SOLANA BEACH — “I just want to feel normal,” wrote Aaron Rubin. “I am not me. I feel ashamed.”
Those were entries in the rehabilitation journal of Rubin, a 2000 graduate of Poway High School who began using alcohol and drugs “socially” in 10th grade.
In 2005, shortly after spending six successful months in rehab, Rubin overdosed. He had a heart attack and two strokes and was in a coma for three weeks.
Told by doctors Rubin was going to die, his parents were planning their son’s funeral at his bedside
when he suddenly opened
his eyes. Rubin, now 28, is a quadriplegic who uses his hands to communicate — one finger for yes and two for no.
Rubin’s addiction was not to illegal street drugs such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. His drug of choice, often found these days in many household medicine cabinets, was OxyContin, a powerful opiate prescribed for pain.
Rubin and his parents shared their story during a prescription drug abuse forum presented by the Sheriff’s Department on Jan. 25 at Calvary Lutheran Church.
“Aaron wanted to stop,” Sherrie Rubin said. “But it’s an all-consuming disease. It will control your life. Once you start down this path it will have a tragic ending.”
Other stories emphasized her point.
The approximately 60 parents and teenagers attending the event heard a recording from a 2009 San Diego 911 call in which Clayton’s mother tells the operator her 15-year-old son is cold and blue with blood coming from his mouth and nose.
Jodi Frantz fought her emotions as she shared her story from the altar at Calvary Lutheran.
“The last time I stood up here was last year when I was eulogizing my son,” she said. “No parent should ever have to do that.”
Her son, Patrick, first tried OxyContin in 2007, during his senior year at Torrey Pines High School. He, like many users, eventually switched to heroin because it’s cheaper. Like Rubin, he too had been in and out of rehab.
“Patrick didn’t want this addiction,” Frantz said. “His biggest regret was ever trying it in the first place.”
Throughout the evening Sgt. David Ross and Deputy District Attorney Matthew Williams, co-founders of the San Diego Prescription Drug Task Force, presented statistics about the growing epidemic.
In San Diego in 2005, 357 deaths were attributed to prescription drug overdose. In 2009 that number jumped to 621.
One in five teens has tried prescription drugs. Nearly one third think prescription pain relievers are not addictive. Two in five believe they are “much safer” than illegal drugs.
“They figure if their parents take them, they must be OK,” Ross said.
The problem is growing partly because the drugs are easy to get, he said.
“The dentist gives you Vicodin for a tooth ache,” he said. “You take a few until the pain goes away, then leave them in the medicine cabinet and forget about them.”
If kids don’t find them at home, they look at friends’ homes or in grandparents’ medicine chests. When asked how easy it is to get the pills, most students said within a day, while many said within hours.
Ross said he “consistently” purchases the pills — about 1,000 to date — at the Shell gas station on Via de la Valle just off Interstate 5.
Teens report trying the pills for a variety reasons. They say it makes them feel relaxed, euphoric and “comfortable in your own skin.” They also say it’s a way to get away from their problems and “feel like you’re fitting in.”
Ross said although the problem is spreading, the hot spots remain upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Users, he said, are not typical “stoners.” They are high-achievers, athletes, band members and members of student government.
Last year between 150 and 180 students in the San Dieguito Union High School District were referred to the Recovery Education and Alcohol/Drug Instruction program, which helps families deal with substance abuse.
Sam, a 20-year-old who was sober 18 months and one day at the forum, said she grew up in “a very nice area” of San Diego where OxyContin was “the drug” while she was in high school. Users, she said, included “jocks, the popular kids — the people you look up to. They said if you tried pot and liked it, this was better.”
Sam said she started using because her father took OxyContin for 11 years. “I thought it was safe,” she said.
Signs a teenager may be taking prescription pills include withdrawing from the family, a decline in academic work and performance, loss of motivation, especially in activities that used to be important, weight loss and constant fatigue.
If you think your child is using — or not — “step up and be a parent,” Ross said. “Your kids don’t need any more friends. They want to know what time to be home. They want to know there are consequences for their actions.”
“I wish I had turned to my parents sooner,” said Sam, who started using at 15.
Ross said parents should check bedrooms, bathrooms, backpacks, social networking sites and text messages. He said he received a rude awakening after checking his teenage daughter’s cell phone, which he promptly took away for a year.
The pills can be taken orally, crushed and snorted, shot up or smoked. Tin foil with black lines, lighters and hollowed-out spoons are common paraphernalia often associated with prescription pill use.
Reluctant at first, Clayton’s mother finally searched the house after her son’s death and eventually discovered 15 balls of wadded-up tin foil with black lines in the attic.
“Every day we blame ourselves, we blame Aaron, we blame the drugs,” Mike Rubin said. “Seek help and prolonged rehabilitation. These pills are powerful.”