On a recent November morning, a soft-spoken young man stood at the front of the auditorium at Shaker High School and delivered a somber message to hundreds of students.
“I will always be an addict. There is no cure; it’s something I have to deal with every day of my life,” he said.
The 23-year-old speaker, clad in jeans and sneakers with tattoos peeking out from the beneath the sleeves of his hoodie, recounted how his addiction to drugs began with marijuana use in his first year of high school and quickly escalated to cocaine, prescription pills, stimulants, hallucinogenic drugs — and ultimately, heroin.
“Teachers, school counselors, administrators – we can talk to students about the dangers of drug use all day long,” said Brian Spofford, Taft Hall Principal. “The message is more meaningful when they hear about the struggles and real-life experiences directly from an individual not much older than they are, who began experimenting with drugs in the ninth grade and was addicted by tenth grade.”
The guest speaker was part of a presentation that focused attention on what are commonly described as gateway drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, which are thought to lead to experimentation with and dependence on harsher drugs, including cocaine and heroin.
First Sergeant Tracy Mance of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office kicked off the assembly with a short science lesson about brain development. She explained that teenage brains remain “under construction” into the middle 20s, and that the front of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning and impulses – develops last.
“By nature, teens will engage in risky behavior,” said Mance. “They live ‘in the moment’ and don’t often think about the consequences of their actions.” Drug and alcohol use impair teenagers’ decision-making abilities, she continued, lowering their inhibitions and leading to riskier behaviors.
After hearing him address another group earlier this fall, Mance invited the speaker to participate in presentations that she organizes for area schools as part of the Albany County Stop-DWI Program. The assemblies are intended to raise awareness among high school students of the risks that even moderate use of alcohol and marijuana can pose, and the life-altering consequences that can occur as a result.
“We wanted our students to walk away with the understanding that simple alcohol and marijuana use can lead to a dangerous life style,” said Spofford. “We also want students to understand that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, no matter the level of impairment, is both dangerous and illegal.”
Circling back to the guest speaker
Students listened quietly as the speaker explained that to feed his addiction, he began selling drugs. In time, law enforcement arrested him and a judge gave him the choice of going to prison for five years or entering Hospitality House, an intensive rehabilitation program in Albany that specializes in chronic relapse and criminal justice populations. He chose the rehab program, which the speaker described as “very strict.”
“It’s kind of sad to say this, but rehab is one of the best things that has happened to me in my life,” he confessed, adding that he opted for the program because of his devotion to his child and respect for his family.
“As an addict, you have to want to change; it has to come from within,” he said. “I’m ready now to make the change.”
Shaker High School officials encourage parents to have conversations with their children, and suggest The Kitchen Table Toolkit as a resource for families seeking guidance or direction on how to approach the topic. New York State’s Combat Heroin campaign developed the Kitchen Table Toolkit to help parents, teachers, counselors and the community initiate discussions about heroin and opioid abuse. Toolkit information may also be applicable for alcohol and other drugs. For more information, visit the website.
If you have any questions, or if you need further guidance, please call the school at 785-5511 to speak to an administrator or counselor. You can also reach out to the Stop-DWI Program by calling 518-720-8100.