Editor’s note: Stephanie Schendel, a journalism student at Washington State University, interned at InvestigateWest during the summer of 2011. Here she shares a compelling first-person account of how the prescription drug epidemic affected her own life and that of her roommate, Justine, who agreed to be interviewed for this story. It’s a personal tale, but also one that is playing out on campuses around the state and country as colleges grapple with the ready availability of alcohol and prescription drugs, and the students who get hooked on them.
This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between InvestigateWest, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering the Pacific Northwest, and public broadcast station KCTS 9. An accompanying documentary airs at 9 p.m.Monday (Jan. 30), to be followed by a half-hour in-studio discussion.
When I first met Justine, she was chugging from a bottle of vodka. I was 18 years old and at my first frat party. I barely knew anyone, and the fraternity’s basement smelled like old beer and cheap deodorant. The smell, blaring music, and the amount of people and alcohol overwhelmed me, but not Justine. Outgoing and friendly, Justine seemingly already knew everyone there, even though it was her first week of college.
The first thing Justine told me that night was that she’d already downed 18 beers in order to “medicate” for the tattoo she had gotten earlier that day. I was alarmed and impressed. She showed it to me, the irritated skin still red and puffy. It was three words written in Hungarian. She said they meant “strength, loyalty and compassion.”
She didn’t remember meeting me that night. Or even the second or third night we met, but I remembered her: She was girl who had an insane tolerance for alcohol and could out-drink a fraternity any day of the week.
By then, she was already deep into her addictions. Years later, she told me her substance abuse had started in middle school with pot and alcohol. By the time she was thirteen she was stealing pills from her grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
Pot and alcohol spiraled into Darvon, Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin. Cocaine and heroin came later. By the time she started college, Justine had done it all.
But I didn’t know that then.
I didn’t meet Justine again until our second year of college, when she moved into an apartment down the street from me. She was friends with one of my roommates, and began to spend a lot of time at our house.
Because both of us were loud, outgoing, and sarcastic, we got along great. The main thing we had in common at first was partying, but within a few weeks we also realized we both a bad habit of laughing at inappropriate times and were obsessed with going to the gym.
That semester I went through a lot of personal turmoil. My relationship with my roommates had deteriorated and I went through a rough breakup with my boyfriend. Justine was my support. She listened to my frustrated ranting during our daily walks to the gym.
We became inseparable. But as we became better friends, I began to notice Justine not only drank a lot while partying, she drank a lot the rest of the time as well.
Then again, in college, just about everyone drinks a lot.
And despite drinking or using drugs every day, Justine had a 3.7 GPA. Her academic success while partying daily was a source of pride for her, and furthered her justification for drinking or getting high every day.
The amount of time she spent high or drunk began to make me feel uncomfortable. The main difference between us was that I could stop drinking and be sober and she couldn’t. On Friday nights when I chose to stay home to watch a movie, Justine stayed home with a bottle of wine. Still, she was my best friend.
And no one but me seemed to notice her binges.
"You need to stop"
One evening, Justine came over with a half-full 30-pack of Busch Light and declared she had started drinking it a few hours earlier. It was her goal to finish the entire thing by herself, and within a few hours, she had.
At that point I realized I was watching my friend drink herself to death, and though I wanted to say something to her, I didn’t. The only thing that scared me more than her drinking was confronting her about it. How could I tell someone whom I partied with every weekend that she had a problem and I didn’t?
One night, though, her drinking got so bad that I tried to stop her. She had been drinking all day and was carrying around a half gallon of vodka in her hand. She was drinking straight out of the bottle, chugging without wincing.
When I realized she was intent on finishing it, I tried to take it away from her.
“Justine, you need to stop,” I said. “Now.”
She took another long pull on the bottle. “Give it to me,” I said, pulling it out of her hands. I turned and began to pour the bottle into the kitchen sink.
“No!” She yelped and tried to grab it back. “Stop!”
I held her away from me with one arm and kept pouring.
“Stop!” she screamed, shoving me back away from the sink. I flew into the wall behind me.
I looked at her, shocked at her violent outburst.
“Justine,” I said, slowly. “I’m not giving this back to you. You need to stop drinking.”
She did stop that night, but her drinking began again the next day. I knew she didn’t remember shoving me, so I didn’t tell her.
The binge continued for almost a month, before her gut began to hurt her.
She went to the hospital and the doctor told that her liver was swollen from the alcohol and had already sustained irreversible damage. The doctor also said if she didn’t stop drinking she could die before her 21st birthday.
A toxic friendship
While watching Justine binge drink was difficult enough to witness, watching her violent detox was worse. She shook violently from the withdrawal and her skin turned a light shade of green. She spent that week curled up on my couch, vomiting every 20 minutes. All her other friends just thought she had the stomach flu.
No one else knew that she had to stop drinking or she’d die.
The doctor had given her enough detox and pain medication to last her a week, but the pills were gone in two days. She then began to do whatever other drug could smother the pain the way alcohol had.
It was easy for her to get a prescription for pain pills from doctors by faking pain from old basketball injuries. She took drugs like Vicodin and Percocet when she could get them. When those failed to get her high enough, she moved up to smoking heroin.
I begged her to go see the university counselor. She resisted at first, but finally caved and went once. She never went back. She stopped going out on weekends, and stayed home to get high and watch TV. She lived in the same sweatpants every day, and sometimes went days without showering.
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