It was the question Chris Herren asked more than a thousand students at Culpeper County High School Wednesday morning.
Herren, speaking at the school thanks to the Path Foundation, has a long history of drug abuse and recovery. For the past seven years he’s used those experiences to go into schools and to hear the tales of students who hurt, who try to bury their pain in illegal substances and who sometimes hurt themselves.
So, Herren asked, why use drugs?
Is it because you got in with the wrong group of friends? Did they learn their actions from an older brother or sister, are they overcompensating to deal with pain caused by a rough family life?
It was an emotional conversation. A rapt audience often wept, with some students having to leave their seats because they were so overcome.
One young man, during the question and answer question asked a poignant question that floored Herren.
“What do you do with a broken heart,” due to drugs.
It was an experience, Herren said, that he will never soon forget.
“It’s no doubt an emotional toll, what weighs on me more than the words that I say, is the tears that I see,” Herren said. “Often times I go to schools and they say we’re going to put the athletes in the front and I look at the principal and I say ‘why?’ It’s like the little kid that stood up and said what do you do with a broken heart? He doesn’t wear a uniform. He doesn’t have that team around him that some kids hide in or some kids use to shield them.”
Other students showed courage in speaking out, in asking what to do if they see substance abuse at home, how do they help someone who doesn’t want help and what to do if they see a friend or a fellow student harming themselves.
“It’s hard to surprise me,” Herren said. “But just when you think you’ve heard it all, something comes. I’ve heard a lot. I’m often times astounded and inspired by kids courage to say something outloud.”
Amy Petty, Director of Communications for the Path Foundation, said that Herren’s message has been a worthwhile one to spread. Last month, he spoke to Fauquier County Public Schools and on Tuesday he visited Rappahannock County Public Schools. He also spoke to the public in Warrenton on Tuesday evening, to tell people about the struggles everyone faces and how to properly deal with them.
“We feel just so fortunate we are able to do this, because it’s an important issue,” Petty said. “Chris doesn’t just touch on addiction. There’s a lot of issues that affect young people. He is really able to resonate with them.”
Herren praised the group at CCHS, before heading over to Eastern View High School to have a frank conversation with that school as well.
“The kids in there were unbelievable today,” Herren said. “There was a lot of emotion and hopefully it resonated with more than a few.”
From the start, he said his mission is accomplished if he helps just one kid.
A former college and NBA basketball star, Herren’s career and life was railroaded by addiction. He started as a young man, drinking and smoking weed. After going to college he graduated to cocaine, then oxycontin. From there, he found himself playing basketball overseas and trying to score heroin in Italy.
Those tough times let him to rehab and introspection. He was afraid he was going to lose his family, at one point contemplating just disappearing so as not to cause his wife and young children any more pain.
Now, the Fall River, Mass. native goes to schools spreading the message that there is help and hope. He encouraged students to put down the drugs and alcohol, that if they are using to step away before they are in too deep – like he was.
“I want you to walk out of this auditorium and challenge yourself to be better,” he said. “It’s about understanding your struggle and the mistakes you are making.”
He talked about students laughing, bullying and ridiculing others who were struggling with alcohol and encourage everyone to be a solution to the problem – not a cause.
Alcohol and drug free since Aug. 1, 2008, Herren encouraged students to talk to their parents about their problems and for parents in the audience to do the same – not hiding behind the phrase of “it’s just the teenage years.”
Prior to the speech, students were shown the Emmy nominated ESPN documentary “Unguarded,” detailing Herren’s struggles and redemption.
Most importantly, Herren encouraged students to speak up. To speak up to Herren directly, email him at email@example.com.