Chris Herren speaks to Darien community about addiction, treatment, recovery, and culture

As part of an effort to revamp the school policies regarding drug and alcohol use by students, along with efforts by the Youth Asset Team of the Darien Community Fund, a special guest speaker was brought to Darien on Nov. 30. Chris Herren was a star basketball player from Fall River, Massachusetts, taking his talent and ability to the division one level and then to the NBA. All the while, Herren suffered from addictions to drugs and alcohol, and his struggle would strip him of his basketball career, his health, and nearly his family and his life. Herren spoke to DHS students during the day, and a packed auditorium of parents and others in the evening.

Herren’s story is incredible for a number of reasons. The meteoric rise of a world-class basketball talent, followed by the tragic fall due to a struggle with addiction. Herren recalls with exacting detail the key moments in his journey. From stealing beer from his alcoholic father at age 14, to his time using cocaine as a freshman at Boston College, all the while telling himself it would never really become a problem. Herren recalls being sent home from BC after failing drug tests, then going to Fresno State after being given a second chance by coach Jerry Tarkanian. Fresno State would go the same way, with Herren spending time in a Salt Lake City treatment facility before playing his senior season. Herren recalls being drafted by the Denver Nuggets, and having a spectacular season in Denver because he was surrounded by teammates who knew his now very public issues and made sure they would not take hold of Chris’s life again. Then, the offseason. Herren returned home, and again it was recalled in exact detail, the first time he bought and took a pill of oxycontin from a former high school friend, and that 40 milligram pill spiraling into a $25,000 a month oxycontin addiction. Herren returned to Denver for the preseason, “a full blown junkie,” and it was then he learned via phone call from Rick Pitino that he’d be acquired by the Boston Celtics; a childhood dream had come true. On a night where he was supposed to be starting at point guard for his childhood favorite team, Herren was outside in the player’s parking lot ten minutes before tipoff, waiting for his dealer so he could buy oxycontin.

The story continues, with Chris playing for teams all over the world. It was in Italy, while looking to buy painkillers, that he bought heroin the first time. When his team told Chris they would be heading into the mountains for ten days of training camp before the season, Herren said he quit. He gave back the house the team had given him to live in in Italy, two sports cars, a private school for his kids, and a hospital for his wife to give birth in, all because he needed to be close to where he could buy heroin, and that wasn’t the mountains.

Chris would tell the crowd that he would overdose four times, including being technically dead for a full 30 seconds on one occasion. On Aug. 1, 2008, after another overdose, car wreck, arrest, and his wife and three children, including newborn Drew, ready to walk out on him for good, Chris returned to treatment by the grace of an old family friend seeing him in the hospital. With no money or insurance, many centers told him they could not take him in, but a phone call from Chris Mullin and his wife Liz turned that around, as the Mullins paid his way.

At treatment, his counselor told him to make a phone call to his wife and tell her goodbye for the last time, and to tell her to tell their kids that their father died in a car accident, because a person like him wrecked families, and could no longer be part of one. Chris put the phone call off until the next day. Aug. 1, 2008 became his sobriety date, and he now dedicates everything about his life to his family and his sobriety. After “chasing death just for a feeling,” as Herren said, he began on his road back to health.

While Herren’s story is gripping, his talk was not the typical talk about this kind of subject. There was no “scared straight” feeling to it. Herren wove his feelings about the stigma surrounding addiction throughout his talk, and touched on points that seemed to be tailor-made just for a community like Darien. Herren has an 18 year old son, a 16 year old daughter, and a son who is 9, “just like me,” Herren says.

Herren traced everything about his path back to being a 14 year old kid stealing two Miller Lites from his father. When he thinks about his recovery, he says, “we put way too much emphasis on the worst day and forget about the first day.” He recalled his group of 15 or so friends from high school basketball, and that they knew the two houses that had basements where they could go drink. “Of the 15 of us, seven became heroin addicts. But we didn’t sit around saying, ‘I can’t wait to be an addict,’ while we drank in those basements,” Herren said. This was part of an ongoing push throughout his talk that urged parents to be involved with their kids when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Now, Herren says he couldn’t imagine saying to his daughter, “you and your friends go to the basement, nobody drive, and I’ll just be upstairs.” The notion of that sort of behavior being allowed astonished him.

“You’re the first to call a teacher and ask what your son or daughter can do for extra credit to get a grade, or to act like a maniac on the sideline for their athletics. But on Friday and Saturday night, you’re nowhere to be found. That’s when they need you the most,” Herren said.

Herren urged self reflection and introspection for the parents; he challenged them to consider their own behavior, and to wonder if it was something they really would like their child to do. Herren said when he spoke to DHS students during the day, he asked them to consider their behavior and if it was something they’d want their younger sibling to do.

Herren also said that if he were to find his own kids using drugs or alcohol, “I wouldn’t care where they were, who they were with, or how they got it. I’d just want to know why.” Again, a look inward was the critical part of his message, urging kids to find out what it is they don’t like about themselves that makes them turn to using drugs or alcohol. Parents, Herren said, are too focused on those where, who, and how questions, but the why question is what is most important.

As school administrators and local organizations look for ways to make an impact on the startlingly high level of drug and alcohol use among Darien teens, programs like Herren’s are needed. A call for cultural change around drugs and alcohol that impacts students, parents, and others in the community is exactly what those looking to fix the problem are looking for.

Herren travels across the country to give talks like these, delivering the program about 250 times per year. His memoir, Basketball Junkie, was released in 2011, followed by an ESPN Films documentary titled UnGuarded. The Herren Project, founded by Chris, is a nonprofit “dedicated to providing treatment navigation, educational and mentoring programs to those touched by addiction and to education people of all ages on the dangers of substance abuse.”

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