Stalking back and forth with a microphone gripped tightly in his hand, Rob Brandt promised to end the lies adults commonly tell teens about drugs.
“Today I’m going to ask you to open up your mind and set aside what you think you know,” he told hundreds of freshmen gathered March 2 at Amherst Steele High School.
Thirty-five percent of the room is statistically likely to deal with addiction during their lives, Brandt said. Right now, 14.7 percent of the United States population is addicted to drugs and 90 percent of those folks started before they reached age 18.
It’s a real and present danger. No one knows like Brandt.
His son, Robby, died Oct. 22, 2011, of a heroin overdose.
Robby took a prescription painkiller after having his wisdom teeth removed, paving the way for abuse to begin later in the year. He took more pills, these offered by a friend — and what could be the harm? They came from a doctor, Robby figured.
He graduated from high school and entered the military, where he went into withdrawal and came home clean and sober. Then Robby ran into an old friend and slid back into drug abuse. Within two weeks, he was fully addicted to heroin.
Again he got clean with the help of treatment, but here’s the problem: It takes one to three years for the brain’s chemistry to recover from heroin addiction. Robby gave into his cravings, used again, and went back into treatment, battling every day just to say no to one more pill.
“He look at me and say, ‘Dad, I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t know,’” Brandt remembers.
Robby’s very last time using heroin came just as he was about to be deployed overseas to fight in the War on Terror. It proved fatal.
Brandt knows firsthand that too many high-schoolers believe addiction is something that could never happen to them. That’s why he started the nonprofit Robby’s Voice to beg teens to change the way they think.
Misconceptions, myths, and blank spots in knowledge abound when it comes to addiction, he said. Chief among them is what addicts look like: If you want to know, just look in the mirror.
“Before they were addicts, they were you,” Brandt told students. They were regular kids, athletes, musicians, college-bound with hopes and dreams. They were all-stars and honor students. They were kids who had trouble in school. They came from rich families and poor families.
Addiction is not about whether you are strong enough, fast enough, tall enough, smart enough, or whether you’re from a good or bad family. It’s about your brain, he said.
When you put heroin and other drugs into your body, they change the way you feel and they change the way your brain functions. Addiction is a measurable physiological change in your chemistry.
Opioid addiction begins with a feeling of euphoria on your first use. Over time, it dwindles until you’re popping pills just to feel normal.
If you try to stop, your brain revolts and punishes your body with pain — that’s withdrawal. A friend once described withdrawal pain to Brandt as the feeling of being thrown into a trash compactor and feeling every bone slowly break.
In withdrawal, you stop caring about school, family, friends, the team, your grades, even yourself. All you care about is making the pain stop by popping another pill.
More than two million teens in the U.S. need treatment for addiction. They can’t stop using drugs without help.
Our country is unique. The United States has less than 4.6 percent of the world’s population but uses 65 percent of the globe’s illegal drugs, Brandt said. More than 80 percent of the pharmaceutical medications on Earth are used here, which he sees as a root cause of the problem.
Americans also eat up movies, television shows, and video games that glorify drug use, he said: “Don’t do drugs, we tell teens, and then we surround them with the message every day that it’s OK.”
“‘It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK,’ is the message we deliver to you on a regular basis,” he told freshmen. “Then you come to school and every once in a while we tell you, ‘Don’t do drugs.’”
The consequence is that people like Robby are dying.
There were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths charted in 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sharpest increase in numbers came from more than 20,000 fentanyl and related overdoses.
Brandt’s challenge to students everywhere: What are you willing to give up for the high? Are you willing to give up your happiness? Your freedom? Your health? Your parents? Your brothers and sisters?
If someone you love is acting differently, that means something in their life has changed, he said. Start looking for danger signs.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.