Then I discovered drinking.
With alcohol, I felt like I belonged. I made friends, asked girls on dates and learned to lift weights — none of which seemed possible without booze.
With my newfound alcohol-fueled confidence, I decided to skip my senior year. I‘d done well on the standardized tests (before my drinking caused my grades to plummet), and a San Francisco university had granted me early acceptance.
My young mind thought I craved freedom in California, but what I really craved was alcohol.
I fed my addiction, which spiraled into decades of drug abuse and everything that goes with it: stints in jail, rehabs, homeless shelters, etc. All starting with my unadulterated binge drinking as an Oakmont student.
Today, after many stumbles (to put it lightly), I’m clean and sober. And thanks to a remarkable group of Oakmont students, I went back to my old high school this week to deliver a talk about the dangers of teen drinking and offer some healthy alternatives.
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I was brought in by the Oakmont chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, an organization that encourages kids to make smart choices, and helps those who don’t.
One of the group’s main focuses is prom, its leaders told me. Last year’s prom was sparsely attended because of covid, and the year before, it was canceled. Other recent rites of passage were either called off or held remotely: graduation, homecoming, senior night.
Some students are extremely excited about these big events; others feel awkward and unsure. Both states of mind could be recipes for making unwise decisions around alcohol.
“When we see underage drinking,” said student Allison Sowerbutts, who is a board member of Oakmont SADD, “the main reason behind it is usually a striving for acceptance.” She once counseled a friend who believed nobody cared about him unless he drank.
“Sometimes drinking is a cry for help,” said Peyton Collins, another student board member. She explained that some young people escalate excessive drinking until others notice.
I know from my experience that it’s not enough to simply deter young people from making destructive decisions. High school kids need alternative ways to feel good about themselves — and who better to know what might work than fellow students?
These kids are creating the healthy alternatives themselves, such as a brilliant idea called a lollipop drive. “When students pulled into the school parking lot wearing their seat belts, we rewarded them by tossing lollipops into their cars,” Collins said.
Other students involved in SADD are finding meaning in different ways. Kennedy Alexis, a SADD board member and avid tennis player, donated her used tennis balls to a greyhound adoption group.
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To engage with the community, SADD hosted a Halloween party for Hope House, a nonprofit that gives a helping hand to at-risk families. Together, they planned the party, dressed in costumes, and competed in relay races and freeze-dancing contests. Kids trick-or-treated in the Oakmont hallways.
“It’s one of my best memories from Oakmont,” said SADD student board member Kaya Engelmann.
SADD also visited nearby businesses that sell liquor, encouraging them to step up efforts to prevent alcohol from getting into the hands of underage drinkers.
I was beyond impressed with how the students of Oakmont SADD had figured out how to do good for others and, in turn, do good for themselves.
My own activities as an Oakmont student fell far short of raising money for nonprofits or combating underage drinking. I mostly cared about curing my loneliness with alcohol.
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As SADD’s members spoke, I gazed around the room and recognized it as having once been the principal’s office. As a student, I’d been summoned there after vandalizing school property.
Along with Mike Benson, my best friend in high school, I had stolen a locker combination and filled the locker with trash. But criminal masterminds we weren’t: Mike and I stuffed the locker with homework papers with our names on them.
The trouble we got in didn’t deter us: Mike and I took up drinking on the Ashburnham baseball field. Until the Ashburnham Police busted us.
Today, Benson remains one of my closest friends and strongest supporters. And, by delivering my talk, I’m helping the same police force that once busted me.
Officer Brian Rosengren of the Ashburnham Police Department is one of the officers assigned to the school. Before the prom, he has students try out “drunk goggles,” which show them the vision-distorting effects of intoxication.
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Another part of students’ education is hearing from people like me.
When I took the auditorium stage to deliver my talk, I told students how I once walked the same hallways and sat at the same desks — and then threw away a promising career with a biotech giant, as well as a home, friendships and even my beloved dog. I told them how I barely survived my descent into harrowing meth addiction.
Of course, the story has a happy ending. Thanks to God and the remarkable women and men who helped me, I got clean and became a volunteer in prisons, serving incarcerated people who are turning their own lives around. I fulfilled my dream of becoming a writer, and even wrote a book that is now distributed in 125 correctional facilities around the country.
One student, Sophia O’Brien, kindly described my talk as a “whoa!” moment. With luck, speaking frankly about my high school experience will raise youth awareness of the dangers of destructive decisions.
I hope showing Oakmont students my life trajectory and dire mistakes has helped them understand how to make better choices, and I know that meeting them has helped me. I learned that high-schoolers can change not only their peers’ lives, but the lives of adults. Especially ones like me — I may not have always made the right choices, but I’m trying to do some good in the world as I make up for lost time.
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