TRAGIC MISCONCEPTION

Teens think prescription pills, even taken at random and consumed with alcohol, are safer than street drugs — but they could be dead wrong

staff writerOctober 24, 2007 

Heard the one about the trail mix parties teens have?

They grab a bunch of prescription drugs out of their parents' and grandparents' — and friends' parents' and grandparents' — medicine cabinets. And then they put all the pills in a big bowl.

And then they reach in the bowl and grab some pills at random and put them in their mouths. And then they wash them down.

Sometimes with alcohol.

Stupid, right?

Can't be true, right?

"Oh yeah, it's real," says Dr. Jefferson Jones, a Columbus family practice doctor and addictions expert.

And it's unbelievably dangerous. Teens are taking unknown drugs and mixing them with other unknown drugs — not counting the medications in their systems that they might already be taking for legitimate health problems.

For example, taking aspirin with the prescription blood thinner Coumadin can cause internal bleeding. Combining the allergy drug Hismanal and the anti-fungal drug Nizoral can produce a heart attack.

And a depressant like Valium and a narcotic like OxyContin can be deadly.

And the alcohol?

"Alcohol and barbiturates would be the worst thing you could combine," Jones says.

Sometimes teens call them Chex mix parties.

Ally and her friends called them "grab-and-go parties." Ally is in her twelfth rehabilitation program, this time with Teen Challenge in Seale, Ala. She's 17 years old.

So easy

According to a February report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one in five teens say they have abused prescription medications not prescribed to them.

More than 60 percent of teens say prescription pain relievers are easy to get from their parents' medicine cabinets, and more than half say pain relievers are available everywhere.

And a third of all new abusers of prescription drugs were between the age of 12 and 17.

OxyContin and Vicodin were their drugs of choice.

"I had a Columbus parent call me just the other day," says Teen Challenge program manager Rebecca Morfi. "The parent told me he opened his child's backpack and found OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax and Methadone. Imagine, four different powerful medications. I hear a lot of stories like that."

Debbie Josey, an addiction counselor at the Bradley Center in Columbus, says she has seen an increase of Columbus patients in the 15-17 age range who have gotten in trouble with prescription medicine.

"It's just so easy for them to get the medicine," she says. "Perhaps, a parent has had some surgery and just left the medication open. They find Web sites where they can order it off the Internet without parents knowing about it. There are kids who trade it back and forth. Teens also buy it on the streets."

Columbus drug counselor John Doheny still believes alcohol is the drug most abused by teens but says he's seen an increase in adolescents who have been abusing prescription medicine.

"I've been in this business for 25 years," he says. "For a while, it was all about LSD, then Ecstasy. What makes prescription medicines so attractive is the easy access. A kid can find Vicodin, OxyContin, Lortabs in their parents' or grandparents' medicine cabinet."

Josey says teens believe medicine provides a medically safe high because, well, it's medicine. "In therapy, I have to tell them some horror stories," she says. "Taking these medications can cause heart problems, liver problems. They can cause seizures."

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy report, teens described their abuse of prescription drugs as "responsible," "controlled" or "safe," believing that prescription medications are always more safe than street drugs. And prescription drugs lack the smell of marijuana or alcohol.

Other teens said they used prescription medicine not to get a high, but to feel less anxiety, to sleep better, or to be more alert.

Escaping reality

Ally — not her real name — suffered from manic depression, responding to pressure by cutting herself. She was also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

Growing up, she took Seroquel for the anxiety attacks and Adderall for the ADHD.

She says Adderall was popular at her school.

"It really helps you focus," she says. "Other students would buy them from those with ADHD to take during tests." Especially, the state's comprehensive assessment test.

Ally was on the swim team. "A lot of athletes take them. About all of the players on our softball team did."

It was difficult for her to give up any of her supply.

"A day without Adderall, I'd be shaking real bad and have a headache," she says.

When she was 13, she was raped after being given a date rape drug, she says.

"I didn't like feeling reality," she says. "I didn't like being in reality."

Her mother was taking hydrocodone for her back and her father was taking muscle relaxers for his knees. So Ally started taking their drugs, too.

"If I was supposed to take two pills, I'd take five," she says.

She started seeing men who were twice and even three times her age. Last year, she ran away from home and was later arrested on charges of trespassing, trauma, breaking and entering, and possession of drugs. She missed her court date. Low tide
Renee, who like Ally is 17 years old and in rehabilitation at Teen Challenge, says she grew up in a good home. But she also says her grandfather abused her when she was little and her brother always talked down to her. Her self esteem was at low tide. In ninth grade, she started stealing her brother's Adderall and would take it while smoking or drinking. She says the ADHD drugs helped her and her friends focus on work. "My mind was racing so fast, my body couldn't keep up with my brain," she says. "I could write a paper in 20 or 30 minutes but I wouldn't even know what I wrote." She says she went to wild parties where drugs were mixed and left in the open for students to pick and choose. Parents were often in another part of the house and oblivious to what was going on. "Everybody was doing something," she says. Renee made a decision. "I decided I'd be the best drug addict I could be," she says. "I'd live up to people's expectations."

Keeping count

Doheny says parents should realize the dangers of prescription drug abuse — or any drug abuse. And they should start by looking for signs. Does their child seem agitated? Is he or she having big mood swings? Perhaps that medicine bottle has less pills in it than there should be. If there is any suspicion, Doheny says, a parent shouldn't hesitate to check out the child's room — even if it seems like an invasion of privacy. "It's better having your kid angry at you than having them get in trouble or die," Doheny says. Darlene Shirley is the lead nurse for the Muscogee County School District. She says parents should keep their medication locked up. "Keep count of your pills," she urges. She says some students might sell some of their medication. That's dangerous for the students who buy them, she says, and also for the student who needs them. She says anytime a student brings a medication to school, be it prescription or over the counter, it must come with an authorization form and must be in the original labeled bottle from the pharmacy. "We watch the student take the medicine," she says. "We can control what we see at school but not what might be taken at home. That's why parents have to reinforce the dangers."

A new life

Now Ally and Renee are in rehab.

Morfi, the program manager at Teen Challenge, says rehabilitating teens isn't the same as rehabilitating adults.

"One big difference is that when adults come to us they realize they have a problem. Teens want to blame someone else. It's never their fault."

That could have applied to Ally in her first 11 rehabilitation programs.

"I just never learned how to cope with emotions," she says. "My feelings would still be out of control."

And, she says, she was still using drugs. Out of the more than five months she spent at a center in Tampa, Fla., she wasn't sober for a week, she says. And neither were the other girls in the program.

"They'd hide them in their cheeks," she says. "Girls would take out the lining of scrunchies and put pills in."

They'd be wearing their drugs in their hair.

Ally says these programs told her about what problems she had but didn't help teach how to solve them. The Teen Challenge program teaches patients to put their faith in Jesus.

Now she has been sober for 15 months and is, according to counselors, an "emerging leader in the program."

She addresses her elders as "ma'am" and "sir."

She wants to go to college and be a marine biologist. And she never wants to go back to her old life.

In fact, she says, when her old friends see her they can't believe the person she's become. She laughs. "They want to know what I'm on," she says.

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