I'm going to a wake today.
As you get older, it happens more.
Death is a part of life. It's just not supposed to come when someone's 21.
A bright, personable young man and talented athlete in his days at Portage High School made some poor choices recently, straying down a dark, dangerous road. Tragically, by the time he seemingly saw the light and sought his way back, it was too late.
It can happen to anyone, said David Johnson, an addictions and mental health therapist with Porter Starke Services in Portage. Rich, poor, stable home, broken home, city, suburbs, good person, bad person. The demon plays no favorites.
Temptation comes in a multitude of forms, drugs, alcohol and gambling most prominent among them. The evil index finger lures us all. None of us are free of bad choices. Ultimately, we either learn from our mistakes or pay for them, the consequences potentially extreme in the loss of a job, money, family, friends or even your life.
"Everybody's escaping from something," Johnson said. "Everyone's escaping in different ways."
Most of us are able to 'get away,' then come back. But there are those who get caught up in the high and become consumed by the rush. For every peak, there is a deep valley.
"A lot of us don't understand why we do something until we're educated about it," Johnson said. "You try something, your body is predisposed to liking it. It identifies it as good. It's fun, exciting, addicting."
What happens next? It doesn't have to end badly. When a person doesn't recognize the problem or is in denial, it's up to family and friends to intervene, even at the risk of confrontation and separation. Look for signals — isolation, withdrawal, mood swings, a different social circle, lying, loss of focus, lethargy. If a need for outside help is identified, there are folks like Johnson who can provide professional assistance, and it's OK to seek them out.
"Some people consider therapy taboo," Johnson said. "They want to keep (the problem) in house and then they suffer alone. We're trying to get the word out that we're not a prison. We're here and we can help."
From a proactive perspective, what can be done to keep it from reaching that point? Schools need to provide education that goes beyond the 'Just Say No' campaign and strictly enforce the rules. Random drug testing for athletes should be implemented. If you're clean, it's no big deal. If you're not, it might be the first step to a recovery.
Risk taking among teens and young adults often stems from a sense of invincibility that comes with youth. They don't think anything bad is going to happen to them. It's easier to take the beer or joint than to risk exclusion. It might not to lead anything else. Then again …
"You have to think the process through, make a decision that's best for you," Johnson said. "How is this going to affect my life? Are you going to be a leader or a follower? What you want out of life is what's important, not following a peer's suggestion."
For those who have already suffered personal loss, the best way to honor their loved one is to try to make a difference going forward. Johnson's best friend, a former drug user, now runs Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. On a simpler level, just open your eyes, ears and arms to someone in need. Be a positive voice. Drug use continues to rise. We might not be able to stop it, but if we can each help one person from becoming a statistic, it's a start.
Sometimes it's too late, but it doesn't always have to be.
Rest in peace, friend. I'll always remember the good times.