By Liz Hackenmueller
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Janet Weishalla held back tears as she described the phone call no parent wants to get.
On the other end of the line, a friend of her son’s told her something was wrong with Bobby. As Weishalla rushed to the friend’s house, she knew it was already too late her son Bobby had taken a lethal dose of heroin.
“Drugs do not discriminate; it can happen to anyone,” Weishalla said.
She shared her story to an auditorium full of community members and parents at the Wright County Cares community forum on drug awareness Jan. 22 at the Buffalo High School Performing Arts Center.
The event included presentations from local and state law enforcement, community prevention and recovery programs, and personal stories from former addicts.
Weishalla, a nurse, described her family as “normal” and said Bobby was smart and good at sports. Weishalla implored parents to talk with their children about drugs and question suspect behavior. She hopes doing so will stop what happened to her family from happening to other families.
“If you have a gut feeling, trust it. There were things I saw and I just ignored,” Weishalla said.
As she told her son’s story, the screen behind her projected Bobby’s senior picture portraying a normal, seemingly happy high school senior; but he ended his own life just days after his 20th birthday.
The last time Weishalla saw Bobby, he said he didn’t think he could do it anymore, that he couldn’t face rehab again and he refused to go to jail.
‘Don’t be like me’
What had started as a young teenage boy getting caught with a pack of cigarettes had turned into a drug addiction that ultimately claimed Bobby’s life.
“I didn’t question more, and I wish I would have. I was a very trusting mom,” Weishalla said. “Don’t be like me.”
Weishalla’s plea to parents echoed the advice from a dozen presenters at the event: Parental involvement and education is key to keeping teens off drugs.
Adam Pederson, prevention specialist at Know The Truth, a drug and alcohol prevention program of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, cited that the top two reasons kids stay away from drugs are fear of legal consequences; and parental disapproval.
“They care what you think,” Pederson said to parents.
Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty dubbed parents as the “12th man” in the fight to keep kids off drugs, referring to a football analogy that fans can make a big difference in the game, in addition to the 11 players on the field. Law enforcement might be in the game, but parents have a huge role.
And “one and done” is not the strategy.
“Talk early and talk often,” Pederson said.
He encouraged parents to not only share their values and expectations about alcohol and drug use, but use current events as an opportunity to reinforce the message again and again.
Parents also need to “walk the walk” by setting an example of not abusing alcohol or drugs.
Miranda Schwartz, a former addict, recalled having her first drink when she was 12 years old on her father’s farm with a cousin.
“I saw my family and older siblings doing it and it looked like fun,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz remembers being told that she shouldn’t do drugs because they are bad for you. But when she started using marijuana and nothing bad happened, she felt she had been misled it didn’t seem like drugs were that bad.
Seeking a better high than marijuana could offer, Schwartz moved on to other drugs and hallucinogens.
“I looked innocent, so it was easy to get away with things,” Schwartz said.
She started lying to her parents, and would pit her divorced parents against each other saying she would stay at dad’s house or mom’s house because they let her do what she wanted.
She remembers coming home after nights of partying looking hung-over. Her parents would question where she had been and she would lie about being at a friend’s house, and even make up the parents’ names.
“I started getting in trouble with the law, I was arrested, hand-cuffed, and even tazed,” Schwartz admitted.
Hiding the truth
Schwartz’s ability to cover up the truth aligned with Weishalla’s interactions with her son.
“When I did question things, Bobby always had an answer for everything,” Weishalla said. She wished she would have pushed more.
At one point, Schwartz’s mom decided she had to push back to save her daughter’s life.
Her mom turned Schwartz in to authorities because she was afraid Schwartz was going to end up dead.
Schwartz was court ordered to rehabilitation. She is now sober and in her second year of college.
One in five teens binge drink, yet only one in 100 parents think their kids binge drink, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
About that same number, 21 percent, of high school students in Wright County reported using illicit drugs.
Drug and alcohol education isn’t just for “at-risk” kids all kids are at-risk for substance abuse.
And drugs are easier than ever to obtain; being sold on Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media websites, using an Internet currency called Bitcoins.
In other words, kids can buy drugs in the privacy of their room or just about anywhere, from a computer, tablet, or Smartphone.
“Drugs are just a click away on the Internet,” said Dan Moren, assistant special agent in charge at the Minnesota Drug Enforcement Administration.
If the Internet isn’t close enough, there’s always the family medicine cabinet, where many drug habits start.
“Easy access is the number one reason kids use prescription drugs. They’re there,” Pederson said. “We can control that.”
Therefore, locking up prescription medications or putting them in a high traffic area is one of the easiest and most effective things a parent can do, according to Pederson.
Even if parents don’t think their child will abuse prescription drugs, maybe their child’s friend who comes over will.
Prescription drug abuse is serious and has legal consequences as well, no matter why it’s being used.
For example, some teenagers will take Adderall because it helps keep them awake to study.
“If you have one pill of Adderall on your person without a prescription, that’s a felony drug charge,” Pederson said.
Although drug abuse often starts with prescription drugs, it doesn’t end there.
“Three out of four abusers of prescription drugs will migrate to heroin,” Moren said.
During that migration, a person may use many different types of synthetic drugs. Chemicals in drugs are ever-changing and being tweaked to create stronger reactions and better highs, which leads to dangerous and deadly drugs, according to Moren.
Even marijuana is much more potent today than it was in the 1960s. Levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive constituent of the Cannabis plant, used to be around 2 percent in marijuana, and now it can be as high as 28 percent, according to Tom Kelly, Wright County Attorney.
“Mistakes are the building blocks of life,” Kelly said. “We learn from them.” But, he cautioned, taking a drug, even once, might be the one mistake you can’t recover from.
Looking back, Weishalla recalls details that should have been warning signs about Bobby, but she had brushed them off.
For example, she remembers seeing some spoons in his room and a lighter. She rationalized that the lighter was for his cigarettes and the spoons must have been for eating cereal in his room. She also saw empty toilet paper rolls lying around. The rolls can be stuffed with dryer sheets and used to mask the smell of smoke from drugs.
During the panel session, Schwartz added that a product called Smoke Buddies performs the same function of eliminating the smell from the drugs.
There are less obvious signs as well. For example, when children ask for money, even if it’s small amounts of $10 or $20, parents should ask for receipts from what was purchased.
Weishalla would ask Bobby for receipts, but he always brushed her off or would promise to get them to her later. If she refused to lend him any money for a couple weeks, he would just go to his brothers.
A teenager’s room is another clue. Chief Jeff Herr of the Annandale Police Department has been to houses several times where the house is very nice, but there is a lock on the child’s bedroom door and the parents have no idea what’s in that room.
They are shocked when it’s opened and there are drugs and paraphernalia everywhere.
To summarize the presentation; parents can help protect their children from drug addiction by talking with them, setting a good example, and questioning suspicious behavior.
Warning signs of drug abuse
• Loss of interest in family activities
• Withdrawal from responsibilities
• Verbal or physical abuse
• Sudden increase or decrease in appetite
• Disappearance of valuable items or money
• Constant excuses for behavior
• Lies about activities
• Spending a lot of time in their rooms
• Sudden drop in grades
• Sleeping in class
• Loss of interest in learning
• Defiant of authority
• Poor attitude towards sports or other extracurricular activities
• Reduced memory and attention span
• Not informing parents about teacher meetings, open houses, etc
• Changes in friends
• Unexplainable mood swings and behavior
• Negative, argumentative, paranoid or confused, destructive, anxious
• Over-reacts to criticism
• Doesn’t seem as happy
• Overly tired or hyperactive
• Drastic weight loss or gain
• Always needs money or has excessive amounts of money
• Sloppiness in appearance
Source: Center for Disease Control