Joel first drank alcohol when he was in seventh grade. He liked the feeling it gave him. "It kinda crushed all the fears I had," he says. "I really didn't care what people thought of me." Soon, he also tried marijuana and started smoking every day.
In tenth grade, kids at school offered him prescription painkillers. A painkiller called OxyContin gave Joel the most powerful high of all. "I was invincible," he says. "Nobody could hurt me. I was better than the cops. I was better than my parents."
Within weeks, Joel was snorting OxyContin every day. He told himself he'd quit once he started college. But before he could get around to giving up the drug, Joel was addicted.
His grades slipped. His mood changed. He was irritable and looked worn out. To afford the expensive pills, Joel stole money from his family and sold anything of his own he could for cash.
Joel's parents worried. Could he be using drugs? But there was no hard evidence to back up their suspicion. Joel had always been such a good kid and he was good at hiding his addiction. "You don't want to start a fight or accuse him of things that he really hasn't done," Joel's mother, Susan, says.
Without OxyContin at college, Joel went into withdrawal. "I would just be sitting on my bed with back cramps and leg cramps and cold sweats and nausea and diarrhea," he says.
Joel saved money to buy a few pills. Only drugs would end the pain. But the next day, he went into withdrawal again.
Over the phone, Joel told his parents everything was great. They didn't know until the end of the semester that Joel was flunking out. And they were furious.
Friends who hardly saw Joel anymore called his parents. Joel was on drugs, they said. After at first stubbornly denying his use, Joel agreed to go to detox.
After detox, Joel went to Florida to visit his grandparents. One the plane back, the craving began again. Joel got high on OxyContin as soon as he got home.
Joel continued to get high every day, claiming to be clean. He felt guilty for lying. And his parents suspected he was still in trouble.
"I was starting to feel that this was hopeless," Joel's father, Herb, says, "and that I was going to be the father of a drug addict who would eventually die or have a nonproductive, unhappy life."
A few weeks later, Joel's best friend, Brian, confided in Herb and Susan. "I had to tell him about Joel's drug problem," Brian says, "in order to save his life and also a friendship."
Herb and Susan confronted Joel again. Joel broke down and asked for help.
He went into treatment with the goal of getting well. "I said to myself, I need to get better, and I need to get better for myself," he says. "Not for my parents, not for my friends, but I need to get better because I want to get better."
To do so, Joel joined a 12-step recovery program.
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