By Bill Kirk
---- — Parents were looking for answers, teenagers were looking for understanding and police were looking for help.
More than 200 people came together last Wednesday night on the second floor of Old Town Hall for the first in a series of forums targeted at the growing use and abuse of prescription drugs and heroin among teenagers in Andover.
“Legal drugs have become a gateway for illegal drugs,” said Melissa Weiksnar, lead speaker at the “Just Listen” event dubbed “The Real Deal: Substance Abuse in Andover, 2013.”
The former Tyngsboro resident told the heartbreaking story of her daughter, Amy, who died of a heroin overdose at age 20. Weiksnar presented a slide show of pictures from her daughter’s life, set to the Pure Prairie League song, “Amy.” The series of photos of her daughter from infancy to young adulthood ended with her gravestone.
“Nobody expected her to die,” said Weiksnar, a member of a three-person panel brought together by Andover Youth Services Director Bill Fahey working with the Andover Police Department. “She was bright, beautiful, athletic and had wonderful friends.”
But from an early age, Amy Weiksnar started experimenting with marijuana. By the time she was 17, she had tried heroin.
“When my daughter was a senior in high school, we had a decision to make,” said Weiksnar, dressed in her daughter’s favorite sweats, necklace and ring. “Do we look at colleges or rehab?”
But she was a “high-performing addict,” who got good grades and got into the Boston College nursing program.
So they chose college, after the experts told her that Amy would make academics a priority over drug use.
They were wrong.
Just before she turned 21, Amy ended up in a rehab facility. While there, she somehow got access to heroin and overdosed. The facility she was in didn’t have Narcan, a nasal spray that can bring overdose victims back to life, Weiksnar said. Doctors in the emergency room worked on her for two hours but couldn’t revive her.
Melissa Weiksnar, who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge with multiple degrees, was unprepared for the stranglehold heroin had on her daughter.
She read from her daughter’s journal: “The real Amy is inside of me. I have to get her back. I feel this drug has taken over my soul. I have to get back to the life I loved. I stand as heroin’s puppet.”
The name of Weiksnar’s book, “Heroin’s Puppet,” chronicles her family’s journey into the dark world of substance abuse, which started with marijuana, graduated to OxyContin and ended with heroin.
The gateway to heroin
Andover Police Sgt. Greg Scott, one of the other panelists, said it is a story he has seen “over and over and over again.” A five-year detective in the town’s substance abuse unit, Scott grew tired of seeing people of all ages getting addicted to prescription drugs and then heroin. So he began asking them their life stories.
Invariably, he said, they started young with marijuana and alcohol.
“I have never spoken to an addict who never smoked weed,” he said. “Every addict I have ever spoken to started out with weed and drinking.”
After that, they pick up on so-called opiates, the official term for drugs like OxyContin, sometimes known as Perc-30s, or Vicodin, also known as Vike or Vitamin V.
“Whatever name you want to call it, it’s the progression to heroin,” he said.
The main reason, he said, is financial. OxyContin pills go for about $30 a pill, or, if bought in bulk, $17 to $20 each. For a person on a two-pill-a-day habit, the cost is as much as $60 a day. Meanwhile, a bag of heroin can be purchased on Broadway in Lawrence any time of day or night for $40 a half-gram or $20 a quarter-gram, he said.
Early users smoke or snort it; more hardened addicts end up injecting it.
Gina Borrazzo of Tewksbury, another panelist, said her son went to Phillips Academy in Andover and graduated with a lacrosse scholarship to the University of Maryland.
As successful as he was, he couldn’t escape the insidious allure of heroin.
“It’s time to throw out the stereotypes,” she said. “The new face of addiction is young people in suburban cities and towns. My son went to Phillips Andover, excelled in sports and got accepted to a Division 1 university for lacrosse.”
But one night, she said, he was at a party where he tried Perc-30.
“He didn’t know it would lead to a lifelong addiction,” she said.
She said that despite what parents think, the types and strength of drugs available to young people today are much stronger than a generation ago.
“Parents say, ‘Well, I did it and I survived,’” she said. “But it’s not the same. The drugs are stronger now and pot, which is also stronger, is a gateway drug. Pills are the real problem. Adderall, Vicodin and Percocet are in medicine cabinets. Taken one time can lead to a lifetime of struggle.”
Borrazzo advised parents to lock up their medications and if they think their children might have a problem, get help immediately.
“Don’t ignore it,” she told them. “Overdose death is the leading cause of accidental death among young people. No one wants to believe it can happen in a place like Andover. But it does. Every day.”
Two young people have died of drug overdoses in Andover so far this year.
During a lengthy question-and-answer session, parents wanted to know how they could tell if their kids were on drugs, how to talk to them about substance abuse without yelling at them, and what to do if their child becomes addicted.
The good news, the panelists said, is that there is help available, from police to social-service agencies to rehabilitation facilities.
One of the sponsors of the event, Learn to Cope, offers a website that offers an online forum for people to ask questions about addiction day or night.
Other parents wanted to know where the “hot spots” were that kids were going to smoke pot or do drugs.
One woman said she was shocked that kids were smoking pot in The Park during Clown Town.
“The field was full of teenagers,” she said. “They were smoking marijuana and having sex. I want to know how to make it safer for everyone.”
Scott said he relies on parents and citizens to be extra sets of eyes and ears to tell his officers what’s going on and what they see.
Police Chief Patrick Keefe added the “hot spots” aren’t at big parties, as in the past.
“It’s kids hanging out in groups of five at someone’s home,” he said. “It’s totally different than it was even 10 years ago. It’s where the parents aren’t.”
One young woman stood up and gave a short, impassioned speech, imploring adults not to judge young people involved in drugs, but to get them help.
“Don’t be scared,” she said. “Figure out what the underlying cause is. Don’t arrest them. Get them in a program that might actually help them.”
The audience members applauded.
Another young woman — a 19-year-old graduate of Andover High — also shared her story as a recovering addict.
She asked parents to “be aware of the pressure” they put on their children.
“The pressure is not helpful,” she said. “It makes children crumble.”
A 16-year-old girl from Andover High School marched to the front of the auditorium, took the microphone and told the parents in the audience that they needed to realize “nothing is the same” as when they were kids.
“Classes are harder,” she said, noting that some nights she has 10 hours of homework and stays up until 3 a.m. to finish it. “Parents need to realize there’s unbelievable pressure on kids. You need to look good. You need to have a job. You need to get into a good college. Kids are miserable, so they turn to something that makes them feel better.
“If you yell at them, they’ll be scared of you. Talk to them. Look to see if they are up late at night crying. They aren’t doing drugs to be cool. They are doing it because they are sad and have a problem.”
Where to turn
Information about drugs and addiction is available from Learn to Cope online at learn2cope.org or by calling 508-738-5148. The organization holds support group meetings in Tewksbury, Lowell, Gloucester, Salem and many other communities.
To dispose of prescription drugs, don’t flush them down the toilet. Take them to drop-off boxes, which are available in Tewksbury and Lowell. Andover currently does not have a drug drop-box, but may get one.
For a video of a young woman talking about her path to addiction, see http://bluemassgroup.com/2012/03/the-face-of-addiction/
The science of addiction in plain English: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/
Watch the documentary “Race to Nowhere” (racetonowehere.com) to understand what pressure is doing to adolescents.
Check out www.erowid.org, a comprehensive online resource about psychoactive plants and chemicals.
Call Andover Youth Services if you are looking for local resources at 978-623-8241, visit andoveryouthservices.com or email director Bill Fahey at firstname.lastname@example.org.