Parent says community help needed to combat youth heroin addiction
CASTLE ROCK - A couple of weeks ago, we published a story about how Douglas County School District (DCSD) and several other local organizations, led by the Tri-County Health Department, have formed the Douglas County Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition to make broad cultural changes in how prevention is approached in our schools and community in order to drastically reduce teen substance abuse and addiction.
Chrysta Reese, a parent of three students who have been or are currently in DCSD schools, responded to this story with a desire to help. Her oldest daughter, Ostyn, became addicted to heroin in high school, which escalated to homelessness and jail. Chrysta’s message: this can happen to anyone, regardless of circumstances, the family dynamic or neighborhood, and as a community we need to stop denying that the problem exists here, work together to address these problems and find solutions.
Steve Martinez, Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator with Tri-County Health, joined us for the conversation and mentioned, “we see the best parents in the world with all of those protective factors in place— the kids are involved in sports, they have attachments to school, they come from a healthy home, they have relationships with their parents— and we still see kids who end up going down that path. If there was a magic fix to this, we'd wouldn't have this problem. It takes a lot on the community end and people are starting to figure out that it takes a village. It really does take a community to begin to address these problems and really find solutions.”
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Chrysta found Ostyn's mugshot going viral on social media, with a slew of harsh comments. Rather than throw insults back at those commenting, she chose to chime in on the thread to help educate the public about addiction. Her hope then, and her hope by talking with us is that by sharing her story, it will resonate for some parents, teachers and school staff, and encourage them to seek support, approach prevention in new ways, or open a dialogue in our community. Below is our conversation with Chrysta.
Thank you so much for being willing to share your story with the community. Can you tell me what compelled you to speak with us?
I one-hundred percent agree that we, as a community, need to work together for drug prevention. High schoolers like having fun and for the most part they turn into normal functioning adults. However, the percentage of kiddos who become addicted and lost is rapidly growing. With the drugs available these days, it’s too easy to lose control of what our kids are doing. This is an issue that exists everywhere regardless of stereotype, from the skaters and the C or failing kids, to the athletes and 4.0 smart ones.
We can’t tip toe or worry about what people may think— not my kid, this is a upscale town, those things don't happen here. Us hitting this head on and confronting our kids prior to them trying drugs at parties or wherever is crucial. They need to see before and afters, see how lives have been ruined and know it is preventable and they can still have fun without the drugs.
Can you bring me through your history, what things were like before and leading up to this point, today?
We moved to Colorado from California. Ostyn turned 12 the week we moved here, and so there was an adjustment period. When we moved here she went from middle school in California to sixth grade in Colorado, so she kind of had to backtrack a little bit because of how they cut off elementary to middle school, and she wasn’t making any friends. In her classroom, no one would talk to her, they wouldn’t eat her Christmas cookies, just really sad things. She was picked on. She didn’t really make a friend until someone else moved and joined the classroom. Not connecting with anyone in the beginning, her self esteem crashed.
In our family, I had divorced her dad; he's actually addicted to Heroin as well. I figured she kind of had that behind her, that we're going to move forward and we're going do things differently.
Ostyn didn't play sports, but she's very creative and artistic. Happy. She stuck up for everybody. She's the kindest person. Even now, she smiles at everyone. But there was something not quite right. She didn't handle things well. Her attitude kind of started to change with the bullying and not having connected with really good friends.
The first instance when I think I realized something was up was when she got caught smoking. She was trying to smoke a cigarette on our street, so of course the neighbors saw her. She did eventually find a group of people that she started hanging out with that really liked her, I would describe them as stoners. I was reluctant about the people she was hanging out with, but at the same time I wanted her to have friends.
This is when the acting out started. We had a meeting with the principal and every single teacher in every single one of her classes went around the table, with Ostyn there in the room, each saying what they didn't like about her behavior and how she was disruptive. It was horrifying. Looking back, we didn't send positive messages to her. Just the you're bad, bad, bad in every single class.
Soon after that, I got a phone call from her school. Unfortunately, someone in her group of friends got ahold of their parent's cold medicine, as well as some prescription drugs.
As a result she got the zero tolerance policy. She was suspended for four days, she was not allowed to keep advil or tylenol on her anymore, so if she had a headache or cramps, she had to call me and I had to call the office. By her freshman year, there was already this stigma on her.
In her freshman year, she ditched class for the first time and realized that she didn't die from doing that. So then it happened all the time.
By sophomore year, we got her into [Douglas County School District alternative high school] D.C. Oakes. Amazing. It was amazing. The teachers are great, the kids were awesome and she was getting her work done. By junior year, she started dating a boy that had gone back to school there, he was 20 trying to finish up his last semester. He was selling heroin and I didn't know it. She dated him and then moved in with him. He's currently doing time, so I think he's on the path to getting better.
With the experience you and Ostyn had when she was in middle school, with the ‘you’re bad’ message being repeated to her over and over, how do you wish things would have been handled differently?
It's hard, teachers can't focus solely on the kids that are misbehaving or the kids that aren't interjecting their opinions or participating in class. But if they noticed that, I wish they would have found opportunities for encouragement and give her occasional pats on the back, try to go about it the other way and reinforce positive behavior, instead of just punishing her and labeling her as a bad kid. I think that approach was actually worse and it made her act worse than if she had some encouraging, like ‘I'm proud that you're showing up today.’
Some people reading this may think, and I’m sure you’ve heard this yourself, that ‘oh, that’s just bad parenting. These problems don’t exist here or in my world.’ What do you want these people to know?
This does exist everywhere, and it starts out as kids just being kids, which everyone is going to say. There is drinking at parties and there's going to be introduction to drugs at some point. It doesn't mean that you didn't teach your child not to do that. It doesn't mean that you didn't go to church, or that they didn't play sports, they didn't get told I love you, or get read stories at bedtime. It doesn't mean anything. It's something that happens and you can't control it. So while all these kids dabble in the same stuff, they're going to be fine, they'll go to college, they'll have their families, these ones who did the same exact thing are not going to end up like that. So it really has nothing to do with your family dynamic. Obviously if you are a parent that’s also doing those things and it's on the coffee table, your kids are more inclined to be introduced. But for the most part, that's not the situation.
You mentioned that last week, Ostyn’s mugshot was circulating social media, which resulted in people— strangers— bullying her and making derogatory comments. What was that like for you?
I actually had people messaging me privately saying they are going through something similar with their child. One of them was 15 and she was struggling, and I offered her a support group resource, and she was so grateful. There were others in my neighborhood who told me they are experiencing this in their families. The fact they sent this to me privately, which was very sweet, but it tells me they weren't willing to put it on an open forum. I feel like it’s almost at the surface though, I think we're getting closer to people coming out and being okay with telling these stories because it is everywhere.
Do you think more people talking openly about this kind of thing is what’s needed to help address the problem of teen substance abuse and addiction?
It’s a disservice when people hide it. I think communication is the best thing. But also, read between the lines when kids talk to you. Make it okay for kids to tell you what’s going on. But at the same time you really have to listen to what they are saying and kind of fill in the blanks.
Prevention is key. I’d like to see schools, parents and the community just bombard our kids with messaging, not just in health class, but really bombard them with powerful and consistent messages, starting at a much younger age than parents may be comfortable with or used to. I would say middle school is quite reasonable. It should be okay that we teach these things at that age because these kids are going to be exposed to it at some point. These conversations should be more out in the open, in their face, everywhere.
WANT TO HELP OR SEEKING RESOURCES?
Visit the Douglas County Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition Website for resources and tips on having conversations with your children about substance abuse and prevention.
Visit DCSD’s Prevention and School Culture website to learn about DCSD prevention programs and find school and community resources.
Drug & alchohol counseling services: 303-691-0225.
Contact your school’s counselor, psychologist or principal to learn what kind of prevention programs exist in your child’s school.