Teens meet and talk as they try to stay sober 'It's one drunk helping another' at youth support group

June 04, 1996|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Near the neighborhood pool and convenience store in east Columbia's Phelps Luck neighborhood is a sanctuary for teen-agers who see their futures measured in single days of sobriety.

This is the meeting place for Straight Up, affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous and established last October by Oakland Mills High School science teacher Robert Siskind.

The group, which gets together once a week, draws to each of its meetings 10 to 24 middle school and high school students from Central Maryland. It is one of about half a dozen AA-affiliated groups for teen-agers in the Baltimore area.

"Basically, it's one drunk helping another," says a 16-year-old member from Rockville. "That's how we stay sober."

The student says he has done marijuana, PCP, LSD, mushrooms, inhalants, Dexedrine, barbiturates and "several more drugs." He says he will have been sober for nine months Sunday.

Howard County's substance abuse coordinator, Joyce Brown, sees a need for a separate recovery program for teen-agers. "They don't fit in well into an adult 12-step program because they need attention to their adolescent developmental needs," she says. "They need support groups that are for their particular age groups."

Siskind recently received the county's Educator of the Year award, in part for helping substance-abusing students. Those who nominated him say it is not uncommon for him to drive students to AA meetings.

Straight Up meets Thursday afternoons at the Alano Club, housed in a room at the neighborhood center adjacent to the High's on Phelps Luck Road in Long Reach. The club also is the site for 35 AA meetings a week.

The meeting room offers a lodge-like feel, with thick sofas against the walls and a long, narrow dining table in the middle. Inspirational plaques and signs familiar to 12-step recovery programs appoint the walls.

Meetings are structured, featuring speakers and time to discuss coping skills.

"It's very much like group therapy. Except you only pay a buck," Siskind says.

All of the teen-agers in Straight Up have stories of substance abuse -- and of a desire for sobriety. AA stresses anonymity, and they did not want their names used in this article.

"I couldn't stay sober 24 hours by myself. With AA, I've stayed sober almost nine months," the Rockville student says.

Another Straight Up member, an 18-year-old recovering alcoholic, has traveled from Columbia to Baltimore and back, finding salvation through sobriety.

Because of his substance abuse, he left Columbia more than two years ago. He moved to West Baltimore, where he started dealing drugs.

"When dealing stopped, prostitution began, and it only lasted a few months because I was HIV-positive and needed help," he says. "More than likely, I'll be dead before I'm 30, but I hope to be sober."

Another member -- a 14-year-old student at Mayfield Woods Middle School -- says he has done PCP, LSD and pot and twice suffered alcohol poisoning. He says it was nothing for him to drink a pint and a half of hard liquor a day.

He has been sober since Nov. 15. "I'm not as spiritual as some people here, but I believe in a power greater than myself," he says. "When I was drunk, I was my God."

In addition to Straight Up, both teen-agers attend more than a dozen recovery meetings a week to stay sober.

The stories at Straight Up range from despair to achievement.

A 17-year-old girl who graduated last week from Centennial High School probably would not have been able to foresee that milestone a year ago.

She says she started smoking marijuana between middle and high school. During her ninth- and 10th-grade years, she drank a lot, along with smoking marijuana and taking LSD.

Her downward spiral accelerated during her junior year, when she started going to "rave parties" -- gatherings of hundreds of youths at warehouses for all-night parties -- and started taking exotic drugs such as crystal methamphetamines, ecstasy and Ketamine, animal tranquilizers also known as "special K."

Her moment of clarity occurred after ringing in 1995. She was sober and realized that all of her friends were self-absorbed, self-centered and didn't care. She says she cried for three hours.

After missing 70 to 80 days of school her junior year, she became a better student, made the honor roll for the last two quarters and plans to go to college. She has been sober for 10 months.

And during the last few months, she has come to appreciate the value of Straight Up.

"These people were the first true friends I ever had," she says. "They saved my life."

Teen-agers with substance-abuse problems can call the Howard County Health Department's Addiction Services Center at 313-6200.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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