Opinion: Our need to hear Chris Herren's story again

Former NBA player Chris Herren talked with the Darien community on Wednesday, Feb. 11 about his addiction and recovery. Liberation Programs John Hamilton moderated the interview/talk.

Former NBA player Chris Herren talked with the Darien community on Wednesday, Feb. 11 about his addiction and recovery. Liberation Programs John Hamilton moderated the interview/talk.

Jarret Liotta for Hearst Connecticut Media

Three years ago, Chris Herren, a former NBA player recovering from addiction, came and spoke to the students at Darien High School as part of The Community Fund of Darien’s “Our Darien” campaign.

On that day, my two older sisters returned home from school raving about Chris and the unforgettable presentation that he had given to the students and faculty. As an eighth grader, I was unfamiliar with drinking parties, unaware of the intensity of drug and alcohol addictions, and somewhat naively believed that these issues were largely absent from our community.

I attended the parent presentation that same evening, hearing for the first time the harrowing reality of substance abuse through Chris’ story. Chris Herren grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a town that revered Herren’s incredible abilities on the basketball court. He went on to have a career at Boston College, Fresno State, the Denver Nuggets, the Boston Celtics, and played for seven seasons abroad.

However, Chris’ talent on the court would become eclipsed by the development of his addiction, an addiction that would nearly cost him his family and his own life. Now twelve years sober, Chris devotes his life to traveling across the country to share his story, encouraging students to make healthier choices, to empower each other, and provides education on the prevention of substance abuse.

Two weeks ago, I again watched Chris Herren give his second presentation, this time from my home alongside my parents. While Chris’ story remained the same, my perception of his story felt completely changed. As a thirteen year old, I had been unable to truly understand the gravity of his message and the situations he described to his audiences.

At sixteen, only three short years later, I found myself hearing Chris’ message in a way that connected much more deeply with my life and my experiences as a high schooler. Through his vulnerable recitation of his battle with addiction, I felt as though I now truly could grasp how easily a person can succumb to any disease or personal struggle and how easily that can go unnoticed.

During the Q and A portion of the presentation, Chris was asked what posed the greatest struggle to him individually in his path to recovery and sobriety. He claimed that his biggest battle was with his self-esteem and self-worth. It was at that point that Chris’ message really began to resonate with me as I reflected on the true extent to which students battle with their identity, body-image, and relationships in high school.

Chris speaks to us about substance abuse, but he also stresses the urgency and value of our mental health. Too often, he says, we assume there has to be a moment such as “rock bottom,” a moment, he stresses, that never has to be reached. Even though Chris speaks of the extremities of addiction and his personal loss and heartbreak, he reminds us that there does not need to be this horrific experience to finally recognize the need for recovery whether it be for substance abuse or depressive disorders.

As teenagers living in a town characterized by its exceptionally athletic, intelligent, and artistic students, the pressures that accompany this idealized expectation are often debilitating to our self-esteem. I think high school students often find themselves feeling that in spite of all of their hard work and success, they are not enough. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse are all mental health issues that are often left undisclosed, ignored, and magnified by the compulsory need to keep achieving and to be exceptional.

Chris’ story forces us to ask why we continuously try to fulfill these monumental expectations when we actively injure ourselves mentally (and often physically) in the process. Speaking from his own experience, Chris recognizes that teenagers are constantly under the impression that they must live up to someone or pretend to be someone they are not.

Rather than following the crowd, Chris encourages us to disregard the social standard, whether this is drinking, drugs, or even dietary fads, and urges us to accept a healthier path and to feel empowered by our individuality.

Since his last visit to Darien, Chris has founded Herren Wellness, a program dedicated to holistic wellness rehabilitation services and sustained recovery. Chris’ center offers a plethora of recovery methods, including the twelve-step recovery process that he followed himself. Though many of us will not need to follow a twelve-step journey to recovery, I do think we need to reflect on the well-being of the high school kids in our community.

Chris’ message provides us with a first step, a step towards acceptance and recognition of the value of our health and respect for ourselves, a reminder that we should never be afraid to ask for help.

Herren’s presentation, one of a series of events to address teen substance use and prevention from The Community Fund of Darien and the Thriving Youth Task Force’s "Our Darien" campaign, was made possible with the support of the Darien Depot, Darien Youth Commission, Silver Hill Hospital, YWCA Parent Awareness, Darien Library, Darien YMCA, Noroton Presbyterian Church and Trinity Church. For more information about the campaign or to register for upcoming events, visit www.communityfunddarien.org