MANATEE -- It began with sips of alcohol and hits of marijuana at 10.
When she turned 12, she was popping pills.
And by 14, Paige O’Brock was injecting herself with prescription drugs.
She was hooked.
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“We started with snorting pills and I was doing a lot of Xanax,” said O’Brock, now 20. “I would black out a lot and would have no idea what I was doing. I remember bits and pieces, so what I do remember are a lot of the bad parts of what I did.”
That was then. This is now:
In June alone, O’Brock graduated from the Richard Milburn Academy, celebrated a year of sobriety and registered at State College of Florida with hopes of becoming a nurse.
She is being adopted by the woman who helped get her clean, Sabrina Crain-Sweeney, and will complete her probation this week.
“It’s different. I don’t know how to accept it yet,” O’Brock said. “I would never have thought it would happen. Of course, every day is going to be a battle. But I believe having the obsession to use has been lifted because I don’t think about it anymore. When problems arise, it doesn’t cross my mind.”
Lucky to be alive
O’Brock’s journey is a mirror of the national prescription drug abuse epidemic. Although most people use prescriptions for their intended purpose, an estimated 20 percent of Americans use prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A 2009 study found that 16 million Americans ages 12 and older took prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes at least once in the prior year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Administration.
O’Brock’s dependency on drugs could have easily made her a fatal statistic. Seven people die in Florida each day because of prescription drug overdoses, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“People are so blind to addiction that they have no clue,” she said.
How she got hooked
O’Brock’s drug use started out mainly because she was bored and curious. And she would often turn to those close to her to supply the drugs -- as do many other users.
When it comes to prescription drug abuse, about 55 percent of users obtain them for free from friends or relatives, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
As her abuse progressed, O’Brock managed to keep it under everyone’s radar for a while, including her mother, Erin O’Brock.
Her mom began to catch onto the addiction after O’Brock’s weight dropped and money began disappearing from her purse.
“She knew at this point that there was something wrong with me,” her daughter says now. “She tried to get me help, but I wasn’t ready for it at that point.”
O’Brock says her mom was always her biggest cheerleader in her path to recovery.
“She’d say I am a strong person and knew I could do it,” she said.
O’Brock recalls the extremes she and her friends would go to for their fix, especially when the norm went from snorting to shooting drugs such as Oxycodone and Xanax.
“I was the needle supplier because my dad has diabetes,” she said. “One kid, his cat had diabetes, so he would take the needles from the cat. It’s sick. Once you start shooting, you don’t go back to snorting them ... because when you’re dope sick, you don’t want to wait.”
O’Brock said she used to spend hours trying to find a new place to stick herself with needles to get her fix.
“After you do it so many times, you can’t find a vein and you’ll do it behind your knees, your toes -- people do it in their necks,” she said. “Like I had track marks everywhere.”
O’Brock’s drug use included a mixture of prescription pain killers and anti-anxiety medications, pot, cocaine, heroin and other prescription drugs.
What attracts most users of prescription pills is “the good feeling” they give off, according Dr. Jamie Smolen, who specializes in addiction psychiatry in Bradenton.
When getting off the drug, it’s another story. By going cold turkey, the effects of withdrawals can hit within hours, Smolen said. Symptoms can include sweating, runny nose and goose bumps that can last five days or longer.
“People have temptations and cravings. The circuitry in your brain, after you’ve been feeding it pills for a long time, and you take the pills away, it malfunctions and just makes you think about pills. It’s on your mind all the time,” Smolen said.
O’Brock’s first felony arrest came Oct. 4, 2009, when she was found with 1 1/2 Xanax pills in her possession after she was accused of taking $115 worth of jewelry from One Stop Shell Shop on Gulf Drive.
“The feeling you get when you’re on Xanax is ‘I have to steal,’” she said. “I was walking from the back of the store, removing price tags. I asked the lady to put some of my stuff on layaway, so it didn’t look like I was stealing.”
As she was busy stuffing jewelry in her bag, a store employee called the Bradenton Beach Police Department and O’Brock was arrested shortly after at a convenience store, according to an arrest report.
She was charged with petit theft and possession of a controlled substance, and spent a night in Manatee County jail as a result, court documents state.
A second chance
The likelihood of going back to their old lifestyle is higher with people who don’t have a better option, according to a 2010 report by the Florida Department of Corrections Re-Entry Advisory Council.
“The inability of many individuals suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol to receive substance abuse treatment is a very significant problem we face in Florida, as well as nationally,” the report found.
Three years after release from supervision, those who complete substance abuse programs are 56 percent less likely to be recommitted to prison than drug offenders who do not receive treatment, the report said.
O’Brock believes any addict can change with the right program and a will to change. State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who speaks openly about his past drug use, agrees.
“There is an old saying: Love the addict, hate the addiction,” he said. “The addiction covers up the addict. But get rid of the addiction and the person who was always there returns.”
Rouson, along with the state re-entry study, supports giving full and fair consideration for employment to ex-offenders who would otherwise qualify in all respects for the position.
“I tell them to remember their first job and how they felt the sense of pride when they brought home their pay check,” Rouson said.
Can everyone be saved from addiction? No, Rouson said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a battle worth fighting.
“Addiction is a war and in war there are casualties. We will lose some who are consistently incapable of recovery,” he said. “We don’t have to lose everybody. That’s the challenge to save those that we can. Help those who want to be productive and accountable.”
Learning to fish
After O’Brock’s arrest, her mom urged her to enroll in a program she’d heard about called Learn to Fish Recovery Center for Women and Children, a Manatee County rehabilitation and re-entry center.
Crain-Sweeney, who runs the program, says she will never forget the first time she met O’Brock. She was a tough girl who barely weighed 80 pounds and had deep dark circles around her eyes.
“She would fight people, she would argue with people, her attitude was so bad I had to kick her out and it broke my heart,” Crain-Sweeney said.
O’Brock relapsed and went to another halfway house, but returned Learn to Fish when she decided to take sobriety seriously.
Crain-Sweeney is known for running a tight ship for those in her program, and rightfully so.
“You have to because with this population, you give them an inch they take 10 miles. And this is life or death,” Crain-Sweeney said.
A determined and sincere O’Brock came back to the center, Crain-Sweeney said. This wasn’t the first time O’Brock tried to get sober -- but it was the first time she succeeded.
“It’s a second chance at life,” O’Brock said. “It’s a realization, ‘I just went to jail and now that I’m out I have this second chance and I need to do something.’”
Learn to Fish wasn’t easy at first. O’Brock recalls calling her mom at the beginning and asking to leave.
But over time, sobriety and life at the Learn to Fish house became the norm.
“I’m 100 percent grateful for Sabrina. I don’t have the words to express what she has done for me,” O’Brock said.
After a few months into her program at Learn to Fish, O’Brock faced her biggest heartbreak. Her mom, a quadriplegic, died in December.
The remarkable thing about her mother’s passing, according to O’Brock: “I didn’t get high.”
For the first time in her life, she allowed herself to feel the pain of an event.
“I think I was in shock when it first happened, but to know I made it through without getting high gave me strength,” she said.
O’Brock takes comfort now in knowing her mom got to see her sober and on the right track before her death.
O’Brock warns others not to start on the same path she did.
“They have no idea, these kids smoking weed. They have no clue where it’s going to take them,” she said. “They just can’t see it. Smoking pot will lead them to something more.”
Now sober, O’Brock is finally looking forward to her future.
“I hated mornings. I hated getting up,” O’Brock said. “But now I wake up with a smile and that’s the greatest thing. I wake up happy. I have no clue who I am yet, but I am learning who I am. I am learning to love myself and to be OK with me.”
Paradise Afshar, Herald writer, can be reached at 745-7024.