Scott Merritt, a certified addictions counselor and licensed therapist in metro Atlanta, estimates that about 40 percent of kids in Cobb County high schools use illegal drugs, including alcohol.
Though federal officials say the rates nationwide are lower, Merritt isn’t pulling that 40 percent out of thin air.
“It’s from talking to teachers, administrators, kids and parents,” Merritt said. “Whatever the drug of choice is in a particular school, that drug is extremely easy to get.”
And in many schools today, that drug is OxyContin.
OxyContin is the brand name of a time-release formula of oxycodone. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that retail sales of oxycodone increased six-fold between 1997 and 2005. In schools in suburban Atlanta, an OxyContin pill sells for about $20 per 40-mg tablet.
“It’s expensive, so you’d think it’d be harder to get,” Merritt said. “But it’s not. Whether kids are getting them from their parents’ medicine cabinet, or getting them off the Internet, they are getting them. And they are selling them and using them.”
And an OxyContin addiction is a very hard one to kick, Merritt said.
“It’s one of the hardest, because for one thing, a lot of people taking OxyContin were already addicted to something else,” he said. “And they might have no desire to get off of it. As therapists, we have to work through that resistance.”
Lynn Abney, a licensed professional counselor who works with Cobb County’s juvenile drug court program, said in suburban neighborhoods, prescription drugs don’t carry the same stigma as illicit drugs, such as heroine or methamphetamines.
“That is not necessarily a good thing,” she said. “Often, people start taking them – kids or adults – legitimately. They are prescribed them for a real injury. But then they start overusing them and developing a tolerance, so they have to take more to get that same relief. It’s prevalent in the high schools, and it’s not that rare in middle schools. And kids are mixing them with anxiety medicines or alcohol and it gets very dangerous.”
Abney’s experience tells her that people abusing prescription medicines almost always are abusing another drug as well.
“Most people who take these drugs do cross-use,” she said. “And they have no idea the potential effect of mixing these drugs.”
Cobb County, Ga’s., Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman’s office overflows every Wednesday at 4 p.m. For an hour, with therapists and probation officers filling every chair and – with several sitting on the floor – Stedman and her juvenile drug court team do a rundown of every kid currently in the program.
One by one, Stedman calls out the name of each of 30 or so kids. The assigned probation officer and counselor chime in, giving her an update on how the week had gone for the juvenile.
For these kids, failing a drug test, disregarding a curfew or skipping out on house arrest, most likely means the judge isn’t going to let them go home. More often than not, someone shows up on Wednesday night with one or both of their parents, and ends up being taken to the county Youth Detention Center here in suburban Atlanta.
For the most-addicted kids, or the ones with the most rebellious attitudes, a stint in YDC is fairly common. But it doesn’t take long for kids to realize that Stedman, who can be as compassionate and loving a woman as there is, isn’t one to be tested.
"Todd, why do you think I'm so upset with you?" Stedman asked one of the teenagers in a previous class.
"Because I smoked?"
"You smoked pot three days after I released you. Did you not think I looked serious?”
"Yes ma'am, you did."
And she was. Todd went back to jail that day.
Not everyone succeeds in drug court. And almost all of them will relapse at some point along their path to recovery.
Lynn Abney, a licensed professional counselor and part of the drug court team, said watching kids relapse is one of the hardest parts of the job for her and her teammates.
“I’d say more times than not, we expect relapse,” Abney said. “It’s an unfortunate part of the illness. But I’m a firm believer that even with a slip up, the kid is further along than he or she was at the last slip up. A lot of times, it’s two steps up and one step back. If someone is truly an addict, you at least hope that the time between relapses gets wider and wider. Sometimes it’s about managing relapses.”
Abney, and a handful of other counselors working the Cobb County juvenile drug court, make in-home family counseling visits with the kids – maybe weekly at first, then less often. But it’s a way for this to be more than just a justice or law enforcement program.
“To me, the No. 1 reason it is as effective as it is, is the accountability of the legal system and the clinical treatment of therapy,” she said. “It’s like treating someone with a major depressive episode – medicine is OK and therapy is OK. But medicine and therapy is the best, together. Our program is more successful than just incarcerating or just doing therapy.”
Not everyone who goes through the drug court will succeed. The grip of drugs and alcohol can sometimes prove to be too much.
“It’s tough,” Abney said. “Sometimes what you can do is not going to be enough. I think sometimes, we try too long with some families. We’ve seen tragedies where someone did not have long-term success. Still though, we believe that something that was done or said was helpful. It might not have saved them or prevented relapse, but we were planting a seed. If it didn’t help that kid, maybe it helped his brother, or his friend. Those are things we have to hang on to when we see things go bad.”
Kyle is now only a little more than four and a half months clean.
His last relapse came during the Thanksgiving break of 2010.
John, his father, had just had shoulder surgery. He’d been diligent in having his prescribed Vicodin on his person at all times, just to help ease the temptation.
Kyle once stumbled across it when his dad left them on the counter.
“I just grabbed the bottle and tossed it at him, like, ‘Really?’”
The second time he wasn’t thinking as clearly.
“I went into his briefcase to get an adapter and they were there,” Kyle said. “It surprised me and I just poured some in my hand and took them without even thinking about it. I immediately told my parents and I felt so rotten with shame and guilt.”
Kyle knows that he is a different young man now that he has a relationship with Jesus. But Jesus never promised Kyle he wouldn’t be tempted.
“Some days are easier than others,” he said. “A friend in recovery compared what we are training for to a pro fighter. The boxer trains for a specific day to fight. We train for sobriety and to stay clean and we don’t know when we’ll step into the ring and have to fight the temptation. When I start thinking about drugs, I try to stay occupied. When I’m bored, it’s the worst.”
On March 4, Kyle received his 90-day chip at Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based 12-step program that meets at Vineyard Church in Kennesaw on Friday night.
Each week, a group ranging from 30 to 60 addicts, gather for dinner, a lesson, some praise music, then small group discussions. The leader is Mark Collini, Chris’s dad.
Being at Vineyard Church every time the doors open is one of the ways Kyle keeps from being bored. He’s there on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He does youth group and drama as well as the recovery class there.
The other thing keeping Kyle’s hands from being idle is his art. Since he was first on house arrest, Kyle has been using spray paint to craft dozens of pieces of art on poster board, masonite, glass and hardwood. He’s participated in several local art shows and has sold several pieces though his website, kyleboyerart.com.
One of those paintings hangs in Stedman’s office.
“He gives us part of the proceeds for our non-profit Reconnecting Families program,” she said. “We obviously didn’t ask for that, but it’s a nice thing for him to do.”
The rest of the money is for a mission trip he plans to take after graduating this spring.
Like thousands of other recovering addicts, every morning, Kyle has to make a decision not to use drugs.
“It can be frustrating at school, because in many ways, it’s Temptation Island for me,” he said. “There are so many people that are stoned every morning. That used to be me.”
And at night, his rest is often robbed by dreams of relapsing.
“I’ve been having a lot of ‘using’ dreams lately,” Kyle said. “It puts me on edge. The worry comes and goes, but there’s a part of me that is always afraid I’ll relapse. I know the guilt and the shame I’ll have, and the hurt that I’ll cause others.
“But I also know I’m not alone in this battle. I’m not the same person I once was. I wouldn’t have the power and strength to do this alone. And I don’t have to do it alone.”
Bill Sanders has written and reported stories out of metro-Atlanta for 15 years.
Multimedia credits: Clay Duda
Kyle Boyer, 15-year-old prescription drug addict, duped his parents once again, faking a stomach ache to stay home from school. But instead of staying in bed, he went out to do what had become his norm – breaking into houses and stealing whatever the medicine cabinets within had to offer. Only this time he didn’t get away with it. This time the cops caught up with him.
Kyle pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted breaking and entering. He was placed on 24-month probation and three months of house arrest.
The house arrest was only a little better than Youth Detention Center. The loneliness was almost overpowering at times, Kyle said. Whenever he’d try to get sober, detox was awful.
“Physically, at their worst, the withdrawals hurt every bone in my body,” he said. “Every muscle was cramping and it was like the absolute worst flu possible, times two.”
High was no way to live, Kyle knew. Neither was detoxing though.
For Kyle, getting high was the default mode. It seemed like the norm. In his world, it was so less weird than what was about to happen.
This kid who sat next to him in class thought Kyle should come to church with him.
Kyle had a brief recollection of going to a small, country, Baptist church as a child. And he hated it. He believed there was some supreme creator, but he was against the idea of organized religion. And even though this kid was nicer to him than any sober kid had ever been, the thought of going to church with him -- that was just weird.
After his arrest on the attempted breaking and entering charges, Kyle cut ties with his friends who used drugs. No one else really wanted to hang out with him, so the loner was at his loneliest.
“It had been hard enough for me to make friends with the friends I had,” Kyle said. “Now, I was having to isolate myself even further.”
So this Chris Collini kid started to seem not so bad.
On the surface, there was no reason this nice church kid and Kyle, a troubled addict, would hit it off.
“I knew he wasn’t at a place where he needed to be,” Chris said. “I’d heard all of the rumors of him being in trouble with the law. But I’d been raised around drugs. Both of my parents are recovering alcoholics and they run a recovery center in town, so I knew all about people dealing with drug addictions. It made me want to reach out to Kyle even more.”
Kyle didn’t make it easy.
“He’d have to hear me talk about drugs everyday, but he was always nice to me. He kept inviting me to church and I kept not wanting to go,” Kyle said. “We hung out a few times at his house, but I was not going to go to church with him.”
Eventually, Chris’ persistence won out.
“It was June 2010 when I finally went.” Kyle said. “I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world, going to youth group on a Wednesday night. Everyone there was so loving and accepting. Everyone was talking to me. It was an acceptance I’ve never felt outside of grandma’s hugs and kisses. And I liked it. I didn’t have to do anything but be who I am and they accepted me, even though they didn’t even know my name.”
So he went back the next week. And the next.
He heard about a weeklong summer camp the youth group was having. He wasn’t sure he was really ready for that level of Christianity, but with house arrest and the now-intensely attuned parents, Kyle wanted a week out of the house – even if it was with a church group.
“The first night, I was sitting there listening to the youth band’s lead singer play acoustic guitar and sing. It felt so peaceful and nice. The next thing I know, I was lying on my bed at 2 a.m., thinking that this is the most fun I’d had in a long time. I couldn’t wait for the rest of the week.
“I felt like something big was going to happen. That Monday night, I went to bed happy for once, with all these people accepting me and making plans to hang out with me after camp, not because they want something from me, but just because they wanted to be around me. I’d never had that from peers before.”
The next day, the group played games at Swift-Cantrell Park in Kennesaw, Georgia with kids from a day care center. Then that night, the group got together for a time of worship.
“That night was insane,” he said. “I decided to tell where I was in life with struggles with addiction. It was tough for me to do it. Everyone asked if they could pray for me. It was kind of weird, but the presence of God showed up and it was powerful.
I felt this joy and peace flow in my heart, and I felt 100 pounds lighter, like I wasn’t carrying this weigh on my back.
“Here they were, these 20 dudes praying for this one guy, and most of them were crying. I thought it was weird, but I knew it was right.”
Juvenile Court Judge Juanita Stedman, who presides over Cobb County, Georgia’s Juvenile Drug Court has gotten to know Kyle quite well the past three years.
Yes, he was one of the most dangerously addicted kids she’s seen. And she’d seen plenty of heartbreaking cases that ended in tragedy.
In the more affluent suburban high schools in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, Stedman said drugs, particularly prescription painkillers, stimulants and benzodiazepines (or benzos) are easy to obtain. And sometimes, these drugs aren’t dealt with seriously inside kids’ homes.
“There’s a sense that, ‘it’s only alcohol’, or ‘at least it’s only marijuana’, or ‘it’s just a pain pill,’” Stedman said. “To some permissive, or head-in-the-sand parents, as long as they don’t hear words like crack, heroine or meth, then it can’t be all that bad.”
That passive logic has landed hundreds of addicted kids in her court.
Hindsight being what it is, the Boyers now can see a few warning signs they shrugged off initially. The most glaring one was when Kyle was in eighth grade and was caught selling some pain pills he’d gotten from his parents’ medicine cabinet.
“We wrote it off,” John Boyer said. “I talked to him, and I believed him when he said he did a stupid thing and wasn’t going to do it again.”
Police thought it was far more serious. Kyle was arrested, charged with distribution of a controlled substance and put on 12 months probation.
By then, Kyle had the beginnings of addiction.
Twice in seventh grade, he’d been prescribed pain pills – once for appendicitis and once when he broke his knee. Kyle discovered he felt better on the pills than he did when he wasn’t taking them. So at the age of 12, he began to lie when asked how his knee or appendix was feeling.
Long after the injuries had healed, he’d tell his parents they still hurt. In truth, Kyle was hurting – it just wasn’t his knee or appendix.
He and his family had moved from Austell to Acworth, Ga., in Cobb County, when Kyle was in fourth grade. A bit large and sluggish for his age, classmates picked on him over the years. He was put in some special education classes, widening the target.
“I didn’t feel like I fit in, and the drugs were my escape,” Kyle said. “When I was high, I didn’t care what people thought of me. Pretty soon, any chance I had to get high I would, even if I had to steal it from someone’s house. At first, that just meant when I was at a friend’s house, I’d snoop and look in medicine cabinets.
“Eventually, by the time I was a freshman at Harrison High School, I started not caring about anything. I didn’t care about friends, family, anything. All I cared about was getting high. If you weren’t getting high, I didn’t want anything to do with you.”
Kyle said it is ridiculously easy to buy pills at any of the high schools he’s attended. Harrison was more affluent than either Allatoona or Kennesaw Mountain, also in the North Atlanta suburbs. That meant it was the easiest of the three, and finding a dealer never was much work.
“It was easy to get and I started the day by taking 8 to 12 Vicodins or maybe four OxyContins and go from there,” he said. “I’d do anything I could to get my hands on something that was making me feel so much better about myself. Oxy and morphine tablets were my drugs of choice.”
Many of the pills were cheap. OxyContin was not. Kyle said he could buy Vicodins for a few dollars each but that each 40 mg tablet of OxyContin would cost him about $20.
Most of the time, Kyle would get high in school, or at home after school, in his room, in front of the TV. He wouldn’t go out, break curfew, and come home stumbling. He’d just chill. And that made it all the harder for his parents to detect.
“I preferred to get high alone,” he said. “I didn’t put two and two together. I knew I was sad a lot, but I think I was denying the fact that I was clinically depressed. I had low self-esteem and was almost never happy.”
But he wasn’t opposed to getting high at school either. Kyle was kicked out of Allatoona High School for having alcohol he had bought on school grounds.
“I poured a tad bit of coffee into a travel mug, then the rest was vodka,” Kyle said. “The two are not a great combination, but it smelled like coffee.”
For the next couple of years, this was Kyle’s pattern. Aside from his stays in the youth detention center, and getting tested for drugs monthly, he spent 30 days at Ridgeview, an Atlanta youth rehabilitation center. Usually, he’d stay clean for a few weeks or so before jumping back, head first, into his addiction.
Judge Stedman could have kicked Kyle out of her court and let the state deal with him, particularly after three relapses. The drug court, which comes with family counseling, periodic drug testing and mandatory attendance in a weekly court session, is not set up for kids to get chance after chance. It’s a privilege -- a chance to stay out of the state system and take advantage of counseling and therapy.
The Boyers know that Kyle had to try Judge Stedman’s patience.
“I think she saw something in Kyle,” John Boyer said. “He never lied to her. When he used, he’d tell her, ‘There’s no need to test me, judge. I’ve used.’”
Steadman did give Kyle more rope than others. What is usually a six-to-nine-month program became a two-year program for Kyle.
“Kyle was one of the most addicted kids I’ve seen.” Stedman said. “We were really worried about him. But his mom and dad came every week, sat on the front row, and were so supportive of him and what we were doing, that we knew he had a chance. That kind of support system is very important.”
How significant was the grace and love and discipline offered by the drug court folks?
“There’s no doubt in my mind that without drug court, we’d have buried our son by now,” said Suzanne Boyle, Kyle’s mom.
Kyle’s journey is a clear representation of the life of an addicted teen.
The pressure to fit in and be a part of something in high school is overwhelming and a popular and growing method of escape is drug-use. Coming from a Cobb County high school where drugs were everywhere, I can relate completely to Kyle’s struggles because I was also an OxyContin addict.
I dealt with the same battles, guilt and remorse that come with drug addiction. Once I had starting using, I was powerless. I couldn’t stop, I lost all will-power. I can relate with Kyle and his family; I have seen the exhaustion and heartbreak addiction can cause. Yes, a supportive family helps tremendously in the process of rehabilitation, but no support will keep an addict sober. To stay sober, that is the decision of the addict.
I can clearly remember my many attempts to get clean, but it was always the same. After three or four days, I wouldn’t be able to stand the withdrawals any longer and would go back to using. I was no match for this pill that is mainly prescribed to cancer patients. In the depths of my addiction, I felt as if no one could ever understand what I was going through. I felt as if I could never break the grip this addiction had over me. I felt as if my addiction had become a part of my identity, of who I was.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Just like Kyle, I went to an in-patient rehabilitation center (it is not absolutely necessary for addicts to go to treatment to stay sober -- I have seen many do it without treatment). But for me, it was my best option. I had hit such a low bottom that I was ready and able to get sober.
I wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and go about my day without desperately needing the help of narcotics. I wanted to be able to live life the way it is intended to be lived, drug-free. I realized that if I wanted to achieve long-term sobriety I had to change my thinking.
Like Kyle, I was trying to numb myself to any feelings I didn’t want to feel.
In treatment, I began recognizing some of the deep-rooted reasons I couldn’t be alone inside my head. I was convinced I would never be able to listen to my thoughts. After recognizing my issues and going through intense therapy, I am able to sit with myself and be at peace. I no longer feel the need to suppress my feelings with drugs or alcohol.
My mental obsession and addiction has been removed as long as I continue to put the necessary work into my recovery. I have realized, after some sobriety, that it doesn’t matter if you want sobriety, it doesn’t matter if you need sobriety, it just matters if you work for your sobriety.
There is a popular phrase with most recovering alcoholics/addicts, “It works if you work it,” and in my case that is 100 percent true.
When Suzanne and John Boyer left their upper-middle class home for work on the morning of May 20, 2008, their 15-year-old son, Kyle, had a stomachache and was still in bed.
It wasn’t too bad, he told them. “Go on to work, I’ll sleep some more and feel better soon.”
A couple of hours later, Suzanne got a phone call that changed the trajectory of the Boyers’ lives forever.
“Ma’am I’m with the Cobb County police department. Is this Suzanne Boyer?”
“Do you have a son named Kyle Boyer?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes, he’s home in bed sick.”
“No ma’am. He’s in the back of my patrol car. We’ve been looking for him for a long time.”
Kyle, who turns 18 in May, swears there are hundreds of kids just like him in Cobb County schools, thousands like him in Georgia, tens of thousands in America -- kids who have their well-meaning-but-clueless parents convinced that their babies are saying no to drugs.
“We believed what he told us,” said Suzanne. “We were stupid enough to believe him.”
Experts in juvenile drug and alcohol abuse agree the problem is indeed epidemic and catastrophic. And the Boyers’ belief in their kids’ innocence is the norm, particularly in the two-parent suburban households.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one in 10 high school seniors have taken Vicodin without a prescription. Earlier this year, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “just about the only mortality statistic that is getting worse, is death from prescription opioid abuse." Frieden was referring to a comprehensive report on the nation's health released in February http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm that showed declining mortality rates in every category except prescription drug use.
Kyle’s journey was from isolation, bullies and OxyContin to purpose, hope and sobriety. It has been a long journey and one that is still very fluid. It threatened to ruin his parents’ marriage by creating a hostile home where everyone was taking sides. And it almost landed him in a jail cell that was much harsher than the Youth Detention Center he’d been in four times.
Kyle wasn’t just abusing prescription medication, such as Vicodin, Xanax and OxyContin; he was selling it to his friends. Worse yet, when he found himself out of pills, he’d fake a stomachache or a migraine. Then, when his parents would go to work, he’d get dressed, walk to a different part of his neighborhood, and start knocking on doors. If someone answered, he’d simply ask if they had seen his missing dog.
If no one answered, he’d break in.
“I wasn’t wanting to steal their stuff, or their money, and never did,” Kyle said. “I’d go straight to their medicine cabinet and take whatever they had that I could use.”
This was the Kyle Boyer police had been looking for, the one his friends kind of knew about, but the one who his parents had no idea existed.
“I was trying to break into a house and all the sudden, there were cops everywhere with their guns pulled,” Kyle said. “I ran for a split second, and saw more police on the other side of the house and I stopped.”
Kyle had broken into, or tried to break into about 10 houses in the two weeks leading up to his arrest.
Life is a great adventure, but it’s not always easy. For all the joy, excitement and feelings of accomplishment we experience, there’s just as much sorrow, boredom and defeat.
It’s like any journey. You know you can deal with the easy parts; the challenge is how to get through the bad times.
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange will start focusing on one aspect of those bad times in a few days when we profile Kyle Boyer, a teen from suburban Atlanta who went from a hopeless addiction to prescription drugs to recovery.
It wasn’t easy. Many people were hurt along the way, Kyle, of course, other kids, loved ones and his mom and dad.
In the end, with a lot of love and a lot of help from some new-found friends, he found hope and sobriety. But he’s the first one to say you have to fight every day to keep OxyContin at bay.
We wanted to use Kyle’s five-part series as an introduction to a new component we have at JJIE.org we’re calling Journeys.
This on-going format will allow for very personal stories from young people who have struggled in life as well as their family and friends who have been witness. We’ll also have experts adding their knowledge to the issue as well as professionals who will offer advice to both kids and parents.
Watch for the feature on our website, but we also want to hear from you. If you want to tell your story or if there is an issue such as addiction, juveniles and the law, mental illness, anything having to do with juvenile justice you would like to see covered, please let us know.
Kyle’s story of addiction is one of those bad spots along life’s road encountered by far too many of our young people today. The best way to deal with it and other issues and the best way to avoid all of those issues is to be informed.