he joined Narcotics Anonymous. NA, he says, was extremely helpful because it enabled him to talk to others who could relate to his story. Joe also received a lot of support from his school and a mentor teacher, while participating in an innovative school-based prevention program called TRUST.

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Giving Back To Others

In his final year of high school, Joe spent time talking to other students about his experiences with addiction. He wants his addiction and recovery to be a lesson to other kids whom he says need to know how addiction can happen: "It's remarkable how unaware [addiction] catches you. It's incredible how well everybody else sees it. You're the only one who doesn't." When he was in the hospital, Joe says, he resented people telling him he was an addict, yet what he wanted most was to get out of that institution and smoke, drink, or do drugs. "All this time I'm yelling at them, 'I'm not an addict,' and at the same time my head's thinking, 'God, you've got to get out of here and go smoke. You must relax. You must have a drink . . . You must have several drinks.' It's incredible how many different ways addiction can kind of just find itself right in front of you."

Joe thinks the best way to avoid addiction is not to drink or do drugs at all. Though the theory is debated by experts, Joe believes alcohol is a gateway to pot, which he thinks can be a gateway to acid, which can be a gateway to cocaine. "It's just a ladder. . . . Who wants to eat the same meal every day for the rest of their lives? You get sick of it," he says. "You do something else."

He still gets cravings for drugs, he says. Anything can trigger them -- even sitting in a park, where he used to do drugs, and seeing the flowers, reminds him of his acid trips. He thinks he's found a way to confront them, however, by focusing on other things. "I replace the cravings with anything. It's like filling a void." He is into art and reading and heavily into music. Joe says his music takes his mind off "absolutely everything."

His parents are now separated, and he lives with his father. His mother lives in Chile, but he remains close to her.

He has found a way to separate himself from situations that could be tempting, and he's "mastered the art of getting out of a sticky situation" that could tempt him to use again. Joe's drug and alcohol problems aren't going to get in the way of his having a good time, he says. He was determined to go to his high school graduation prom, even though many of his peers were drinking alcohol there. He handled it by staying away from the drinking crowd. "I [was] not going to miss the prom because everybody's drinking. That's not fair to me, you know."

-- Janet Firshein

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