Benjamin Wilkey grew up on a 200-acre farm in Talbot County, the son of a local dentist. Christopher Belt was raised at Baker Village in a household on public assistance. Marianne P. comes from a middle class family in the northeast Georgia mountains.
All three young adults squandered their teenage years, doped up and out of control. They took different paths but ended up at the same destination. They represent the young in Columbus and across the nation who have fallen prey to drugs that rob them of vitality, potential and a future.
"I started doing drugs when I was 15 years old," said Wilkey, 21, who is still on probation for a possession of firearm charge. "I thought I was invincible, but found out I'm not immortal."
There are about 25 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 living in the United States, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. Of that number, more than one quarter drank alcohol in the past year and about one-fifth used an illicit drug. The percent of youths using drugs declined between 2008 and 2011, according to the national statistics.
But the number of adolescents seen in emergency rooms for the use and misuse of illicit drugs and pharmaceuticals remained unchanged from 2004 to 2011. In 2010, 7 percent of all persons admitted to publicly funded drug treatment facilities were ages 12 to 17.
In a 2012 survey, the SAMHSA found that more than half of people on drugs were younger than 18 when they first started, and 54 percent of the new users were female. The average age of initiation for people 12 to 49 was age 18.
In Columbus, there are young people getting hooked on drugs every day. Here are the stories of how Wilkey, Belt and Marianne P. got started and are now battling their addictions:
Wilkey, a 2011 graduate of Brookstone School, said his drug addiction started in 2007 after his mother, Melissa, died of cancer. She had been a dentist, along with her husband, Dr. Terry Wilkey, who still practices in the Columbus area.
Wilkey said people suggested that his family get counseling help for their loss. A doctor gave him a prescription for Xanax, and he began lying and manipulating friends and relatives so he could buy more. He skipped school, and the addiction only got worse. At age 17, he broke two ribs in an altercation. A doctor prescribed him Vicodin, and he got addicted to that, too.
By 19, Wilkey said he was injecting oxycodone. In 2011, he was arrested and charged with theft by taking. He sat in jail for a month, then got five years probation. His family tried to convince him to get into treatment, but he wouldn't listen.
"I was young, and I thought I knew everything," he said. "I felt what I was doing was cool."
So, his family pulled all financial support, Wilkey said, and he ended up selling oxycodone to support his habit. In April, he was arrested for possession of a firearm. While in jail, he began to reflect on his life.
"I knew this was the lifestyle I wasn't meant to live," he said. "When I was on the drugs, I was somebody different. I had a record, but I wasn't a criminal at heart. The criminal in me was the drug."
Wilkey said he almost went to prison for the felony, but his attorney worked out a deal with the district attorney. He was placed in a prison diversion program at the Columbus Day Reporting Center. He takes classes to help him overcome his drug dependency, does community service and attends Addicts Anonymous meetings at the Safe House.
Last week, he graduated from phase one of the program, which means he can look for a job. He's now reconciled with his family and would like to help other youths avoid addiction.
"I want to use my example to help others not make the choices I made," he said. "Drugs are a path to destruction."
Christopher Bell stood 6-foot-5 in front of the Safe House, dressed in a Falcon's cap and basketball shorts. He said he always wanted to play basketball, but got sidetracked by marijuana.
Bell, 22, said he began smoking weed at age 16. He grew up around it and knew what it was. So when a friend suggested they get high, he decided to give it a try.
"We went to the basketball court and he rolled up a blunt and was like 'you want to hit this?' And I said 'yeah' 'cause I had a lot on my mind at home."
In 2009, Bell said he had an altercation with his stepfather and was arrested and charged with making a terroristic threat. At the time, he was a freshman at Spencer High School. He spent three months in jail and then dropped out of school.
He said he began hanging with a local rap group and his marijuana addiction intensified. "The group smoked before they did a show and before they went into the studio."
They traveled all over Georgia and he thought they had a future. But plans for a record deal fell through.
Bell said he doesn't use other drugs because they're too dangerous. He mentioned prescription drugs and meth as examples.
"It's stupid to me when folks overdose," he said. "And meth has all kind of chemicals. What I use comes from the ground. It's not as bad as ice and all that stuff that's bad for your health."
Bell said he's been arrested three times. The last time was for a nonviolent felony. He is still on probation and enrolled in the DRC program, He also attends AA meetings at the Safe House.
Bell said he has two brothers that play varsity sports at Kendrick High School, and he often wonders what his life would be like if he hadn't gotten hooked on drugs. "I always wanted to play ball, but there was always that setback," he said. "I believe marijuana is holding me back."
Marianne P., 25, is a white female, currently staying at the House of T.I.M.E., a transitional program for women who are addicted and homeless. She reflected on her middle-class upbringing during a recent interview. She was dressed in a lime green V-neck top and tailored grey slacks, her hair pulled back neatly in a ponytail.
Marianne is currently looking for a job and agreed to tell her story only if she would not be fully identified.
She said she grew up in Clarksville, Ga., a rural area where she rode horses and had lots of animals. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old, and she began drinking at 13.
"There wasn't really a window between me trying alcohol and me drinking excessively," Marianne said. "I never went to parties and got drunk or did that kind of thing. But I was very depressed, maybe because of the divorce and all that."
At 14, Marianne was rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Emergency personnel pumped out her stomach and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. She later had kidney and liver problems because of her addiction. In high school, Marianne started mixing alcohol with Xanax and marijuana, and her life continued to spiral out of control. By 17, she was hanging with an older crowd that introduced her to an assortment of drugs.
"I mainly just drank, but because I hung out with a lot of people that did a lot of drugs, it was kind of whatever was there," she said. "So, in that one year I was introduced to crack cocaine, methamphetamine, prescription pills, hallucinogens. Everything pretty much short of heroin I tried. But alcohol was still my drug of choice, and I drank pretty much every day."
Marianne said she got her first DUI at 18, and a month later she was arrested for underage possession of alcohol. At age 19, she married a guy in the Marine Corps. They moved to North Carolina and then Maryland. They had a rocky marriage, but she enrolled at a local college and worked as a technician at a pharmacy.
She thought her life was finally headed in the right direction. But her marriage ended, and she got into another relationship. When that was over, she packed her things and headed back to Georgia to live near her parents -- and got hooked on meth.
"It was kind of a bargain that I made. Like 'OK, I'll do meth to keep myself away from drinking,'" she said.
Marianne said the meth addiction progressed quickly from there. She spent her days floating from house to house, driving for drug dealers so she could get free drugs. She had no money for food, so she stayed high so she wouldn't feel hungry.
"It was very hard," she said. "You go into these places and you have no idea who wants to rape you, who wants to rob you, who wants to help you. So you just keep moving because to sit still and stay anywhere for too long is just too risky.
"There's no way to get out of it. There's no way to get money to leave town. All the connections you have will lead you right back to that drug. "
One day, she was traveling in a dope dealer's car when the police stopped them in Banks County. It turns out the car was stolen, and stolen checks were in the back seat. Authorities charged her with felony theft by receiving and forgery. She was embarrassed when her father came to visit her in jail, but at least she was safe.
"All I wanted was to be able to sleep and not have somebody looking over my shoulder trying to get something," she said. "So I really enjoyed jail for those two months."
When she was released from jail, she spent six months living in an RV in her father's yard. She stayed away from her street friends because she didn't want to mess up her legal situation. In December 2012, she went to court and all the charges were dropped.
Marianne said that's when she decided make a change. She said she got drunk one last time, and then tried to find help. She discovered the House of T.I.M.E. and submitted an application. Now she's a recovering addict, trying to get her life on track.
"Sometimes I feel I don't deserve this," she said, of her stay at the transitional home. "But I'm so grateful to be here. There is no place I would rather be."