Then I discovered alcohol.
With alcohol, I felt out of place. I made friends, asked girls out on dates, and learned to lift weights, which didn’t seem possible without alcohol.
With my new confidence fueled by alcohol, I decided to skip my senior year. I had done well on standardized tests (before my drinking caused my grades to plummet) and a university in San Francisco had granted me early acceptance.
My young mind thought I craved freedom in California, but what I really craved was booze.
I fed my addiction, which turned into decades of drug addiction and all that goes with it: jail time, rehab, homeless shelters, etc.
Today, after many stumbles (to put it lightly), I am clean and sober. And thanks to a remarkable group of Oakmont students, I returned to my old high school this week to give a talk about the dangers of teenage drinking and healthy alternatives.
I was addicted to methamphetamine. Then I became friends with the cop who locked me up.
I was brought in by the Oakmont chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, an organization that encourages kids to make smart choices and helps those who don’t.
One of the group’s main goals is the prom, its executives told me. Last year’s prom was poorly attended due to covid, and the year before it was canceled. Other recent rites of passage have been canceled or organized remotely: graduation, homecoming, senior night.
Some students are extremely excited about these big events; others feel uneasy and uncertain. Both states of mind could be recipes for making reckless decisions about alcohol.
“When we see underage drinking,” said student Allison Sowerbutts, who is an Oakmont SADD board member, “the main reason behind it is usually an effort at acceptance.” She once counseled a friend who believed no one cared about him unless he was drinking.
“Sometimes drinking is a cry for help,” said fellow student council member Peyton Collins. She explained that some young people escalate heavy drinking until others notice.
I know from experience that it is not enough to simply dissuade young people from making destructive decisions. High school students need other ways to feel good about themselves – and who better to know what might work than other students?
These kids are creating healthy alternatives themselves, like a brilliant idea called a lollipop drive. “When the students pulled into the school parking lot wearing their seatbelts, we rewarded them by throwing lollipops into their cars,” Collins said.
Other students involved in SADD find meaning in different ways. SADD board member and avid tennis player Kennedy Alexis donated her used tennis balls to a greyhound adoption group.
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To engage with the community, SADD hosted a Halloween party for Hope House, a non-profit organization that lends a helping hand to at-risk families. Together they planned the party, dressed up in costumes, and competed in relay races and jelly dance contests. Children tricked or treated in the hallways of Oakmont.
“It’s one of my fondest memories of Oakmont,” said SADD student council member Kaya Engelmann.
SADD also visited nearby businesses that sell alcohol, encouraging them to do more to keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers.
I was more than impressed with how Oakmont SADD students understood how to do good for others and, in turn, do good for themselves.
My own activities as an Oakmont student were far from raising money for nonprofits or fighting underage drinking. I was mostly concerned about curing my loneliness with alcohol.
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As the SADD members were talking, I looked around and recognized that this was once the principal’s office. As a student, I had been summoned there after vandalizing school property.
I and Mike Benson, my best friend in high school, had stolen a combination locker and filled the locker with trash. But we weren’t criminal masterminds: Mike and I filled the locker with homework with our names on it.
The troubles we encountered didn’t deter us: Mike and I started drinking on the Ashburnham baseball field. Until the Ashburnham police arrest us.
Today, Benson remains one of my closest friends and one of my strongest supporters. And, by giving my speech, I’m helping the same police force that arrested me once.
Ashburnham Police Department Officer Brian Rosengren is one of the officers assigned to the school. Before the prom, he has the students try on “drunk glasses”, which show them the vision-distorting effects of intoxication.
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Another part of educating students is hearing from people like me.
When I took the stage in the auditorium to deliver my speech, I told the students how I had walked the same halls and sat at the same desks – and then wasted a promising career with a giant of biotechnology, as well as a home, friendships and even my beloved dog. I told them that I had barely survived my fall into a heartbreaking meth addiction.
Of course, the story has a happy ending. Thanks to God and to the remarkable women and men who helped me, I got sober and volunteered in prisons, serving incarcerated people who are changing their lives. I fulfilled my dream of becoming a writer and even wrote a book which is now distributed in 125 correctional facilities across the country.
A student, Sophia O’Brien, kindly described my speech as a “whoa!” moment. Hopefully speaking candidly about my high school experience will educate young people about the dangers of destructive decisions.
I hope showing Oakmont students my life trajectory and my serious mistakes has helped them understand how to make better choices, and I know meeting them has helped me. I learned that high school students can change not only the lives of their peers, but the lives of adults. Especially those like me – maybe I haven’t always made the right choices, but I try to do good in the world by making up for lost time.
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