Ernesto is 17. A few months ago he participated in a recovery support group at the Juvenile Justice Center.
Actually, I should call it a recovery “encouragement” group.
Most of the youths realize that their drug use is destroying their relationships, their grades, and their self-respect, but they’re not quite ready to call it quits.
A familiar line, “I’m committed, not addicted,” is often accompanied by a sideways grin.
Fifteen minutes before group ended, Ernesto started talking about how his drug use had all but destroyed his life.
Marijuana was his first drug at age 12. Within a few years he was using cocaine, and a few years later, meth.
He didn’t think he’d get hooked.
“I thought I could control it,” he said. “I never thought it would control me.”
Hands clasped, leaning forward in his chair, Ernesto spoke about his fears of using when he got out of “Juvie.”
He talked rapidly, barely pausing for a breath.
It was as if his words were tripping over themselves, as if a stone had been kicked at the top of a steep hill and tumbled over and over itself, gaining speed on its way down.
I asked if I could write down what he said, and he pointed at my pen and said, “Write. Write it all down. Put it in your newspaper column.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Lots of people will read it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said.
“Do you want me to change your name?” I asked.
He laughed. “Change my name? Why would you do that?”
I asked Ernesto why he wanted people to read his story.
“People need to hear these stories so they can know what it’s like to try to quit drugs,” he said. “And to know that people like me are not bad through and through.”
I started writing but he was talking so fast I had to ask him to repeat himself several times. He’d slow down and then speed right back up again. He was on a roll.
“I’m tired of coming in here and disappointing everybody around me.
“I want to be a successful person in life.
“I want to be happy.
“I want to have a family.
“I know right from wrong.
“I truly want to quit. But it’s a never-ending story.
“I started using marijuana to be cool. Cocaine seemed cool, too. But meth ...”
He hesitated for a moment, eyes on the floor. “I don’t like thinking about going back to that dark cold world where everyone and everything was against me. I’m safe in here.”
Several kids in the group nodded their heads. They, too, felt safe in Juvie.
I remember the first time, many years ago, when a 14-year-old girl told me that she was scared to leave Juvie. “No one can hurt me in here,” she said.
“When you use meth, all you care about is yourself,” Ernesto was saying. “You lie about everything.”
He looked up at me. I felt as if he were willing me to put myself in his place. To understand. To walk in his shoes.
“One day I overdosed on meth and weed. I had all this pain in my body, my chest felt tight, I was afraid my heart had stopped. My bones were hurting — that’s real scary when your bones hurt.
“I ended up in the emergency room. I thought I was going to die.
“Meth used to take the pain away. I’d take a couple hits and feel smarter, like I could do anything.
“I thought I could handle it. But then — it was handling me. Every day I said I’d quit. But I’d go back to it.
“I feel stupid to relapse. Stupid,” he repeated.
“I never thought about killing myself until this last time.”
Ernesto looked at his hands and took a deep breath. The tumbling stone had found a temporary resting spot. His jaw tightened.
“I know I can quit. I’m tired of it, tired of disappointing my family. For me to screw up like this over and over again — it isn’t fair to them.
“I’m just hoping that when I get out of detention, I won’t be thinking about drugs. I’ll put my mind to something else. If I don’t keep my mind on the drugs, I can quit.
“But meth — it’s here, it’s everywhere. You can’t run from it.
“You can’t run from it,” he repeated softly.
“I have a dream,” he said just before group ended. “My dream is to stay clean.”
Several weeks later Ernesto was back in detention.
“I relapsed,” he told me. “I feel stupid. I need to stop.”
“What happened to your dream?” I asked.
“Your dream to stay clean.”
His smile conveyed all the pain in the world. “I still have that dream,” he said.
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.