With poise and humility, Nicole Wise describes her descent into a life governed by alcohol, replaced now by sobriety and a new sense of purpose. It is the familiar yet always stunning story of addiction and recovery.
Nicole's is particularly jarring because she is just 17.
She began by sneaking beers from the refrigerator of her mother's home in Wheaton. By 15, Nicole was a red-eyed, ratty-haired child of the streets with an obsession for vodka -- straight -- and a small cocaine business to support her own habit.
Rock bottom came on the basement floor of a Silver Spring apartment building, where she had crawled in search of a night's shelter.
"I went outside and sat on the steps and just waited for a policeman to come," she recalled yesterday. "I had seen what drugs and alcohol had done to other people, and I realized I just had to get out of it."
Sober for nine months now, Nicole is sharing her expertise with Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his top advisers on substance abuse. She is a member of a state youth panel on drugs and alcohol, which met last night to brief Mr. Schaefer on its work.
The panel, composed of two representatives from Baltimore and each county, is in the process of evaluating drug treatment and prevention programs aimed at teen-agers.
"We want to get an insight into what works and what doesn't," said Floyd O. Pond, executive director of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. "Historically, adults have made those calls. But we need to hear what young people have to say."
Panel members reported on several prevention programs they feel are successful. In Charles County, high school students are teaching fifth-graders about the evils of drugs. In Worcester County, in the weeks before prom night, students participate in mock drunken-driving trials designed to raise awareness.
Nicole offered a different perspective. "I've had plenty of problems with the subjects that we're dealing with now," she told the group yesterday. She urged them to be forceful but not angry in counseling friends with a problem.
In an interview earlier yesterday, Nicole, who now lives in a Baltimore group home for juvenile delinquents, described her own road to sobriety. It wasn't very smooth.
When she woke up in that basement nearly two years ago, she correctly figured that a policeman would be along soon because of complaints about her trespassing. The officer charged her as a runaway and drove her home to her mother.
But Nicole promptly ran away again. In the year that followed, she says she managed to cut back on her drinking, but was kicked out of three group homes because of her rebellious behavior.
She quit drinking totally only after juvenile authorities sent her to live in a group home in Park Heights, from which she attends classes and counseling at the state's Arthur G. Murphy Youth Center in Southwest Baltimore.
"When she first came here, Nicole had a real negative attitude," said Charles Stewart, the youth center's principal. "But after a while, you could see that she was the type of kid who could listen to constructive criticism."
Nicole credits the center's staff with helping her learn more about her alcohol problem, as well as fostering the patience she needed to return to classwork. "The majority of the knowledge I had from before was gone," she said. "Because of the drinking, I couldn't remember what I'd learned."
She now looks forward to receiving her high school equivalency certificate and hopes then to find a job. She has studied both carpentry and computers at the youth center, but she hasn't decided which field to pursue.
More immediately, she plans to volunteer as a counselor with a substance abuse hot line the center hopes to launch next month.
"You have people between the ages of 15 and 25 who are dying -- from drugs, from suicide, from violence, but mostly it's all drugs," Nicole said. "I'd like to be able to help some other people."
She is aware that with a misstep she could again become dependent herself.
"I can't say 'never.' It could happen again. But I've learned that one thing I can do to help prevent it is to keep a clear head and think positive."