When Fall River native Chris Herren was a high school student, he attended presentations aimed at curbing substance abuse by teens.
At the time, Herren was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. But the fact that nearly everyone he knew was doing it, coupled with his status as a heavily-recruited basketball player heading for college on an athletic scholarship, influenced his assessment of those talks.
Speaking to a crowd of about 1,000 students, parents and teachers assembled at ABRHS last Wednesday night, Herren described his then-reaction.
“That story doesn’t pertain to me,” he said.
Within three weeks of Herren’s arrival on the Boston College campus as a freshman, his coach was contacted by Sports Illustrated and told that the star recruit was being considered for the publication’s cover.
Soon after, Herren was told that all college athletes were required to report to a substance abuse prevention seminar. A recovering addict shared his experiences with the team.
“I remember having the nerve to judge his story, the nerve not to listen,” Herren said.
That evening, when he returned to his dorm room, Herren’s roommate and a female student offered him cocaine. He initially refused, but when the girl chided him, he relented and spent the night partying.
“I promised myself that it’d be only one time,” Herren said.
The next day, Herren was subject to a surprise drug test, the first of many he would fail. He was eventually expelled from BC and sent home.
Although Herren later played basketball at Fresno State College and was drafted by the Boston Celtics, he never stopped abusing drugs. Cocaine, OxyContin and heroin all had their holds on him during his 14-year addiction.
Regarding his professional basketball career, Herren said, “I was walking into training camp a full-blown junkie. That’s how sick the monster is.”
Herren shared harrowing stories of living on the streets, brushes with the law, suicide attempts and overdoses.
At one point, he nearly died after crashing his car into a tree while under the influence of heroin.
Despite his addiction, Herren married his high school sweetheart and became a father.
At the time his wife went into labor with their third child, Herren was undergoing inpatient treatment. Recalling that he had not been sober for the births of his two older children, Herren ignored medical advice and went to the hospital to witness his son’s birth. Within 12 hours, he took off in search of a fix, leaving his family heartbroken.
Herren later found himself seated across from a substance abuse clinician who offered some unorthodox advice. The couselor told Herren that he should fake his death to spare his family any more pain, saying that was the best thing for his kids.
Instead, Herren finally embraced treatment.
That was over four years ago. Herren’s sobriety date: Aug. 1, 2008.
Herren never set out to speak publicly about his battle with addiction.
A year sober, he was asked to present at a Massachusetts high school. After telling his story, Herren was contacted by a student who had been compulsively cutting herself in response to bullying. His talk had given her the courage to stop cutting and stand up to the classmates who were abusing her.
“That little girl’s email meant more to me than any contract I ever signed,” said Herren, adding that he hears from her every 30 days and knows she’s still OK.
Herren said the goal of each subsequent talk became simple: “Let me make a difference in one kid’s life.”
“I don’t enjoy this,” Herren told the teens who were present. “I do it because I want you to hear it.”
Herren expressed frustration that the “sober kids” are often ridiculed by their classmates.
“Peer pressure should be the exact opposite,” he said.
Questions from the audience elicited advice from Herren, who told parents to drug test their kids if there is a question about substance use, students to “alert someone immediately” if a friend is in any kind of danger and everyone to be aware that marijuana is often laced with other drugs.
He told the audience that everyone needs to be comfortable being themselves, not the people they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“I wish I liked myself enough,” Herren said of his time in high school.
Herren dismissed the notion that alcohol and marijuana are not gateway drugs.
“Where do you think every addict begins?” he asked. “With a backpack, going to school, thinking, ‘That will never be me.’”
Reaction to the talk was extremely positive. Parent Steve McMahon called the event “necessary” and said, “I thought it was very powerful.”
Genevieve Hammond, ABRHS english and senior seminar teacher who postponed her birthday celebration to attend, called Herren “compelling” and said that she felt he had the ability to reach students who may be wrestling with substance abuse.
“That’s a rare individual who can do that,” Hammond said.
Luke Rogers, an RJ Grey eighth-grader who attended with several friends, said, “Knowing what he went through, it really makes an impression. It’s everywhere I go. I don’t want to end up on the streets shooting up.”
Principal Alixe Callen said that inviting Herren to speak was the result of “a community-wide partnership and something we’ll be continuing beyond this evening.”
Callen said that holding the event in the evening “was purposeful. I’m delighted to see that it worked.”
Acton Boxborough United Way Executive Director Rachel Sagan said that her organization is committed to funding programming that benefits local youth.