Saving the Life of the Party
Once again, a vibrant, popular, accomplished young person, the pride of family and friends who loved her fiercely, is being mourned. One of too many. One is too many. Scott Carbonara, the father of Alana, who died unexpectedly in September 2015, is making his family’s grief public. He pleads with anyone who is splashing about in the tempting and terrifying waters of substance abuse to seek and accept a helping hand out. He calls to family members and professionals to be that rowboat that may yet ferry the drowning person to safety.
In a heart-rending eulogy at her funeral, he shared these words, reminding mourners that Alana was “the life of the party … the most exciting person in the room.”
But “how many of you saw her weeping for how unmanageable her life had become?” he asked. “How many of you knew what she did after the party? She went home alone, terrified and full of shame.”
He pointed to the casket. “Look at my Alana now. That is another face of addiction … the cold, lifeless face where many addicts, like Alana, end up way before their time.”
Scott was willing to offer his raw and real emotions and insights only eight days after his daughter’s death. It is a cautionary tale, wakeup call and rallying cry for solidarity to stand against a seemingly relentless enemy. Remember that everyone is someone’s “life of the party” whose own light need not be extinguished in this way.
Please Share a Bit About Alana. Who Was She as a Person?
Alana was a beautiful girl, inside and out. Even when she was a young child, people would come up to her in stores and ask, “Are you a model? Why not?” More than that, she was brilliant. She had a deep mind, and she was never content with superficial answers to tough questions. She was an athlete, playing a mean soccer defender, a figure skater, and a high school cheerleader. She had an endless heart for anyone or anything in pain. She got mad at me last year for not risking wrecking the car to stop on the road to carry a mouse we saw running on the side of the street. Her favorite job was in a veterinarian’s office where she assisted in surgeries and helping animals get well. She told me three weeks ago that she wanted to study psychology so she could help kids struggling with addiction. She also suffered from anxiety and depression, and she was in treatment for that for many years.
How Did Addiction Change Her?
She reached a crossroad in seventh grade. She begged me to put her in a different school because she was struggling to fit in. When I talked to her several days later, she said, “It’s OK now. I have it figured out.” I believe that what she decided was that she would do whatever it took to fit in and be popular. She continued in sports, but her grades began to drop. I met with countless teachers who told me that Alana wasn’t doing her best, not turning in assignments. We got her tutors, and that helped a bit. But her thinking showed signs that she was not using her head when it came to making sound decisions.
By the time she entered high school, she started abusing her prescription medications. Then she got expelled for purchasing the prescription medication of a fellow student. She went to an alternative school then that housed the roughest-of-the-rough kids. There she became hardened, and she picked up “street smarts” and a love of the drug culture. By the end, she missed important family get-togethers. She isolated herself. The day before she died, she had been robbing cars to sell things at pawnshops to feed the heroin addiction that killed her.
When Was the Onset of the Drug Use?
She started with the drugs that were prescribed to her. Then she tried others, likely telling herself that they were somehow safer than street drugs. She progressed quickly into marijuana, and often she would add alcohol to the mix. She was 14 when she started abusing any medication, drug, or alcohol.
How Did It Progress?
Addicts lie. It’s what they do. Alana started telling stories that were not true. That was not my daughter. My daughter could not look me in the eyes and lie. When the lies started, I knew she was in a decline. I tried to get custody of her (her mother and I divorced years before). I wanted to take her away to my home, to give her a fresh start. Her counselor told her, “You don’t have to talk with him if you don’t want to.” Well, of course she didn’t want to! I was the parent, the one who kept tabs on her, the one who understood firsthand the nature of anxiety and depression, two things I’ve suffered from for years. I also understood addiction, having leaned on alcohol until I started my own recovery.
Alana was arrested several times, hospitalized several times, and in rehab several times. She saw friends die from addiction. Alana wanted to get clean, but she didn’t want to live clean in the minute-by-minute sense. When young minds use drugs, their bodies are slow to produce dopamine. The only way they know how to feel is to use and keep using. Alana got caught up in that spiral. She started to hate herself and everyone who wasn’t part of that group of fellow-users.
As far as I know, Alana tried heroin for the first time in February. She warned someone she cares about to not try it. She related how that she had overdosed in Chicago and woke up in an ambulance. She gave thanks to the “good Samaritan” laws in Cook County for never reporting this to me, her mother or the authorities. We really need to think this law through. A good Samaritan would do whatever it takes to save a life. This law allowed her a short reprieve, but it didn’t send her to a place where she could get into lasting recovery. Alana got off the drug for a few months, and started using again in May. She wasn’t a daily user until the last few days of her life.
She bounced around from halfway house to halfway house. She couldn’t stay in the programs, though, because they weren’t treating her diseased mind in a way that made sense to her. She was approved to enter another rehab facility a couple of months before she died, but when she showed up, they refused to take her. She couldn’t enter the facility if she had any drugs — even her prescription drugs for anxiety — in her system. At that point, Alana gave up. She hid her use from all but her closest friends.
At What Point Were You Aware and Began to Intervene?
As soon as Alana’s grades dropped, I jumped in. Alana spent Friday through Sunday with me every week. Having the weekends, I kept her in my sight. When she went out to functions like football games, I went, too. When she went out with friends, I got to know them and their parents.
I tried calling her counselor, who didn’t call me back. I was boxed out from the information I needed to advocate, to fight for her in the courts, to keep her from her downward spiral.
As a Parent, What Would You Want Others in Your Situation to Know?
Your job is not to be your child’s friend. Your job is not to let your child and his friends drink in your basement because, “at least I know they won’t be drinking and driving tonight.” Your job is not give marijuana a pass, saying, “Well, I smoked pot when I was young. So as long as it’s just pot .…” Your job is not blindly trust that your child, “would never do anything like that.” Your job is not to deny what your eyes are telling you regarding the changes you see in your child’s behavior. Your only job is to keep your child alive. If you ever hope to have the privilege of holding the hand of your adult child and squeezing your grandbabies someday, you have to keep your child alive today.
What Do You Want to Say to Young People Who Are Experimenting With Drugs?
The concept of experimenting when it comes to drugs is a dangerous one. Would we give a pass to a toddler who wanted to experiment with bleach? Would we give an approving nod to a grade school child who wanted to take your car out on the highway for a spin?
Young people do not have the fully formed frontal lobes to help them make good decisions. They are simple creatures who strive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Drugs do both. But when drugs are introduced, kids lose the ability to develop the strength, character and coping skills they need to guide them into using their brains and emotions to keep them safe for the long haul of life.
What Had You Speaking Out as You Are Doing Now?
I never wanted to be a case study or have any part of my life serve as a cautionary tale for others. I went to seminary. I studied psychology. I served as a crisis counselor for at-risk youths and their families. I buried countless clients — or their children — who became slaves to their addictions. And even with all of that experience, I fell into a bottle in adulthood. I used willpower to stay away from alcohol for years. But willpower isn’t a muscle that gets stronger with repeated use; it gets weaker and gives out. I sank into my own depression and found numbness in a bottle.
I’m speaking out because I found recovery. When I found recovery, I found God as I know Him, God as He is for me. I have no goodness in me. But in recovery and with God’s help, I have a heart for others. My burning desire to drink has been replaced by a burning desire to save lives, one person at a time. I have not had a drink in nearly five years. I never drank in front of or around my children. I did not model the drinking behavior. But I did model poor coping skills and emotional fragility. When I got to the airport in upstate New York to fly home after I learned that Alana had passed, I ordered a scotch at the bar. I picked up the glass. I swirled the contents around. I inhaled it deeply. Then I wept bitterly and pushed the glass away. To drink would have led to my own death. I know the reason that I am alive is because I have given myself over to God, and I’ve been willing to use my loss any way I can to save another life.
Does It Feel Healing to You?
Perhaps talking about Alana is cathartic. Beyond that, it’s given me yet another purpose to be alive. Of course I have my wife, my son, and my other two daughters, but now I have a purpose that makes Alana’s death have a meaning that goes even beyond those who are still with me. Since Alana’s death, I have had dozens of souls reaching out to me to tell me the stories of their own tragic losses or to ask for my prayers and help for their loved one who’s still trapped in the lies of the addiction. In this tragedy, I spend 90% of my time weeping for my own loss, and the other 10% of time weeping with and caring for others who are experiencing their own losses. What heals me is letting those in addiction know this simple truth: you don’t have to live alone, terrified and ashamed. And you certainly don’t need to die that way. Since Alana’s service, six of her friends have entered treatment. That’s six young people who have a second chance to live, have children and experience a life that today seems impossible to them. That hope is what heals my heart.
How Did You Have the Grace to Reach Out to Those Who Might Have Used With Her and Perhaps Contributed to Feeding the Addiction?
Mine is not a story of “a father’s loss” or “a good man” or “turning lemons into lemonade.” Mine is a story of amazing grace. If my daughter would have died five years ago when I was in a bottle, I would have been killed by authorities while in the act of killing every person I held responsible for her death. That’s not hyperbole. In my drinking days, there was a God and his name was Scott. I would have offered retribution of the fiercest kind.
But these kids did not kill my precious Alana. I did not kill Alana. The community did not kill Alana. Addiction killed my Alana. Similar addictions are killing sons and daughters, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters across this globe. For Alana’s death to have meaning, I have to do whatever I can do to save a life, because every life is sacred. Jesus didn’t have a lot of use for the educated and pillars of society. He invested the three years of His public ministry with common people, whores, tax collectors, the possessed and addicted, and the unclean. “They are precious in His sight” I used to sing in Sunday school. Today, these kids are precious in my sight, and their recovery is the only way I can honor my daughter.
What Has Gotten You Through These Initial Days?
Prayer, both mine and that of others. Forgiveness for my own mistakes and those of others. Family and friends who blanketed me with love. Strangers who have shared their personal stories with me and who allowed me to cry and pray with them. Nothing helps you stay out of making it all about you like making it all about others.
Is There Anything Else You Would Like to Share?
Perhaps someday we’ll know from research the exact reason why some people become addicted while others do not. From my experience, I believe that those who are alone or feel alone because of depression are more likely to succumb to the sweet lie of addiction instead of the brutal truth of reality. Kids with healthy, positive outlets and support networks have more strength to say no than those who do not. Wherever you encounter someone who feels different or like an outsider, you will find someone at risk. And by the way, that describes every teenager I know.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1