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Under the influence: One family's ordeal with a teen and substance abuse

Drugs' next generation

POSTED: April 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/ The Times

Amy Smith, right, remembers her son, Ryan's, struggles with school, and his moodiness with her mother, Alma Bowen. Ryan Smith died from a lethal mix of prescription drugs.

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In three days, Amy Smith went from relief and hope for her teenage son’s future to complete, utter despair over his senseless death.

On Jan. 16, a psychiatrist diagnosed Ryan Smith as having bipolar disorder and prescribed the drug Depakote.

"I was elated that I finally found out what was wrong with Ryan, and that I could help him," said his 42-year-old North Hall mother.

Then, three days later, after spending the night at a friend’s home in West Hall, the teenager died, having ingested a lethal mix of a narcotic painkiller and prescription pills that treat panic disorder.

In an April 4 interview, Smith talked about the heartbreak that followed and the enormous support from friends, co-workers and neighbors. She also talked about Smith’s struggles with school, authority and moodiness.

"I don’t want this story to be about Ryan," she said. "I want to reach out to parents."

Smith believes that chemical addictions develop more from prescription and over-the-counter drugs than the illegal stuff the pusher is dispensing on the street corner.

"Nobody ever (overdosed) on marijuana. It seems like everyone wants to focus on marijuana. People don’t go out and commit suicide on marijuana. People don’t go out and OD on marijuana.

"I think people are focusing more on stuff like that (and) they’re not noticing that kids are going to their medicine cabinets and trying to find the high that’s more easily accessible."

Smith said that even before she knew that her son had a drug problem, "I never left prescription drugs in my house. They’ve always stayed locked up in my car or in my pocketbook at all times."

Troubles began when Ryan was 13, when he started experimenting with marijuana, his mother said.

"He was getting into the party scene and hanging around with older kids," she said. "He worried about his friends doing things and he would come to me sometimes and talk about his friends and the things they were doing.

"But he was also one who wanted to be with his friends and do the same things they did."

At one point, the family withdrew him from North Hall High School and tried to admit him into a 16-week camp for troubled teens at Fort Gordon near Augusta.

"As soon as he found out it was strictly voluntary, he said he wasn’t volunteering and didn’t go," Smith said. "... I drove him there and I drove him back home."

At the time of his death, Smith was working toward his general-equivalency diploma at Lanier Technical College’s Adult Learning Center.

His mother vividly recalled Jan. 19.

Smith was at work when three friends called her to ask about Ryan’s whereabouts.

"The first one who called me ... called me again and he said, ‘Amy, something’s wrong with Ryan. They can’t get him to wake up,’ " she said.

Smith couldn’t reach Ryan or the friend he was staying with by phone. A detective called later to ask her to meet him at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

After family members arrived, they were ushered to a room off the emergency room.

"We were in there by ourselves and Amy’s phone would ring," said Amy’s mother and Ryan’s grandmother, Alma Bowen, of Gainesville.

North Hall High officials called to express condolences over the family’s "loss" and to ask what they should do about Breanna, Ryan’s sister.

"Amy said, ‘I haven’t lost anything, but you can send her to the hospital,’ " Bowen said.

The school resource officer who brought Breanna to the hospital was the one who broke the news about Ryan. The officer told Amy, "Your son is not in this world any more."

Smith said she consoles herself by knowing "my last conversation with Ryan was good (and) the last time I saw Ryan was good."

"I had him cremated. If I had seen him in a casket, I would have probably just crawled in there with him."

She said she always worried about Ryan and the people "he hung out with."

And she believed Ryan worried about himself, as he would admonish himself after a temper tantrum.

"I think a lot of these kids that are doing (drugs) ... are stressed out with school," she said.

"These kids … have more at their hands now than they’ve ever had before, with the Internet and cable television, and they’re always bored. They have no imagination anymore unless they’ve got a computer or PlayStation in their hands."

She also believes the schools’ policy of mandatory, random drug testing of athletes should expand to all students.

"Why are (athletes) the only ones that are important? Every kid that walks through that door should be important."

Since the interview, the Hall County Board of Education voted to look at expanding the testing to all student drivers.



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