Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 11, 2005.
SALEM — Joel Levine received a standing ovation from a packed Salem High School auditorium last night when he declared, "I am Joel and I am a recovered drug addict." Then, as he described his battle with OxyContin addiction, a packed hall fell silent, with parents leaning forward to listen as if their children's lives depended on it.
Levine, 20, was near to the last speaker on a long agenda at a drug forum organized by his father, Salem School Superintendent Herb Levine, and Essex County District Attorney Jon Blodgett. Few, however, left before hearing what the 20-year-old had to say.
When father and son embraced the entire hall rose to applaud, and some fought back tears.
"Our children's lives are at stake," Herb Levine said, summarizing the danger of addiction. Both men are speaking out to warn others of a problem on the North Shore that until recently has received scant attention.
Joel explained that he began the descent into dependency as a 14-year-old, smoking marijuana. This happened, he said, despite the fact that "I come from a very good family. A very loving family."
Later, in high school, he casually sampled OxyContin, the prescription pain medication that can be altered to give a high similar to heroin. "That is the drug I fell in love with. It made me feel that I was six-five, 250 pounds and I could rule the world."
He wasn't addicted with the first dose. Nevertheless, he soon needed the drug all the time.
"Senior year, playing baseball, I was high for every game," he said. If people asked how he could perform under the influence, he laughed. By then he believed that he could not live without it.
Everything else began to recede into the background. He wanted the drug and didn't care who he had to lie to to get it. He even lied to himself: "I wasn't fooling anybody."
When his parents caught on they sprang into action, fighting the drug. But the drug fought back and, in the beginning, Joel was fighting alongside it. He was tested, but a drink called "Flush" helped him beat the test. When the pediatric center called to say that Joel's latest drug test was clean, he smiled with relief, "Wasn't that good, Dad?"
Only later did his parents learn that the "pediatric center" was a friend of Joel's.
He was ordered to take a pill to block the effect of the drug, but, he said, "I was spitting it (the pill) out in the toilet."
He went through a rehabilitation regimen. But that was to please his parents and it didn't take.
Drug addicts can't be trusted, Herb Levine warned the gathering. The drug takes over.
Yet, at some level, Joel knew where he was headed.
"I was going to lose my family," he said. "I did not want that to happen."
It led to a moment where both parents and child finally faced reality: "I told my dad, 'This is so hard.' And I cried. It was the first time I cried in a long time. Because being a drug addict ... it crushes all your emotions."
The Levines sent Joel to the Plymouth House treatment center in Plymouth, N.H., which incorporates the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
He began withdrawal, excruciating cramps, sweats, vomiting, diarrhea. "Even in the day you can't collect one clear thought," Joel Levine said.
When his parents came, Joel couldn't sit still. "Tapping his fingers like this," Herb shook his head. "It's a horrible thing to see but it's better than the alternative."
Moreover, this time Joel wanted the program to succeed and that made a difference.
"Now I'm seven months clean," he said as the auditorium erupted in applause. He attends college, has a girlfriend and plans for the future.
Looking to his son, Herb Levine offered hope to those mired in addiction: "You can get better. You can beat this thing.
"The sooner the better. But you must act."