Using pain to aid others MADD volunteer draws on hardship in counseling work

'Never felt like a kid'

Anti-drug, alcohol efforts bring woman local, national notice

December 07, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Heather Metzger always knew her father wouldn't die an old man. He drank too much, did too many drugs, drove too often under the influence.

But Metzger, who is from Millersville in Anne Arundel County, was shocked when her father died Oct. 16, 1994, after driving drunk and high on drugs on the way home from a bar in Baltimore County. Metzger was 17. Her two brothers, Justin and Jordan, were 13 and 10.

Metzger, now 21 and a junior at the University of Maryland,

College Park could have let grief consume her. Instead, soon after her father's death, she designed a program for younger children called "Drug Free Me" and began to tell her story in schools. She became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Howard County, adding hours of work to a packed school schedule.

Her volunteer achievements are so prodigious, Metzger recently won state and national recognition for them. Her biggest accomplishment, perhaps, is not turning out like her father, a fate of many children of alcoholics.

"It would seem normal, almost expected, for a young person who has lived through what she has to go in the wrong direction," said her mother, Bobbie Metzger, a physical therapist assistant. " Heather has chosen to use her life experiences to prevent other adolescents from making the wrong choices."

Heather Metzger doesn't have many good memories of her father. She remembers the time he stole money from her piggy bank to buy drugs, the time he stood her up on her 13th birthday, the times he threw parties and she had to beg him to turn the music down so she could sleep.

She remembers the track marks on his arms from shooting heroin, the chronic smell of alcohol on his breath, the promises he made and never kept.

"I've never felt like a kid," she said. "When I was a child, I felt like an adult trapped in a child's body."

Metzger tells these stories without flinching, without the threat of tears. But to this day, whenever she visits her father's grave in Baltimore, she said she can't keep from crying. Despite all the pain, she loved her father.

When he wasn't drinking or forgetting appointments, they had a special relationship: "I was daddy's little girl. The first-born, the only daughter, that type of thing." At UM, Metzger eschews the freedom and leisure time that many 21-year-olds take for granted. When she is not busy with schoolwork -- she is studying to become a speech and language pathologist and one day wants to work with disabled and hearing-impaired children -- she spends most of her time working as a resident adviser to 38 freshmen and sophomores and volunteering for MADD.

No taste for alcohol

She has never so much as tasted wine or beer, she said: "The most alcohol I think I've had is from Vicks Formula 44." She never goes to fraternity parties or bars. This year, she was a runner-up for the Miss Maryland crown. Though she could easily spend her time dating, she said her favorite activity Friday night is sitting in her room, practicing the harp -- which she took up recently -- or doing volunteer work.

She jokingly refers to herself as a "fuddy-duddy."

In the year or so since she joined MADD, Metzger has written to legislators requesting that they strengthen drunken-driving laws, designed a Web site addressing drunken driving, talked with repeat drunken-driving offenders, counseled peers about drinking and organized speeches.

In April, she organized a campaign to insert drunken-driving statistics into pockets of rental tuxedos. She has agreed to serve as the state chairwoman of MADD's National Youth Summit in Washington in 2000 and is also MADD's Youth Power Camp coordinator for summer 1999, which requires a yearlong commitment to organize a leadership training camp for Maryland teen-agers. She serves on victim-impact panels, sharing her story with people who have been convicted of drunken driving.

She is so busy that she plans her day hour by hour with an electronic organizer. If she breaks from her schedule -- oversleeps, bumps into a friend and puts off studying -- she said she gets migraine headaches that leave her in bed for hours. She said she gets several migraines a week but cannot afford the medication for them.

Metzger was always a hard worker, the type loved by teachers and resented by classmates: "I was always considered the goodie-goodie, the nerd, the teacher's pet," she said. For her -- most of the time -- that was better than partying and being like her popular and handsome father, who couldn't hold a job.

"I go through stages when I just want to fit in," she said. "You know, why can't I be like everybody else? But they are just phases. The majority of the time I'm glad I'm not."

Metzger attributes her work ethic to her family, God and a desire to never be like her father, who was absent most of her youth. Metzger's parents separated when she was 7, she said, and later divorced.

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