Wednesday, April 30, 2008

College Life

Prescription Drugs Aren’t Extra Curricular Activities
By Kat Piracha

Not your typical class requirement, or is it?

It’s your average college campus. A hallway of white walls, bulletin boards with campus activity dates, doors labeled with the names of the residents who reside within on carefully decorated construction paper. Who would suspect that behind these doors a group of co-eds has configured an intricate drug-trading scheme.

The whole dorm doesn’t get involved, but the few students who do get creative. This clique does not smoke crack or snort heroin. That’s too passé. History has taught these students that underground drugs like marijuana and crack are too complicated and dangerous to get. There’s a much simpler way to get high. These drugs have no smell to alert resident advisors, and they are completely inconspicuous. They are prescription drugs, such as Zoloft, Percocet, Adderol, and Demerol, to name a few, and on campuses across America, students are abusing them for recreational use.

In 2007, USA Today found that 51% of college students binge on drugs on an average of once a month. In 2006, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 6%of children ages 12-17 try prescription drugs for the first time every month.

I followed a group of five prescription drug abusers on a college campus to observe their behavior. It all starts with their source. In this case, it was a 22 year-old senior named Erin, the daughter of two doctors, a surgeon and a psychiatrist. Growing up around doctors gives her easy access to prescription medication. Erin is in a lesbian relationship with Anne. (The names of the students in this article have been changed to protect their safety and privacy.)

Anne is a complex character, from an intense home. She has a bad relationship with her parents, and being a lesbian has only complicated it. Anne and Erin are full time students with C averages, no jobs and no internships. They spend a bulk of their time at the dorms, if not with each other, then with the other three people in their clique.

One afternoon in Anne’s room, I saw a loose pile of pills on her shelf next to her Ramen noodles, and Kraft’s Easy Mac. When I asked her about them, she simply replied, “from Erin.” She said she had back pain so Erin asked her father for some prescription painkillers for her girlfriend. Erin’s father, who hadn’t seen Anne in years, gave her a palmful of prescription painkillers.

A "gift" from a friend.

Later in the week, Anne needed money for groceries and to go out for the weekend. She called her friend Matt from the boys floor and offered to sell him most of her prescription painkillers. Matt paid her $15, and split them with two friends in his dorm. Later in the week, Anne gave Erin more money to get by.

I later found out that Erin was ignorant of Anne’s entrepreneurial skills. Very rarely did Anne take the painkillers. She was looking for a drug that could numb her emotional nerves. It was clear that Anne viewed drugs as the sole solution to her problems. She had been seeing the school’s counseling services to help her with the strain between her and her mother. One night she was complaining that her whole year in counseling had been a waste because her counselor hadn’t prescribed her any drugs.

Occasionally, Anne did take the prescription drugs. If she were with Matt and his friends they would all take them together, and sometimes smoke marijuana. The possibility of overdosing didn’t seem to alarm any of these co-eds. Perhaps they were paranoid about overdosing before they would take the pills, but after they took them, they didn’t seem to have any thoughts, on anything. Their ritual often consisted of popping pills, smoking marijuana and showing each other their favorite YouTube videos.

They did straddle the border of overdose and high a few times. It curbed their hunger for prescription drugs, but it didn’t diminish their amusement with drugs. At one point, Anne took nine painkillers before going to a bar with some of the girls on her floor who were oblivious to her habits. Later that night, after one drink, she squatted on the muddy floor of the bar.

While clenching her stomach she began to cry and said she was in too much pain to move. The group of girls seemed befuddled as what to do with her. Erin urged her to walk it off but Anne refused. A few girls insisted she go to hospital, but Anne resisted even more. Finally, she revealed that she was cleared of ovarian cancer a few years ago and lied that her pain was a side effect.

Some time later, I met an alumna of this clique named Ryan, who was a full time student with a full time job in an upscale retail store so he could pay for the housing portion of his tuition. He was so unlike any of the other co-eds in Anne’s clique. After sitting down with Ryan he further explained the dynamic of this group.

Anne and Matt had been friends in high school. They went their separate ways in college where Anne began a relationship with Erin. In Anne’s first semester of college, she was kicked out for drinking so she went home to her local community college and graduated with her an associate degree in psychology and a 3.8 GPA. Erin moved back home with her parents and commuted to school. Anne transferred to her current school near Erin and was reunited with Matt. Since then, the three and a few others, including Ryan, began experimenting with drugs Anne had acquired that her doctors prescribed her for "ovarian cancer." Later, Anne began acquiring prescription drugs from Erin’s dad.

It wasn’t long before all of their grades began to drop. Matt is currently on academic probation. Anne’s GPA has dropped to a low 2.0, and Erin keeps dropping classes that she's likely to fail so she can maintain her GPA. She’s scheduled to graduate three semesters late.

“I had to get out of there,” Ryan said about their situation. “Their lives are all on downward spirals and I knew that if I kept hanging around them I’d be failing out of college too.”

Ryan says he is looking looks optimistically to the future. He recently moved out of the dorms to separate himself from the toxic environment. For Anne, Erin, and Matt, only time will tell what will happen to them.

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