Daniel Island News hosts well-attended, well-received community forum on teen substance use and abuse
The night was October 24, 2014. It was a Friday, and the Bishop England High School (BE) football team was in the locker room suiting up for a contest against North Charleston. On any other night, any normal football Friday, Daniel Island parents H.R. and Trudy Hicks would be getting ready to go to the game, as their daughter Bridgett was a cheerleader for the Bishops. But this was far from a typical evening.
The Hicks’ other child, 2012 Bishop England graduate Rowe Hicks, a self-admitted addict of drugs and alcohol, had spent the previous night in jail and was being released. The family was at a crossroads. Rowe’s arrest had been only the latest in a series of transgressions, and the situation had become toxic for the family.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, it would become a pivotal moment. At the urging of his grandparents, Rowe agreed to go that night with his father and a family friend to a rehabilitation center in Statesboro, Georgia, where he would begin his recovery. Back on Daniel Island, the Hicks family began a recovery of their own.
The Hicks’ story was one of many highlighted at an often emotional panel discussion sponsored by The Daniel Island News on November 29 at Bishop England. A total of seven panelists took part in the program, entitled “Teens and Substance Abuse: A Community Forum on Addiction and Recovery.” Beth Bush, an editor and writer for The Daniel Island News, served as the moderator for the event. The panel featured members of the medical, therapy, and law enforcement communities, and the community at large, namely the Hicks’ and Stevie Sullivan, another Bishop England graduate who is now a decade into her recovery from addiction.
Before and after the 90-minute presentation and question-and-answer period, attendees had the opportunity to peruse an information fair featuring representatives from several organizations serving the needs of those affected by substance abuse. Participants included Wake-up Charleston, Solstice East, the SUWS Carolina Wilderness Program, Montford Hall, the Charleston Center, Alcoholic Anonymous, the College of Charleston’s Collegiate Recovery Program, and Educational Avenues.
Bush began the evening by explaining why the newspaper had chosen to hold the forum. The paper had run a series on the issue of teen substance abuse back in September, following the tragic death of former Daniel Island resident and Wando High School graduate Creighton Shipman. The 19-year-old Shipman, a college freshman, died of a heroin overdose just days after leaving a Georgia rehab facility.
“We spoke with law enforcement officers, psychologists, therapists and others, and it truly sparked a conversation that we wanted to continue,” Bush told the audience. “We felt like we had some momentum and the subject was worth exploring further.”
She then asked those gathered in the Bishop England Performing Arts Center to direct their attention to 129 plate-sized, red hearts displayed on the walls on either side of the audience.
“Each of those hearts represents a life lost each day to a drug overdose,” continued Bush. “…We’re here tonight for each of those people, including young men like Creighton Shipman. High school is not too young to be talking about this.”
It was Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Jason Sandoval who kicked off the panel presentation. Sandoval’s decorated, 18-year career in law enforcement has taken him literally across the globe in the fight against drugs. On Tuesday, he kept his focus much closer to home.
Sandoval, Charleston DEA Resident Agent in Charge, is also a founding member of “Wake Up Charleston,” a community movement to raise awareness about the misuse of prescription drugs, which serve as a gateway to traditional illicit drugs of abuse.
“Standing up in front of you is unlike anything I’ve done before,” he said. “The DEA typically operates in the shadows, but the problem we’re facing in our society today is not being driven by drug dealers out on the streets. It’s being driven by what sits in our medicine cabinets.”
We can’t wait for a “big solution” to come from the pharmaceutical industry, Sandoval continued, urging community members to start the discussion about the dangers of prescription medicines at home. He also told the crowd that Charleston County’s rate for deaths to opiates and heroin overdose is 40 percent higher than the national average.
“I’m not just speaking as the jack-booted, thug DEA guy who’s wanting to kick down your door and steal your weed,” he said. “I’m speaking as someone who’s seen the numbers. When is enough, enough? When have enough kids died from something that’s controllable by us?…The Creighton Shipman story breaks my heart every time I consider it. There’s no reason a family should ever have to lose a loved one like that.”
A pair of physicians followed up Sandoval’s impassioned, hard-hitting presentation by illuminating what contemporary experts in the treatment and recovery community have to say on the issue. MUSC Professor Emeritus Dr. C. Wayne Weart, PharmD, was the first of three medical professionals to speak at the event. But before he could even touch on the clinical issues at play, Dr. Weart offered up a story from his own recent experience with a drug-related death. Two weeks ago, he received word that the 22-year-old son of a close friend in Mount Pleasant had passed away.
“He was Senior at Clemson, a pre-med major, a Wando graduate, and straight A’s on the President’s List,” said Weart, as his voice choked with emotion. “He was not a drug user, but he experimented with alcohol and Alprazolam, Xanax, a benzodiazepine. He didn’t survive it. One time – that’s all it took…This was a good kid. And he’s not with us anymore.”
“Basically, it is a chronic disease that affects the brain,” continued Weart. “There are individual things we have to do, family things we have to do, school things we have to do, and as a community. We have to all work together.”
Psychologist Dr. Patrick Duffy, Jr. PhD picked up where Weart left off, taking on the topic from the perspective of his expertise as a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and families on issues related to addiction. The first place to start, he explained, is to know your child’s friends.
“It used to be okay to just assess a child’s friends by whether they came in and made eye contact and shook your hand,” said Duffy. “Those are social skills, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what this child is doing when he leaves the house. Remember Eddie Haskell? What I encourage you to have in mind is that in 2016, soon-to-be 2017, there’s a high likelihood that Eddie Haskell has oxycontin in his pocket.”
Stevie Sullivan was next to address the room, offering the first of two brave perspectives on the issues of addiction, alcoholism, and teen use of illicit substances. Sullivan’s story began an important period in the evening during which the audience got a look behind the veil of substance abuse – at how it affects individuals and families.
“I didn’t think that there was any sort of issue, much less an addiction,” said Sullivan, who holds a Master’s Degree from Georgia Southern University. “Everyone in my life knew I needed to be sober, including my family and my friends, but I did not know I needed to be sober.”
But Sullivan, now self-employed as a licensed therapist working with kids with similar problems, wasn’t on hand at BE to simply talk about what life looks like through the eyes of an addict. She wanted the room to understand that there was no boogeyman to blame for the disease.
“I had a wonderful childhood,” she said. “My parents have been married for over 40 years. I have an older brother and a younger brother. There was no trauma or abuse … anything in my childhood. I’ve always been very outgoing, very personable, so I’m not really sure what would cause me to become addicted, as opposed to my friends, except for of course the genetics.”
Rowe and Trudy Hicks’ story put an exclamation point on the conversation started by the courageous Sullivan. Rowe Hicks was up first, and he told the hundreds in attendance his story, from straight A’s at Bishop England and a scholarship to Clemson, to “drinking really bad, and using every drug under the sun.”
“My mom would ask me ‘what are you doing with your life?’ and I would tell her ‘ I’m going to be fine,’ and would turn around and 100 percent believe it,” said Rowe, who is now working in the recovery field as a nurse aid at Willingway Hospital. “And then that day came when I didn’t believe it anymore.”
And, like Sullivan, Rowe was determined to dispel the myth that this happens only to children with dysfunction at home.
“The point of me doing this (forum) was for me to explain to you all that I was a good kid, I didn’t grow up and say ‘I want to be an alcoholic,’ that’s not what happened,” he said. “One day I just woke up and said ‘where did my life go.’ It happens just that fast.”
Rowe went on to credit his faith as having the greatest impact on his recovery.
“I am going to go on record and say that I do believe in God, and I think He is a big part of what we’re doing here tonight,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd. “He’s a big part of what I’m trying to do in my life today, and I just don’t think we should leave Him out.”
Rowe’s mother brought the room’s look behind the curtain into the “hurricane” of life lived with an addict full circle. She spoke of the impossible place a parent is in when a child is tearing a family apart through his or her use and abuse of substances. She also spoke of the “why” behind the situation – why it had been her son who turned to drinking and drugs with such dependence.
“Everyone always wants to know what happened to him,” said Trudy. “Nothing happened to him. There was no trauma, we were a good family…And even though I knew something was going on, there was no way in hell that was going to happen to my family, there just wasn’t. So, I know in addiction there’s denial for the addict or alcoholic. For me, it was the same thing. I just didn’t want to believe.”
“It brought me to my knees literally and figuratively,” she continued, as tears began to stream down her face.
Hicks then turned the conversation towards hope, and her tone got a pitch higher, reflecting the new tenor in her own family and with Rowe, who is now two years sober.
“I know we hear these statistics…but I’m telling you there is hope. One kid at a time there is hope. There is hope for families to recover. We had to get well and stay well. My happiness cannot be dependent on Rowe’s sobriety.”
In response, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
It was the affable Dr. Viktoriya Magid, PhD who closed the presentation portion of the evening with a few laughs, some honest commentary about the way illicit substances affect the brain, and one major revelation about the solution to the problem. First, however, she turned her attention to the stories shared by Rowe and Trudy.
“And now you get to see why I love what I do,” said Dr. Magid, an assistant professor at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs at MUSC. “This is why I love my job, it’s because of stories like this. This is how we combat addiction, with conversations like this one we’re having right now.”
As the evening came to a close, with meeting attendees milling about the information fair, speaking with representatives from the many support organizations who’d set up in the BE hallway, and conversing with their fellow meeting-goers, there was a tangible feeling of positivity in the air.
“It was absolutely fantastic and the panel was marvelously balanced,” said Kevin Downs, a licensed addiction counselor who’d come to the event to hear from the panel and glean some new information for his own work. “It was tremendous to have a family talk about the collateral damage that having an addict or an alcoholic child does to the family unit. Ms. Sullivan’s story was marvelous and Special Agent Jason Sandoval is an agent beyond description, for him to be here talking articulately about the problem was great.”