Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Today was another day to give back. Another day to help kids so they don’t travel down the same path as I did. I was speaking at the Teen Drug Summit in St. Charles, Missouri. There was an auditorium full of junior-high-age kids. I’d never spoken to an audience of that size before. Afterward, I thought of a million more things I should’ve said. Even though I’ve given hundreds of talks, I still get nervous every time.
A dozen or so kids came up afterward and shook my hand, saying my talk affected them, made them think about the choices they’ve made. Last week, I spoke at a private school in St. Louis and received a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. I had to work to hold back tears.
I became addicted to the thrill of getting the drug as much as the drug itself.
Once I tried marijuana, I couldn’t put it down. It became an obsession. After that, it was heroin. I tried it once, told myself I could do it again and then it was all downhill. I became addicted to the thrill of getting the drug as much as the drug itself. The thought of gathering money and driving downtown, meeting my dealer. The feel of a needle piercing my arm. Lying, stealing, manipulating — it all became an addiction.
I’ve been clean for more than eight and a half years. It’s a place I never imagined I’d get to.
When I moved back to my hometown, St. Louis, in 2012, I published my memoir, Suburban Junky. Even though I’d written a book, I hadn’t shared my personal experience in public. But then one of my high school teachers and a counselor I knew at a treatment center both read my book and reached out. They asked me to come speak to their students and clients. Before I could say no, my wife scheduled it. I was beyond nervous, but I got through it. I received unbelievable feedback. Suddenly, I was getting asked to speak all over — and I was looking forward to it each time.
Many of the kids in the audience are already struggling. I try to remember the days when I was a kid and my school would bring in speakers. I always told myself that I was never that bad off; that I had my habit in check; that I was only smoking pot. I don’t know what anyone could’ve said to me back then to get through to me. It’s so important to reach kids before they make the decision to use.
Getting up onstage and telling kids my story in hopes that they never make the decisions I made is overwhelming. I want them to walk away with the knowledge and understanding that drugs will ruin their lives, that nobody is untouchable.
Sobriety isn’t perfection. It took me a long time to shake the bad habits I’d developed as an addict. The bad stuff doesn’t just go away when you decide to start living right. Still, I wouldn’t trade my life now for anything in the world. I would honestly rather die than go back to living the way I was living.
My presentation differs every time. I never want it to sound rehearsed or mechanical. If I ever get to the point where I’m saying the same thing over and over and it’s completely devoid of emotion, I’ll hang it up as a speaker.