Summer Baker cradles a small photo album in her hands, flipping the plastic pages from one photo to the next.
“This is my niece, again,” Baker says as she pauses at one photo with bright smiling faces. “You know everything that we do, we have to be the same.”
For Baker, 20, these photos show a life full of friends and family, school dances and beach trips. But they are also a reminder of a disease she is battling – addiction.
Baker checked herself into the Foundry Ministries Women’s Recovery Program in Bessemer earlier this year.
At 13 years old, Baker said stress at home and feeling isolated at school left her searching for an escape. She started abusing over-the-counter medication, like cough syrup, and prescription drugs.
For three years, Baker used her lunch money to buy pills at school.
“I would give him my money, and I wouldn’t eat lunch that day. Whether it be Ritalin, Lortab, Adderall, that’s what I would do every single day,” Baker explained.
A photo shows Baker surrounded by friends in school, her eyes drooping with a slight grin on her face, posing with two thumbs up. She points to the picture and says she was high.
“I even remember being in school and I would wake up at my desk and everyone would just be gone,” she said.
Nearly 40 percent of high school seniors consider narcotic drugs fairly easy or very easy to get, according to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
And nearly one in four high school seniors admit to having used drugs within the past year.
“Drugs are in every school,” said Danny Malloy of Addiction Prevention Coalition.
“The idea that drugs are in bad neighborhoods or bad schools or maybe more financially troubled areas, is just a complete fallacy,” Malloy explained.
Malloy is recovering from addiction to heroin and prescription pills. Before he got help at the Foundry Ministries six years ago, Malloy was using, selling, and cycling in and out of jail.
“My message every day to kids in schools is just to talk to them about that choice – we have a new choice every day to make,” he said.
Through the Coalition, Malloy works with 17 schools in the Birmingham area, sharing his story with thousands of students every year.
For most kids who are abusing substances, Malloy says they start with a prescription pill and eventually move on to street drugs.
“The mindset, especially with a teenager, is ‘Well, a doctor prescribed it so it must be safe.’ But what they don’t realize is that with Ritalin or Adderall, it’s pretty much the same chemical make up as crystal meth,” Malloy explained.
“Just like OxyContin or Lortab, an opiate is just about the same as heroin," he added.
And that was Baker’s trajectory, as she moved from prescription medication to heroin.
She dropped out of high school at her junior year and earned a G.E.D. And her addiction grew.
“I started waking up sick and that just took my dependency to a whole another level for me,” she said. “It was something I had to have to survive.”
Heroin was less expensive than prescription pills, so she started shooting up alone.
“Picture me in an apartment, in a bathroom, locked myself in a bathroom, shooting up by myself. Sticking a needle in my arm about 20 times,” she recalled. “It was sad.”
Her days revolved around getting high or trying to get high to avoid getting sick from withdrawal. She says she couldn’t look at herself in the mirror. And that’s when she had enough.
Baker says the Foundry has given her a new lease on life.
“I just wish I could go back and re-do it all, but in the same sense I wouldn’t because it brought me here and gave me a different look on the world," she said.
She hopes to one day share her story with teens, much like Malloy does today.
“We have to take our head out of the sand. Kids are giving medication to each other,” Malloy said. “We’re not dealing with this small little problem, it’s taking over."
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