Missy shows a favorite picture of her daughter, Jessie, from back in the “good old days” before Jessie got addicted to synthetic drugs.
LARGO – It killed one of her close friends. It caused another one to have a severe seizure. But the addiction was too strong. She kept using. But it’s “only” synthetic marijuana. It’s “legal.” It’s “no big deal.”
At least those are the arguments she told herself and tried to use on her parents.
Jessie’s addiction to synthetic drugs has wreaked destruction on her family as her parents try all they can to save their little girl. She is only 15. But Missy and Jeff of Largo won’t give up on their daughter.
The turning point
Before all their lives changed, Jessie was a dream kid. She was the first girl to be born in the father’s side of the family in more than 80 years. She was sweet, loving, kind and talented.
“Extremely talented,” Missy said. “In sports and anything. Anything Jessie did, it was effortless. She was very good at softball, she was really good at school. She always got good grades. She was always the center of attention. Everyone wanted to be like Jessie. She was just always very outgoing, very outspoken, very fun. She was like the life of the family.”
“It’s so sad to talk about her like ‘she was, she was,’” Jeff replied. “It sounds like she’s dead.”
“I know she’s still in there,” Missy said. “Just hopefully someday it will come back out.”
Their family has always been close, enjoying activities with both Missy’s and Jeff’s large extended families and also spending time together as their own little unit – Missy, Jeff, Jessie, and Jessie’s 11-year-old brother. Jessie and her family loved doing everything together – roller skating, fishing, camping, beach outings, movies and family dinners. Jessie loved special hunting trips with her dad.
All of a sudden, around eighth grade when Jessie was about 13, she started hanging out with a different crowd. They were much older than her – around 18 to 20. Jessie started to pull away, but at first it just
seemed like normal teenage stuff. She was moodier and didn’t want to hang out with the family, and at first, Missy and Jeff tried to give her some space and a little bit of freedom since she was growing up.
But as Jessie pulled away more and more, her parents began monitoring her Facebook page. When Jessie unfriended her parents, Missy created an account pretending to be a teenage boy.
“I became friends with her friends so finally she trusted that I could be her friend,” Missy said. “And you watch her Facebook page and you kind of figure out what’s going on. We were wondering what Spice and K-2 were. I mean, you think it’s just kid language. We knew what pot, marijuana and those kinds of things are. But we had no clue what this was.”
“On Facebook, all of the friends, they’re so stupid,” Jeff added. “They talk openly that they have the drugs and to come on over.”
Missy and Jeff began finding packages of the synthetic drugs in Jessie’s room, purse, and even hidden outside. They did some research, found out what they were. People were calling it “legal pot,” and Missy thinks that is how Jessie and her friends got the misconception that it was okay and safe.
“Jessie was never into drugs or smoking or alcohol,” Missy said. “She was very against smoking. And she had been in a very good crowd of friends. And then one day it seemed like the table kind of turned and she veered off down the wrong path of friends. And she admitted it was peer pressure. They kept pressuring her and pressuring her and making fun of her, saying that she wasn’t cool (if she didn’t try the synthetic drugs.)”
‘But it’s legal’
Missy and Jeff had already talked to Jessie about not doing drugs, alcohol or smoking. They explained why they are bad and talked about the consequences. But they weren’t prepared for this new kind of drug.
Neither Missy nor Jeff come from families or backgrounds that involve drug or alcohol abuse, so it was shocking to all of a sudden have to deal with their daughter’s addiction. She and her friends did all kinds of synthetic drugs – K-2, Spice, Scooby Snax, Smileys, WTF, Jazz. Jeff hates how the packaging is so colorful with cartoons or “cool” images on it that are made to attract kids. Both parents are shocked that they are so accessible.
“It really boggles the mind that anybody could just walk into a gas station and buy something that makes them hallucinate,” Missy said. “It has chemicals in it that scientists don’t really know what they are yet. And then they go and change the chemicals as soon as they make them illegal, so it’s legal again because they changed a compound in it.”
Teens don’t tend to think about their mortality or long-term consequences.
“As teenagers, they think they’re indestructible,” Jeff said. “And like everyone’s told them about cigarettes and that they can kill you, but some people smoke cigarettes for 50 years sometimes before anything happens. So they may think this Spice thing will take a long time and they can stop any time they want. But it can cause brain damage.”
Unfortunately, sometimes it only takes one time to cause permanent damage. Missy has reached out to numerous other parents online whose teens and young adult children have been affected by synthetic drugs. She recently talked to one mom whose son was very smart and was a student in grad school. One weekend, he decided to party and tried synthetic pot for the first time. After just that one time, he got serious brain damage and is hardly the person he used to be. Missy said she feels grateful that they have not lost their daughter completely, but she still is terrified for what could happen.
Jeff said that it is harder for the kids to get real marijuana, so they do the synthetic kinds instead. Plus, if they are caught with marijuana, they get arrested. But if they are caught with synthetic drugs, they are immune.
“Probably in the back of their mind they think, ‘If it hurts us so bad, why make it so available to us?’” Jeff said.
For a good kid like Jessie, the technical legality made it easier for her to justify what she was doing, in the beginning.
“The biggest fight that we would have,” Missy said, “is she said, ‘I’m not buying real pot. That’s illegal,’ And that was a lot of it in the beginning. ‘It’s legal, it’s legal, it’s legal.’ But we could see that it was destroying her. It took her soul. It took every bit of the sparkle in her eye and it made her dark. She became very hollow and very shallow. And then she would just start staying out because she knew that she’d get in trouble. Instead of listening to us as her parents, trying to ground her or scold her, she would just not come home.”
Every time Jessie ran away or just wouldn’t come home, Jeff had to go out searching for her. He was on call 24 hours a day. It could be 2 a.m. and he and Missy went to sleep just for a few minutes and Jessie would slip out of the house. Jeff would be out until 4, 5, 6 a.m. trying to catch up with her. He might find her again at 8 a.m. as she came straggling down the street by herself, he said, or maybe they wouldn’t find her until 3 p.m. the next day. Missy said their friends would call and tell them that they saw Jessie at the local gas station buying spice and was hanging out with her “bad friends,” as her parents called them.
“We became very good detectives,” Jeff said. “When she wouldn’t come home, we had to start calling her friends and we’d have to make the call – is she just out running around, or did somebody grab her and take her? So better safe than sorry, we had to go find her, so we have to call everyone, waking them up, asking, ‘Have you seen Jessie?’”
Jeff would go around, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, trying to find his daughter. When he would finally find her and bring her home, she’d be all mad and protest. She would stick around long enough to shower and get something to eat, but as soon as Jeff and Missy were in bed, she would slip out again.
Sometimes Jessie would even leave a note, saying she would be back in 15 minutes. At 8:05 a.m. But then it would be two more days until they found her or she came home on her own.
For a while, Missy and Jeff used a GPS tracker on Jessie’s phone to track her down. Missy would be on the computer, talking to Jeff on the phone as she told him which direction to turn as he drove around trying to find their daughter. But eventually Jessie figured out how they were finding her, so she shut off her phone to stay hidden.
Jeff worked as a private contractor, but he lost a lot of clients because whenever Jessie was out of school, he had to watch her.
“It’s babysitting a 15-year-old,” Missy said. “He would call me at work and all he’d done was go to the bathroom and she would run out the door. ‘Well she’s gone.’ ‘What do you mean? You’re there with her.’ But he goes to the bathroom, she’s gone. He goes outside to do something, she’s gone. You literally have to follow her around. You can’t chain her to a bed. It gets very trying to where some days you just want to throw up your arms and say, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I’m tired. I’m over it.’ But you know what? You can’t do that. You can’t give up on your child.”
Pretty soon they realized that even school was not a safe place.
“I would drop her off at school at 7 in the morning, and she walks in the door and walks right back out the back door of the school,” Jeff said. “And then I’m there at the end of the day, thinking she went to school all day long.”
There was a gas station right across the street from the high school where Jessie and her friends bought the synthetic pot and then go hang out all day. When her parents started getting calls from the school, Jessie said that she was late to class, and that is why the school calls. The parents caught on, though, and were horrified to learn that she and her “bad friends” would spend all day at this “nasty old man’s” house who appeared to like the young girls far too much, Jeff said. His granddaughter used to live with him, so that is why the kids started going over there, but then she moved back to Tampa, yet the kids still kept going over there, Missy said.
“Any kid that wanted to could come to his door and hang out there,” Jeff said. “So all these kids who wanted to do drugs or spice or whatever would just walk out of school and over to his house. … I talked to him this one time and told him I don’t like Jessie being at his house, but I had to write it all down because he’s deaf.”
Missy said they have reported the man to the police several times, but they don’t know what came of that.
Everything about Jessie changed after she started using synthetic drugs. She was no longer the sweet, kind girl that her parents knew.
“It was like a Jeckyll and Hyde kind of thing,” Jeff said. “She’d be nice but then if she wanted to go somewhere or do something (and wasn’t allowed to,) she’d just get irate and mean. I heard that happened a lot with kids (on these drugs.) It makes them very angry and mean and messes up their brain a bit. I’m surprised more crimes haven’t been committed because of this.”
Numerous times, Jessie’s family has taken huge measures to try to get her cleaned up. The first was in that first summer Jessie started using synthetic pot.
“In June 2010, she had run away from home one night, and I think it was the first time we ever called the police on her, and I was frantic,” Missy said.
Missy called her dad and aunt up in Georgia to talk about the situation. Her aunt offered to take Jessie for the summer. Get her out of the environment. Away from those friends. Let her play with her cousins and maybe she would snap out of it. But that didn’t last for long. She wanted to come home. She missed her friends. She put up a fuss.
“It was all because Jessie didn’t have the control that she thought that she had and the freedom that she thought she had,” Missy said.
But she wasn’t home more than a few days before she was smoking the synthetic pot again. At that point, Missy and Jeff researched rehab centers and sent Jessie to Inspirations for Youth in Fort Lauderdale. She remained there from late July until September, missing the first few weeks of high school. She seemed to be doing a lot better, but those same friends were still around, and after a few weeks, Jessie caved to the pressure and old habits.
“We sent her back (to Inspirations) for a second time,” Missy said. “But I think that time Jessie kind of knew what to do to manipulate the system to get out quickly.”
That rehab center was primarily for alcohol and traditional drugs. It didn’t know as much about Spice and the synthetic drugs because they were so new, Missy said. But one of the people at Inspirations helped Missy and Jeff find Wellington Retreat Residential Treatment Center in Palm Beach. There is a specialized adolescent program that has an intensive inpatient program for teens 13 to 18. They treat for both the drug and behavior problems and also help the kids continue their schoolwork through the Florida Virtual School.
The teens at Wellington live a structured life, and participate in the 12-step programs of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They attend group sessions and one-on-one counseling, and they must live healthy, clean lives.
As time went by, Jessie began to improve. Her attitude got better and she realized she has a problem. She participated in the steps of NA and apologized to her parents and began being truthful. But then insurance began to call. They didn’t want to pay for Jessie’s rehab anymore, and they wanted to kick her out. Missy was on the phone with their insurance company multiple times a day, begging them to let Jessie stay longer. She couldn’t leave. She wasn’t ready. Even her doctors and therapists called the insurance company, trying all they could to make them understand the severity of the situation.
“The doctors told my insurance company, ‘If this child is released, her death will be on your hands,’” Missy said. “Every day we called the insurance company three or four times a day to say don’t let her go. We got to 32 days.”
After those 32 days, Missy and Jeff began paying out-of-pocket. But the program costs between $5,000 and $6,000 a week. The doctors and owner of Wellington, however, didn’t want to see Jessie fail, so Missy and Jeff paid what they could, but even that was about $800 a week. After a total of 65 days in the residential program, they downgraded Jessie to the non-residential program. She stayed with her grandparents, who live nearby, and they drove Jessie to and from the center each day for 30 more days. But after that, they just couldn’t afford it anymore. Their house was already in foreclosure. Jessie had to come home.
“She gets in there and when she’s there for a few weeks, she’s saying ‘I love you,’ and ‘I miss you,’” Jeff said. And she believes it. She’s very sincere about it. But then she gets back and someone sticks spice in front of her and it happens all over again.”
The tools Jessie learned in rehab helped her stay clean for a little while, but she left before she was strong enough to be able to fully turn her back on the peer pressure.
“When she came back from rehab, she was amazing,” Missy said. “She was like our beautiful little girl again. You could actually see she was like a 15-year-old again. She started going to school again and was actually doing really good. She was trying to control her anger and trying to control her thoughts. She was laughing and smiling again.”
Jessie would come sit next to her parents to watch TV with them, and Missy said she didn’t even want to breathe. She was so happy that her daughter wanted to spend time with them, that she was afraid to do anything that might scare her off.
But Jessie needed more time in rehab to get stronger before she was strong enough to face her old environment again. She eventually gave into peer pressure and was soon using synthetic drugs again.
Even watching these drugs destroy the friends around her wasn’t enough to make her quit. The addiction was too strong.
“One of her friends died, and another one overdosed,” Missy said.
“One or two of her friends had a seizure,” Jeff added. “And the doctor said it was due to Spice. And I’m surprised she hasn’t had something like that yet. We just haven’t given up on her, you know? That’s why we keep trying to find her at night and put her in rehab. I’m sure if we didn’t intervene, she’d probably be dead by now.”
In early July, her parents sent Jessie back to Wellington, where she remains. Missy and Jeff intend to keep her there as long as they possibly can. She needs enough time to get better. The bills keep rolling in, though, and right at the 30-day mark, insurance started calling again. But they are not going to give up.
Program for success
David Carlyle, is a therapist and school psychologist who works at Wellington Retreat. While he was not at liberty to discuss Jessie’s case specifically, he could give insight on how these drugs affect people and how Wellington tries to help.
The drugs commonly cause auditory hallucinations, he said, and sometimes visual hallucinations. People lose their motivation and motor skills as well.
“It affects memory,” Carlyle said. “It affects cognitive reasoning. It affects your social relationships, in terms of all skills, cognitive and emotional skills to get along with other people. It has a huge impact on school.”
Teens are particularly at risk for getting involved with these drugs, he said, because they are easily accessible and specifically marketed toward youth.
“As a teen therapist, what really bothers me is that the packaging is completely designed to get a teenager to buy it,” Carlyle said. “The colors, the cartoons. … It’s a juvenile market that these manufacturers are obviously marketing to. It’s purposely targeting teens, which is very disturbing because it’s deadly. There are some very powerful tranquilizers in these things.”
The first step at Wellington is to get the drugs out of the teens’ system. At first they seem “completely out of it,” Carlyle said, but as the drugs clear out of their systems, they begin to get better.
“And it’s almost like they wake up and they turn around and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I risked my life for a cheap high,’” Carlyle said.
Synthetic drugs are more dangerous than regular marijuana, Carlyle said, because it can shut down critical centers of the brain, including breathing. The formulas are constantly changing, too, so one never knows exactly what they are putting into their body.
Wellington treats both addictions and psychiatric disorders, using evidence-based treatments like emotional interviewing and the 12-step programs, he said. The kids have an intense schedule full of individual and group therapy, family sessions, and school.
“We try to basically retrain a person’s brain so they are not reaching for the pills but instead have coping skills,” Carlyle said. “We equip them with these skills so they are able to function in areas of home and school and with friends without resorting to being chemically happy.”
The teens also are taught about biology and why they have reacted the way they have to the drugs. They learn about the parts of the brain and how these drugs affect the decision making center of the brain, so they end up making their decisions only based on pleasure and feelings. They are even shown scans of their own brain so they can physically see the damage that has been done.
The teens wake up early and have to shower, have good hygiene and eat a healthy breakfast. They must be dressed appropriately as well. Many of the kids have been on the street, and if they do not dress appropriately, they have to wear scrubs until they can earn their regular clothes back, Carlyle said. Everything there is based on a reward system. If they make achievements and behave well, they earn rewards, such as credits that build up so they can buy things from the center’s store.
The center also works closely with the teens’ parents, keeping them updated about their children’s progress but also teaching them how to not be enablers or codependents. If the therapists see anything “broken” that may contribute to the child’s problem, then they work with the family to help the situation. Parents also have the chance to talk to each other, so they can help and get help from other parents who have gone through the same things.
Teens are in a unique place in life, so therapists work with them on things like peer pressure, self-esteem, and how to fit in better with their family and at school, Carlyle said. They are also growing and have a lot of energy, so they are positive outlets for that energy, such as through the gym, ice-skating or at a park. Missy said that Jessie was given a membership to Lifestyles Gym and was thrilled to work out regularly. Jeff said he is glad for this because if she is focusing on healthy living, maybe she will be less inclined to make unhealthy decisions.
Wellington also has its own restaurant where people in its programs can work. That way they feel useful and can learn healthy life skills that can not only help them lead a structured life, but the skills also can help them when they leave Wellington, Carlyle said.
For all of these techniques and therapy to have the best chance for success, people should stay in rehab for no less than 60 days, Carlyle said. And even then, they need to have a gradual transition back into “real life.” People should stay close to their psychologist or therapist and continue to attend NA meetings every day – certainly for the first 90 days.
“Those are the kids who make it. Those are the adults who make it,” Carlyle said. “You have to work at these things. If you do not work on these things when you get out of rehab, it was all a waste. We can clean you up real good. We can clean up anyone. But you have to use it. You have to face temptation eventually, so we like to let go very gradually. From inpatient to intensive outpatient-to-outpatient and then at home. Stepping down gradually.”
Eventually, the addict will face temptation again. At that point, it’s a test to see if they have truly learned their coping skills. The addict also must be able to sever ties from harmful friends and start over.
“It’s a matter of the ability to latch onto and develop relationships with non-using peers,” Carlyle said. “If they can’t do that, then there isn’t a lot of hope. Because every teenager wants to be accepted so badly. Even if they at least want two or three friends. And if those friends use, it’s hard to say no.”
Hanging onto hope
So far, Jessie has been able to remain at Wellington. She is showing progress in her therapy and group sessions, Missy said. She has worked with Carlyle on self-respect and respect for her family, learning to get back her self-confidence, Missy said. Now, instead of yelling and screaming on the phone with her parents, she is learning to stop, take a deep breath and speak appropriately. She is opening up in group, and she is working on honesty. Missy is ecstatic that Jessie has brought her grade up from an F to a B in school.
“She’s really been dedicating herself to school down there,” Missy said. “And you know, I think she’s just really trying. She’s really trying to make herself better. And I can just hear it in her voice – the sincerity.”
It seems that Jessie wants to get better, Missy said, and she is aware that she still has a lot of work to do before that can fully happen.
“Jessie is very afraid of coming back to Pinellas County,” Missy said. “She knows drugs are still available here. She knows the stores that will sell them to her. She’s very scared and trying to figure out what her plan will be next. She’s starting to come to terms with her addiction. With her behavior. Trying to be honest with her dad and I.”
But as soon as she hit the 30-day mark, the insurance company started calling again, Missy said. They want to know the exit plan. They don’t want to pay for more treatment.
“You can’t discharge a child who still needs so much help,” Missy said. “Fighting an insurance company is like fighting a brick wall. You just get nowhere.”
Jessie will stay in the residential treatment center for as long as possible, but after that, Wellington has agreed to make an exception in her case and allow her into the transitional housing program. Usually one has to be at least 16 to be in that program, but if Jessie can maintain impeccable behavior and meet the right criteria, she will be allowed to be in that program.
“It’s a very intensive outpatient program,” Missy said. “It’s very expensive – $1,000 a month. We’re looking to get a sponsor to help cover the cost because we are fighting one battle trying to get our house out of foreclosure, trying to pay for Jessie’s rehabilitation. So going into transitional housing, she could be there another month or she could be there six months. It all depends on Jessie and how she progresses.”
The transitional housing program is a small step down from residential, and it is very structured, Missy said.
Jessie will have to get good grades in school, stay clean and sober and abide by every rule. If she does not, then she must go back to residential or go home.
But she and Jeff have not given up. It will still take more time to learn what damage has been done, and what damage is permanent to Jessie’s brain. But they have to believe that they have not lost their little girl for good.
“As a mom and dad, you just cannot ever give up on your kids. Ever,” Missy said. “We made a promise the day both our kids were born that we would protect them and guide them through life until the day we die.”
Missy has formed a Facebook group called Mothers Against Synthetic Pot, which is a resource for parents who can come together to learn about this issue or discuss their shared experiences about their children’s addiction.
It has been helpful for Missy to talk to other parents who have gone through the same things she has, so she wanted to create a safe space for other parents to connect and support each other.