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.
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.
The author (right) with Justine on Graduation Day.
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 alonggreat. 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.
One night while we were walking home after partying, Justine passed out mid-stride. She landed on her face and somersaulted into an upright position. She then stood up and began running down the sidewalk. Just as she reached the corner, she tripped and fell into the street.
It was one of the several times in my friendship with her that I thought I was going to see my friend die.
By the end of that year, I was exhausted by our friendship. We both went home for the summer and the next year, I left school to study abroad for a year.
The year I was gone I barely spoke to Justine. I tried calling her a few times, but every time I did, I caught her when she was either high or drunk and incapable of having a coherent conversation.
While I was abroad, I thought about how if something were to happen to her, I wouldn’t be able to return to the states for a funeral. I wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.
But one month before I got back from living abroad, Justine called to tell me she had stopped drinking and was in therapy. I was so relieved I started to cry.
When she returned to school after summer break, she had just gotten her Narcotics Anonymous key chain for being “clean and serene” for 90 days. The first time I saw Justine after she got sober, she was wearing clean clothes, her hair was washed, and she was wearing makeup.
At first, Justine was determined to stay clean. However, she was surrounded by her old life and old friends, and it began to chip away at her enthusiasm for being sober.
It was difficult enough for her to return to a college lifestyle, minus the drugs and alcohol, but it was even more difficult for her to realize that many of the friends she remembered having at school were not her friends after all. There were people she used to get drunk and high with.
In the beginning, I was naively positive about her staying clean.
She had told me she realized every time she drank and used drugs that she had been on the verge of overdosing. I understood that to mean she knew if she were to continue using, she would die. However there’s a difference between knowing something and accepting it. And for Justine, getting clean the first time was only the first step in recovery.
Within two weeks of being back at school, Justine’s vocabulary about drugs and alcohol changed. Every time she talked about alcohol and drugs, there was a longing in her voice, as though she were talking about an ex-boyfriend from a dysfunctional relationship. Losing alcohol and drugs was like losing the love of her life, and she felt lonely and empty without it.
On one of the darker days of her recovery, she admitted to shooting up in her bedroom the previous year. She had wanted to hide her heroin use from her roommates. It made me sick to listen to her talk about it. I wanted to cry and scream and even hit her, but I didn’t.
She began to obsess over the idea of relapse. She was constantly weighing the pros and cons of going back to using, and the temptation of it took over her life. It was all she could talk about.
As her motivation for staying clean began to deteriorate, so did my desire to stay friends. For the first time in our friendship, I was forced to be completely honest with her. I told her if she relapsed, I didn’t want anything to do with her.
A week later, Justine sent me a text message saying she had drunk nearly an entire bottle of Listerine.
Hysterical, I called Poison Control. Staff there told me I had to take her to the hospital emergency room because Listerine contains chemicals that can be toxic and she could die. If she refused, they told me to call 911.
Ten minutes later, when I showed up at her apartment and told her that she didn’t have a choice but to come with me, her friends told me I was overreacting.
One of them suggested we “compromise” by having Justine drink some water instead.
With her other friends justifying her decision, Justine refused to come. Twenty minutes later, she still hadn’t agreed and I was on the verge of tears. I told her if she didn’t get in the car in three minutes, I was calling 911.
In order to avoid a further scene, she agreed.
Once she was admitted to the ER, I started crying and couldn’t stop. For as long as I had known Justine, she had pushed her limits, and finally, I thought she’d gone too far.
Her two roommates showed up at the ER as well, so we sat for three long, uncomfortable hours in the waiting room.
When the doctors finally let us see her, she was sitting in the hospital bed, hooked to IVs and in a hospital gown. I wanted to get angry with her but she looked so pathetic it was hard to be mad. Justine, on the other hand, was irate. She was pissed at everyone, including the doctors, for overreacting to the whole incident.
Even two hours after Justine drank the Listerine, the ER nurse measured her blood alcohol content at .42 percent. The nurse was amazed when Justine said she didn’t even feel drunk.
When I told the nurse what Poison Control had told me about calling 911 if Justine hadn’t agreed to come to the ER, the nurse responded: “Well it’s good you didn’t call 911. That could’ve been bad for something like this.”
What she meant by “bad,” was “overly dramatic.” She, like Justine and her friends, thought I had overreacted. I felt humiliated.
Justine repeated how embarrassing the whole situation was, but it seemed she was more concerned about everyone’s reaction than her own behavior.
The situation was so awkward, we started to laugh. We joked that she would never have to brush her teeth again and would have eternal fresh breath. Her roommate joked that Justine had to buy her a new bottle of Listerine. We joked because no one knew what else say to her.
A sober facade
Because Justine didn’t believe getting drunk off Listerine warranted an “official” relapse, we all continued to pretend she was clean. She began drinking cough syrup by the bottle and made weak attempts to hide it by putting the empty bottles underneath the sink in the bathroom.
By leaving the bottles in such a bad hiding spot, it seemed she wanted someone to say something about it. Her roommates didn’t know what to do, so they told me, giving me the responsibility of confrontation. At that point I was too exhausted to try to hold her accountable for her actions.
Instead we all continued to pretend that she was clean. We celebrated her six-month anniversary of “sobriety” in November, 2010, with a surprise dinner for her. I knew she wasn’t clean but I pretended to believe in the façade she had created because I figured cough syrup was better than the alternative.
As time went on, Justine became more and more depressed, and she blamed it on her sobriety. Her attitude and demeanor became toxic to be around. She couldn’t go out to the bars with her friends, so she sat on the couch in her pajamas and watched TV.
The friendship that had been built on laughter and constant joking didn’t exist anymore. Instead our friendship was based on guilt. I felt guilty for being the reason she was clean, and she felt guilty for not wanting to be clean. She stayed clean in order to maintain our friendship, something she reminded me about over and over. In the end, we both knew I wanted her to be sober more than she wanted it. I felt like her unhappiness was my fault.
Her other friends didn’t understand why she couldn’t just drink a few beers, and then stop. Most of them couldn’t imagine how she had once needed alcohol like they needed coffee in the morning.
The college environment continued to chip away at her sobriety until one day in December, when she told me she was going to “try drinking a beer.”
When I saw her at the bar that night, gripping her refilled glass of beer, I was so angry I had to leave because I thought I was going to punch her.
The next time I saw her high after that relapse, she was wearing a bathrobe and looked like she hadn’t showered in days. Her eyes had the familiar glassed-over look, and there were dark circles underneath them. The old greasy-hair-and-sweatpants-Justine was back.
She repeated that relapse was a necessary part of the recovery process, therefore it was okay if she relapsed for just a little while, or until she graduated at the end of that year. Justine tried to promise me she wouldn’t do any drugs at all, including pot, and that she would only drink sometimes, like when it was socially acceptable, like at a party.
In college, it’s easy to find “socially acceptable” excuses to drink. Especially when you are 21.
Even though I knew she was incapable of keeping those promises, it still hurt me when she broke them.
And it was that conversation that forced me to follow through with what originally had been my empty threat of not being friends if she relapsed. While in the beginning I had used that promise as a scare tactic, her self-destructive behavior was draining me.
I had stopped sleeping and begun working out all the time in order to relieve my stress. I was angry at her for giving up. I was angry at her for taking the easy way out. I was angry because I thought she was going to hurt herself. But most of all, I was angry because alcohol and drugs were more important to her than our friendship.
I began avoiding places where I might run into Justine, or her other friends. I asked my friends and family to not talk to me about her. I even deleted her from my Facebook friends and removed her number from my phone.
Some people told me I was doing the right thing with my “tough love” attitude, while others told me I was being a drama queen. But knowing she was drinking and not doing anything to stop it turned out to be as emotionally difficult as it had been to try to help her.
I wanted to hate her, but I couldn’t.
There were instances when she would show up at the same place I was and I would leave. Even seeing her in those short interlude or hearing about her was enough to upset me for hours afterward. Even though I avoided her, she was always at the back of my mind.
After 56 days, she sent me a text message saying she was going on 24 hours clean. Again.
I wanted to tell her that it was too late, that I would forever be mad at her, not for her addictions, but for the crazy and irrational person she turned into when she used drugs. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew that her knowing she had my support was more important than the pain and anger I felt toward her.
A few days later, we got coffee and talked.
Before we met, I was nervous. I was torn between my resentment toward her and my loyalty to our friendship.
For most of the conversation we couldn’t make eye contact. As we talked, I began to tear the sleeve of my coffee cup into pieces. By the end of the 45- minute conversation, it was in shreds.
She told me the one thing she realized during her relapse was that if she continued drinking the way she had been, she would not survive until the end of the semester. Since arriving back at school, she had kept a written account of the amount of alcohol she drank. In the five weeks she had been back, she had consumed 504 standard drinks; an average of 14 a day. Her functionality as an alcoholic had been shattered. She could no longer hold onto the illusion that she was “okay” because she could no longer maintain good grades. Alcohol and drugs were finally taking a toll on her physically, academically and mentally.
Even though I was angry, I wanted to be compassionate toward her illness because I realized the enormous amount of strength it took for her to decide to be clean again.
Justine began the long road to recovery again. Her sobriety didn’t instantly fix our friendship because this time I was hesitant to get involved in her life again. It wasn’t that I believed she would relapse again, but more that I didn’t want to care if she did.
“There is no neutral”
Months after Justine’s return to sobriety, I was still angry at her for her past behavior. I understood relapse was a necessary part of her recovery, but it didn’t undo the pain I had felt. Like every relationship, whether it involves drugs or not, forgiveness takes time.
Since graduating and returning to San Diego, Justine has worked harder than ever to continue to stay clean. For her entire life, she had surrounded herself with people who reinforced her drinking and drug habits, which at a certain point had included me. Now, she surrounds herself with people who fully support and understand her sober lifestyle.
Before, her whole life had been about getting high and drunk, while now her life is about staying clean. Her time and energy now goes toward destroying her old life and creating a new one that reinforces her sobriety and makes it so that if she were to relapse, she would lose everything.
“You can’t help being an addict,” she told me recently. “But you can help what you do about it.”
Five days a week, Justine goes to meetings and works on her recovery steps daily.
“If every single day I’m not working on my recovery I am going backwards,” she said. “There is no neutral.”
Little by little, my anger and animosity toward her has been replaced with an enormous amount of respect.
When I met Justine at that frat party years ago, I would have never guessed that her then-new tattoo would come to encompass and define our friendship as well as her recovery: strength, loyalty and compassion.
This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between InvestigateWest and public broadcast station KCTS 9. If you want to support our work, please consider becoming a member for just $5 a month.