Youth Takes Long Road Back From Drugs To Become A Leader

December 08, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

Four, three or even two years ago, Charles "Chuck" Leary didn't havetime to think about grades or classes or student activities. He was on a quest to duplicate that first high, the best one, the one that felt really good.

It took three years and a lot of drugs and alcohol before he figured out that after the first high, it's all downhill.

Back on the uphill slope, the 16-year-old son of George and Ondria Leary of Columbia looks sharp in his Bugle Boy pants and his fade haircut.

He trades jokes with his friends and seems at ease on the dais in the school board meeting room with the other officers of the Howard County Association of Student Councils. He has earned a reputation among the other student leaders as a hard worker who is willing to cover for others if they get swamped.

Chuck is now a junior at Atholton High School and a second-year electronics student at the School of Technology. He keeps track of the countywide student government organization's budget and co-chairs the HCASC Cable 8 committee, which produces monthly programs featuring high school activities for the education cable television channel.

Nobody would know the scars on his arms are from attempts to kill himself. Nobody would know about the flashbacks and the short-term memory problems and having to watch himself because he gets irritated easily now, a characteristic he says he didn't have before he began using drugs.

Chuck's friend Ashish Bagal, president of HCASC, knew Chuck last year as president of the School of Technology's Student Council, an HCASC delegate and successful candidate for treasurer in last spring's election. Ashish didn't learn until last summer that Chuck was spending half-days during the 1990-1991 school year at Gateway. In fact, he'd been in and out of Gateway several times.

Gateway is the county's no-frills alternative school for students whose behavior or attendance problems are too severe to be handled in their home schools. It is not usually the home school of student leaders, but Chuck isn't the usual student leader.

"It was so sad. It wasn't Chuck, it was what Chuck was on," says Eugene L. Streagle, principal of Howard High School, where Chuck spent three months as a ninth-grader before being returned to Gateway for throwing a trash can at the principal in the school cafeteria. Chuck says he was high at the time.

Chuck was his own worst enemy, Streagle says. "When he wasn't high, it was clear he had some real intellect."

He started experimenting with drugs late in sixth grade at Wilde Lake Middle School. "I just wanted to experiment and I got carried away," he says.

He kept searching for a repeat of his first high. He preferred alcohol, marijuana and LSD, but also experimented with hashish and crack -- "Luckily, I didn't get strung out" -- PCP, prescription drugs, inhalants, crystal methedrine and other forms of speed.

He never dealt drugs, and he was never arrested for drug use.

Chuck's problems surfaced in his grades and behavior, and in the seventh grade, he was sent to Gateway for the first time. Meanwhile, his parents figured out that he was using drugs and enrolled him inStraight, a controversial drug treatment program.

For Chuck, the Straight center in Virginia was a devastating experience and a failure at rehabilitation. He says the "oldcomers," clients who had been inthe program longer, never allowed him a minute of privacy, not even to use the bathroom.

Chuck stayed at Straight for six months and was released when he was 13, after the counselors decided drugs were not his primary problem.

When Chuck got out, he had failed seventh grade, so he returned to Gateway, where he caught up on two years' schooling in less than one and returned to graduate with his class at Wilde Lake Middle and enter Howard High as a freshman.

He might have spent the rest of his freshman year at Gateway if he and a friend hadn't borrowed another friend's car without asking. It was a crummy thing to do to someone who was trying to help him, Chuck admits, but he says that when you get wrapped up in drugs, you don't care.

"There's a point you reach doing drugs that you can be completely numb, not physically but emotionally. You just don't care about anything," he says.

He and his friend got into an accident with the borrowed car, and Chuck was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. The judge placed him on probation and ordered him to Muncie Center, the children and adolescent unit at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

It didn't seem like a lucky break, but it was. Muncie, Chuck says, "is pretty much rock bottom. That's where (you go when) yourfamily has given up on you, they don't have any more insurance."

The adolescent center staff diagnosed Chuck as suffering from depression and put him on anti-depressant medication. He says the diagnosis was on target. He was down and felt like there was no way up.

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