Young people are increasingly at risk from recreational drugs and alcohol.
Josh Levine was not a drug addict, an alcoholic or a habitual drug user. He grew up in West Bloomfield, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel, competed in varsity athletics at West Bloomfield High School and graduated from the University of Michigan. At 22, he was living in Chicago, moving into his first apartment and beginning to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher.
His promising young life ended last July, when Josh collapsed on a sidewalk near his apartment after an evening with his friends, which included drinking alcohol and snorting Adderall, a stimulant medication frequently prescribed for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). He was taken to a local hospital, where he died the next day.
For his mother, Julie Harris Buckner, Josh’s death was an unforgettable nightmare. After receiving a frantic call from Josh’s older brother, Andrew, she and her husband, Dave, drove 300 miles to Chicago from their home in Cincinnati. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Josh was unconscious.
Tubes were attached to him. He looked vacant,” Buckner said. “I took one look at his eyes, and I knew he was brain dead.”
Josh never regained consciousness and died the following day. Buckner was horrified to learn the details leading up to his death: After being found on the sidewalk by passersby, who called an ambulance, he was admitted to the hospital as a “John Doe.” His wallet had been stolen and his cell phone was missing. The next day, when Andrew realized his brother had not come home the night before, he began an anxious search that ended at Josh’s bedside. He identified his brother to the hospital personnel and called their mother.
“On July 19, my life was fine; on July 20, it was starting to splinter; and on July 21, it was torn apart,” said Buckner, who had lived in West Bloomfield before moving to Cincinnati. “This was a kid that was so loved, who touched more lives than anyone can possibly imagine.”
Adderall, sometimes referred to as the “study drug,” is being used with alarming frequency by teens and young adults to counter the effects of alcohol and minimize the symptoms of being drunk.
When the drug is taken by those who do not have ADHD, even without the addition of alcohol, the results can be dangerous. Because Adderall is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, taking them together poses serious perils that include risky behavior, alcohol poisoning and other life-threatening symptoms, such as increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure, and other serious cardiac problems.
Buckner was shocked to learn from her son Andrew that snorting Adderall while drinking was commonplace among young adults.
“I had no idea; it knocked me for a major loop,” she said. “The kids know, but the adults are clueless. Because some of the kids take [Adderall] for ADHD, they’re not afraid of it.”
Dr. Michael Feld, a doctor in the emergency department of Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield, said he commonly sees patients who are having serious reactions from illegal drugs, often in conjunction with alcohol.
“I’ve seen all sorts of combinations,” Feld said. “People are coming into the ER who don’t understand the ramifications.”
For Susan (not her real name), addiction and, ultimately, recovery was a family affair. Susan recently celebrated 23 years in recovery from alcoholism, which ran in her Irish-Catholic family. Her former husband, Steven (not his real name), who grew up in what she describes as “a typical nice Jewish family,” is in recovery from addiction to alcohol and various narcotic drugs.
Their three sons, now in their mid- to late- 20s, all have struggled with drug and/or alcohol abuse beginning in their pre-teen years.
“When they were 11 and 12, I found a can of lilac-scented spray in their rooms,” Susan said. “They smoked pot in middle school, drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes at bar and bat mitzvahs.”
Eventually the boys began abusing oxycodone, a potent and highly addictive prescription pain killer. When they moved in with their father after Susan and Steven divorced, their drug use escalated.
“There was less supervision and accountability,” Susan said. “Their grades went down; it was heartbreaking and devastating to watch.”
What followed was a long and rocky journey that included stints in various rehabilitation centers, several outpatient programs, 12 Step meetings and an ample dose of tough love, which Susan found difficult but necessary. Finally the healing process began.
Today, her oldest son is completing his fourth year of dental school, and the two younger boys are receiving Methadone through supervised medical programs.
“It was the only viable option,” said Susan, who initially had reservations about the use of maintenance drugs such as Methadone. “I had to get over my fears and prejudice about Methadone because it saved their lives.”
Since Steven began his own recovery program, his relationship with his sons has improved dramatically.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Susan, who spreads her message of hope and recovery to those still struggling by giving talks at local 12 Step meetings. “Addiction is a family disease, but together we can change it into a family recovery.”
Heroin: Startling Statistics
The use of heroin, especially among teens and young adults, has risen alarmingly over the past several years. The number of people who received medical treatment for heroin abuse or dependence doubled from 214,000 in 2002 to 467,000 in 2012, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The age for drinking and drugging is dropping,” said Rabbi Yarden Blumstein of Friendship House in West Bloomfield, a program of Friendship Circle of Michigan that provides support for Jewish individuals and families struggling with drug and alcohol abuse and other life crises. “A lot of high school freshman are doing what used to be done by seniors.”
The same NIH report showed the number of admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities for heroin was higher than the admissions for all other drugs combined. It was also noted that the actual number of heroin abusers may be even higher than indicated because many of the new users are young suburbanites covered by private health insurance and, therefore, not included in the study.
Increased use of this dangerous drug means a corresponding rise in the number of overdoses, many of which are fatal. According to Feld, the majority of overdoses are accidental, and many of them occur when someone relapses after not having used for several months.
“The drug is stronger than they thought, especially after a period of abstinence,” he said.
What once was considered an “inner-city” problem is now prevalent in upscale Oakland County suburbs. West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton cited 11 reported incidents involving heroin that occurred between April and October of 2014; four of which resulted in death.
Other suburbs in Michigan and across the country report similar information.
There also has been a rise in prescription drug abuse, especially opiate-based painkillers such as oxycodone, which can serve as a “gateway” to heroin.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the high level of heroin use and trafficking is caused, in part, by users substituting heroin for prescription opioids such as oxycodone. Heroin is more readily available and less costly than many prescription drugs.
Those who become addicted to prescription pain pills often move to heroin when they can no longer get legal prescriptions for the pills, and the pills available through illegal channels become too expensive. While one tablet of oxycodone can sell for as much as $80 on the street, a dose of heroin can be obtained for about $10.
According to Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County, heroin has not only become more affordable, it has become more potent, which is another reason for the increases in drug-related deaths and other medical crises.
“Every shift I work, there’s someone in the ER with some kind of addiction issue,” Feld said.
Buckner is determined to increase awareness about the dangers of binge drinking, including combining prescription drugs such as Adderall with alcohol. She has done some television and radio reports and is finalizing plans for a foundation in Josh’s memory to help prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedy.
“I can’t let his death be in vain,” she said. “I need to have his legacy be one that tries to do something positive with an awful situation.”
Buckner recently had a “productive pow-wow” with several administrators at the University of Michigan, including the dean of students, the head of Greek life (fraternities and sororities), professors and health educators. The group will continue to develop strategies for combatting the risks of binge drinking and illegal drug use on campus.
“I want the students to be part of it,” said Buckner, “to finally say ‘enough is enough.’ It’s not about abstinence; it’s about responsibility and making better choices.”
Buckner has also been in touch with U-M Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames, who is committed to support Buckner’s efforts to generate positive messaging about responsible alcohol use throughout the campus. Shames and her staff were also involved in reaching out to Josh’s former classmates to help them handle the emotions brought on by his sudden and tragic death.
“Our conversations allowed students to share their memories and their love for Josh, and begin to talk about coping with his absence in their lives,” said Shames, adding that Hillel provides programming and pastoral support for alcohol-abuse and other health-related issues.
Professionals agree that honest communication and parental involvement when kids are younger can go a long way toward preventing drug abuse when they become teenagers and young adults.
“Addiction is a family disease, and it’s progressive,” said Lisa Kaplan, education program director for Maplegrove Center (an addiction treatment facility affiliated with Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital). “Early intervention is the key. Young people need to know they will never become addicted if they don’t start using.”
West Bloomfield psychotherapist Talia Ziv agrees that parents need to communicate with their children clearly about their values and beliefs regarding drugs and alcohol and to model the behavior they expect.
“Parents give double messages about pot,” she said. “It becomes like a norm, and the kids grow up thinking it’s a norm. Modeling and talking and enhancing family relationships could be an antidote.”
A 2013 survey conducted by Oakland County showed that 40 percent of teens who illegally used prescription drugs obtained them from a friend, and that those who said their friends abused prescription medications were 22 times more likely to say they had also misused them. Ziv believes it is important to teach children how to handle stress and anxiety in ways that do not involve reaching for a pill or a drink.
“Heroin addiction is growing because prescription drug use is growing,” she said. “People don’t know how to manage their difficulties — they go for the quick fix. Instead of dealing with what’s going on, take a pill.”
One way to prevent teens from “borrowing” medication that does not belong to them is by keeping prescription drugs in a secure place and turning in unused pills to Operation Medicine Cabinet, a program sponsored by Oakland County.
Professionals also agree that teens or young adults should not be afraid to ask for help when someone they know is at risk. Many drug-related tragedies occur because teens fear they will be penalized by calling for help when a friend has overdosed on drugs or alcohol.
“If a teen calls the police for a friend, the caller won’t get in trouble,” Patton said. “We’re trying to save people’s lives.”
Ziv believes more education and parental supervision is critical to prevent teens and young adults from developing dangerous habits.
“Kids are not stupid, but they act stupid,” she said. “Their brains are not completely developed until age 25 or 26. The younger they start using, the stronger the likelihood they will develop addictions in adulthood. Parents need to think about what their values are and how to enhance those.”
Ziv urges parents to exercise their authority, to insist on knowing where their teens are going and whom they will be with, and to make sure they are not attending unsupervised parties and sleepovers.
“Children don’t know what’s good for them,” she said. “They are more susceptible; their defenses are down when they are intoxicated. They learn about the high from other kids, and they want the same thing.”
At Josh’s funeral service, his brother delivered a eulogy that ended with an appeal to the “20-somethings” in the room.
“This was an accident, but if it can happen to him, it can happen to any of us,” Andrew said. “I want you to think about the hurt in your heart; the hole that you feel right now … Use the pain that you feel today and let it motivate your decisions going forward. Don’t do to your family what Josh inadvertently did to all of us here today.”
Julie Buckner will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, at West Bloomfield High School. The event is open to the public and sponsored by the Greater West Bloomfield Community Coalition. She also is starting the Josh E. Levine Foundation to focus more awareness about the dangers of stimulants with alcohol and to curb binge drinking. For more information, contact Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer
Resources For Help
Friendship House (a program of Friendship Circle of Michigan)
6894 W. Maple Road
West Bloomfield, MI 48322
Rabbi Yarden Blumstein
Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities (a group of local coalitions that provide education, information and resources for the prevention of substance abuse)
Campus Hillel organizations provide resources and referrals for drug and alcohol-related issues:
University of Michigan Hillel
Michigan State University Hillel
Visit www.hillel.org for a complete list of campus Hillel locations
Operation Medicine Cabinet (“no questions asked” disposal of unused prescription drugs at multiple locations)
Oakland County Sheriff’s Office
24-hour crisis hotline: (800) 231-1127