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Prescription For Trouble

But most girls don't know pills can be as dangerous as street drugs. Why are so many willing to take the risk? Here are the facts about this troubling trend.


Auren, an honor-roll student from a loving family, battled her weight all through middle school—and it only got worse in high school: “I was so depressed about my body because, every time I was in the hallways, there was always a girl who was skinnier or prettier. I wanted to be the ‘hottest’ girl. I felt if all the guys were looking at me, it would boost my self-esteem.” So when she was 14, Lauren started taking prescription drugs—medications not prescribed to her—in hopes of losing weight and, in her mind, fitting in better at high school.

“The first drug I tried was pot, but about two months later, I started taking Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin, which are all drugs for ADD or ADHD [Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder]. Everyone I knew seemed to have them—either by prescription, or their parents or siblings had them—so they gave them to me. I knew those drugs would decrease my appetite."

Lauren is one of an estimated 14 percent of high-school seniors who’ve used prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes. In fact, a whopping one in five U.S. teens has abused Vicodin (a pain reliever), while one in 10 has abused Ritalin and/or Adderall. And the trend toward teens popping pills is increasing at a record pace. Why are so many girls—girls who won’t go near illicit drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and heroin—willing to take prescription drugs?

Why Pills, Why Now?

There isn’t any one reason girls take pills, but the fact that most families have at least some type of drug, whether over-the-counter or prescribed, so easily accessible in their medicine cabinets is a gigantic influence.

“We live in a world where 5 million school-age children take a prescription drug for behavior disorders, so kids learn at an early age that pills change moods. There are pills all around as they grow up, so they do not see them as anything inherently dangerous,” explains Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. “Usually, girls who abuse pills are drawn to stimulants that suppress their appetites, because they are so concerned with body image by middle school. There’s just so much pressure around them to be thin.”

But boredom, rather than weight loss, was the reason Caitlin, 17, took pills. “I started using pills at 16. A lot of my friends were doing it and, since they said they make you feel really relaxed, I wanted to try them. I was so bored with my life at the time, and I really didn't think it was any big deal to take prescription drugs since they’re legal.

“The first time I took pills, I had Soma, which is a relaxant. This guy friend of mine gave me two, and I really loved the feeling of just chilling. From then on, I used them as often as I could get my hands on them. That was easy since all of my friends had them, usually from their parents’ bathrooms. Pretty soon, I was doing Soma, Vicodin and Valium—all relaxants.”

But Caitlin’s desire to chill soon became a daily obsession: “My whole day became about what drugs I was going to do and where I was going to get them. I didn’t care about anything else.” Sure enough, Caitlin’s grades took a major dive. “I went from a B average to a D average, which I’d never had before. I was hung over every day, and I constantly felt drowsy. I didn’t give a crap about anything except getting high.”

Still, how could a teen like Caitlin, raised in an upper-middle class beach community, be bored enough to try drugs? Even Caitlin can’t answer that. But Falkowski does: “Kids are overstimulated nowadays, and everything moves so fast—even cartoons move faster than ever. Teens are constantly looking for more stimulation and have a hard time being able to stop and smell the roses.”

Summer, 17, describes her experience with pills: “My parents got divorced when I was 3 because of my mom’s drug and alcohol use. From then on, I was living two lives. I lived with my dad and was the good girl going to church, but when I’d visit my mom on the weekends, I started doing drugs.

“My mom, little sister and brother all had prescriptions for Adderall. One day, I was watching TV and my mom said she wanted me to help her clean the house—so she gave me Adderall to speed me up. I loved the feeling. From then on, my mom gave me the pills in the morning and after school. If I was upset about something, she’d give me more. If you really need those drugs, they calm you down. But if you don’t, like I didn’t, they speed you up. Soon, I was up to 12 pills a day, often combining them with other pills. Doing drugs made me feel like I fit in. And watching my mom having such a good time popping pills made me think there was nothing wrong with it.”

Many teens assume pills are safe. “Kids see pills all around them, and they get e-mails from people selling them on the Internet, so they assume they’re safe and no big deal,” says Falkowski. “And very few people get rushed to the emergency room for using prescription drugs, so teens don’t see the consequences and therefore assume they’re not dangerous.”

Teens think that, because prescription drugs are legal, it’s no biggie to take them. “Teens don’t consider them to be illicit like street drugs,” says Kimberly Mitchell-Sellwood, a San Diego-based addictions specialist. But are they really legal? Not when they’re prescribed to someone else.

Mitchell-Sellwood adds, “Moms are often the ones who have prescription pills at home, so kids see that modeling and think they’re OK to use—even if the prescription isn’t for them.”

Then, there is the ever-present “I do drugs so I must be cool” factor. “When I was in middle school, it just didn’t seem cool to be taking pills as opposed to smoking pot or drinking. But when everyone in high school found out I had pills, suddenly I was cool,” says Summer.

Dangers of Doping

Shockingly, a recent study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America revealed teen abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is just as high or higher than abuse of street drugs.

Summer suggests one reason: “All my friends were smoking pot, but I was too scared to try it. I just always thought of pills as safe, especially if they’re prescribed to your brother or sister.”

But that just isn’t the case. “Prescription drugs can be just as dangerous as street drugs and can set up a lifetime of problems by changing the chemistry in your brain,” explains Mitchell-Sellwood.

There are tons of reasons taking pills is just as risky as doing street drugs. For one, they are every bit as addictive. “I don’t often see kids addicted to pills only—it’s usually a combination of drugs and alcohol that gets out of line. Using drugs like Ritalin absolutely leads to other drugs,” says Mitchell-Sellwood. “Teens think, ‘If I take one of these and it feels so good, why don’t I just feel even better by trying that, too?’”

Prescription drugs can cause serious school, family and friendship problems, as well. “In addition to the long-term consequences, like health risks, there are immediate dangers of impaired judgment which can affect learning, memory and even driving skills. It can also put you in situations you can’t get out of, like sexual or potentially violent situations, because you don’t have all of your faculties. Girls get into dangerous situations just in the course of teenage life. If you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, those situations tend to get even more dangerous,” says Falkowski.

Lauren strongly agrees: “I had a physically abusive boyfriend. I would never have been with him had I been sober.”

Prescription drugs can also cause serious health problems. Pain medications, like Oxycontin and Vicodin, and relaxants, like Valium and Xanax, can cause potentially fatal breathing problems, among other risks. Stimulants, like Ritalin and Adderall, can cause irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, deadly seizures and psychotic episodes.

Worst of all, when you take a drug that isn’t prescribed to you in a way you’re not supposed to—by increasing dosages, mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs, or snorting them or injecting them into your bloodstream—you can overdose and put your life at risk. “You don’t know with certainty the potency of the pill, the makeup of the pill and what possible interactions it will have with other medications you are taking or allergic reactions that may cause death," explains Falkowski.

Taking prescription drugs recreationally is treacherous territory. It really hits home when you hear the hair-raising experiences of teens like Caitlin: “I bottomed out at age 16. One day, after I’d taken three Somas and two Vicodins, I caught one of my closest friends kissing this guy I was with. I freaked, and then I did something I’d never done in my life—I hit her in the face so hard that I split her lip. Then I just ran to my friend’s car, and we drove off.

“The next day in class, the cops showed up, called me out of class, read me my rights and handcuffed me. It was horrible. They drove me to the police station, and I cried the whole time because I was so scared. I had to stay in juvenile hall that night until my parents came to get me. My mind was spinning because I’ve never been violent before. I didn’t know why I would ever hit my friend. I didn’t have to go to jail, but I was required to stay clean and under house arrest for three weeks. But right after I was released from house arrest, I was drug-tested by my probation officer—and I flunked. I was immediately taken to a detox center for 21 days.”

Summer has her own terrifying story: “After using Ritalin and Adderall on a daily basis, I started taking Oxycontin because I figured, ‘No big deal.’ But Oxycontin is basically synthetic heroin —you feel so happy and just don’t want to move. I’d wake up and not know what I’d done the night before, including having unprotected sex with guys I didn’t even know. It was disgusting. I finally bottomed when I was with a friend and we did PCP, Oxycontin and alcohol, along with Ritalin and Adderall. I blacked out for a few days at some guy’s house, and my parents eventually found me. The next day, I was sent to rehab.”

Popping pills for pleasure can be even more tragic than the consequences Caitlin and Summer experienced. “By age 16,” says Lauren, “my life felt totally out of control. I was so depressed, and sick and tired of my life being all about drugs. I was always lying to my parents, trying to keep track of the lies and hiding everything from them. It was exhausting. I had been a straight-A student but, by that point, I had fallen to a 2.4 GPA. I stopped caring about anything but drugs. One day, I cut my wrists to end it all. My parents found me and rushed me to the hospital. They had no idea I was addicted to drugs until that day. Soon after, I was sent to rehab at Hazelden and then to Gables Extended Care. It changed my life. It taught me self-acceptance.”

So can Lauren stay off pills for a lifetime? “I want to be successful. I want to be in New York with a briefcase in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and I know I couldn’t do that if I were doing any drugs. Instead, I’d be down in an alley trying to score. I take it one day at a time and, if I work this program to my fullest, I can definitely stay sober.”

She adds, “The best thing about recovery was finding out I’m not alone. It really gave me hope. I didn’t think teens could actually be sober with so much partying going on, but when you meet girls who are—they have jobs, they do well in school, they have great friends—it helps motivate you.”

Caitlin, too, is determined to stay sober: “Recovery has been great. I feel so much clearer, so I can do things I love, like surfing. I have been clean for 120 days, and I’m proud of myself. I never wanted to be like my mom, who is still an addict, and yet, when I was using, I was just like her. I can’t believe I let that happen. Now, I’m trying to be myself and be a better person and, when I think of my mom, it helps me stay sober.”

Summer, who is loving her sober life, feels girls are naive when it comes to taking pills: “All the good girls who get straight A’s and want to be perfect think Ritalin will allow them to do all that and more. But they’ll just need more and more, and they’ll go on to use other drugs for sure. Pills can really ruin your life…like they did mine.”

Help is on the way!

In a perfect world, girls know to stay away from drugs that aren’t prescribed to them. Unfortunately, some get sucked into the perils of addiction before they know what has hit them.  But there is help.…

SEEK OUT someone you trust, like a teacher, counselor, doctor, coach, minister, rabbi or your parents, and tell them what’s going on. They’ll give you much-needed support and help direct you to your next step in recovery.

CHECK OUT your local phone listings for NA groups for teens in your area, and attend meetings. They’re anonymous and free!

GO TO
the Hazelden Foundation website at hazelden.org. They have tons of info on drug and alcohol abuse, and can direct you to help in your area.

By: Sandy Fertman Ryan

POSTED ON 11/24/2009 7:01:00 AM

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