Sue Hansen traces the memory on her arm, drawing out with her finger the letters A, B, C.
That was how she learned from other parents of addicts how to help her son cope with life’s stresses and solve his own problems. “Awesome, bummer and cool” became the responses to validate any experience.
But trial or triumph — whichever Zach was going through — Sue learned the hard way that she couldn’t scream the addiction out of her teenage son.
The room, with Zach, now 23, fills with the kind of laughter that doesn’t come from anxiety or masking depression.
“I did not know that,” Zach tells his mom as her eyes look up from her arm and meet his. “That’s why you say ‘bummer’ all the time.”
The sunlight from the conference room window is mirrored by the glow on the survivors’ faces.
Zach sits close to a 29-year-old woman, Emma Chancey, whose tattoos and piercings paint a picture of what she’s been through, too.
A decade of gnawing, addictive compulsion began in one night as the then 17-year-old consumed marijuana, alcohol, Xanax and cocaine for the first time.
“I had just started public school and everyone smoked weed — before class, lunch, after school — and everybody drank on the weekend,” Emma said.
She figured if so many people were doing it, she would be fine. “And when I did it, I just loved it.”
Dr. Steven Jaffe, a psychiatrist who studies and specializes in teenage addiction, said too many people view marijuana as normal now, and it’s causing parents to wait longer to seek help for their children.
As more people accept and normalize pot smoking, teens are more at risk for experimenting.
By the time teens are addicted to cocaine and heroin, their chances of relapse increase, Jaffe said.
Heroin-related deaths have quadrupled since 2000, and overdoses from all drugs outnumber deaths from car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jaffe called the explosion of drug abuse — especially heroin — an epidemic affecting many North Fulton and metro Atlanta families.
Zach was 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin after abusing his dad’s pain pills, according to Jaffe’s study.
His parents, Sue and Mike Hansen, stepped in, and they not only forced Zach into therapy and rehabilitation programs but also took an active part in the recovery process, which made all the difference.
>>RELATED VIDEO: Personal Journeys: Walking across America
Brett Bramble set out on an odyssey to draw attention to the heroin epidemic.
Most of the teens who relapsed and quit the program didn’t have involved parents.
Now, Sue has started a nonprofit to raise money for those addicts who cannot afford treatment. Many teenagers don’t have the support systems in place to pull them out of a vicious cycle of relapse and despair.
As Emma graduates the “enthusiastic sobriety” program at Insight, an intensive treatment program specifically for those aged 13 to about 25, Sue’s grant will fund her training to become an addictions counselor.
“I’ve always felt like you need to take a corner of the world and make it better,” Sue said.
Zach started working last year as a client advocate at a drug and alcohol treatment facility in North Georgia.
He and Emma agree the “enthusiastic sobriety” ideal is what saved them from themselves because what they really needed was a group of friends who knew how to have fun without destroying themselves.
An irritable and angry middle school student, Zach said he didn’t fit in his own skin. He couldn’t find friends and expressed himself by earning 23 demerits in his eighth grade year at an Atlanta private school.
His parents and the school administration decided it was best if Zach transferred to a smaller private high school after he yelled out an expletive in class just to get sent to the dean’s office, refused to go and instead forced the teacher to chase him through the halls.
His behavior got worse, and by the second semester of his freshman year, his parents couldn’t deny what was going on anymore.
“His eyes didn’t smile anymore and you could see him fading away from us and we didn’t know how to get him back,” Sue said.
When youth groups didn’t work to revive Zach’s happiness and fears of legal trouble persisted, Sue and Mike Hansen pulled their youngest son out of private school only to be further disappointed by the larger pool of public school students who became bad influences on Zach.
“Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to fool you,” said Matt Meyer, the director of the Insight Program in Roswell.
Meyer, who’s been in recovery from addiction since 1998, moved to north Georgia in 2007 to work at Insight and continue his work with young people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.
By the time Zach was a junior at Dunwoody High School, he wasn’t as scared of the effects of drugs on his body as he was of getting caught. He mixed his anti-anxiety medicine, Xanax, with alcohol and pain pills when possible.
Counselors, rehab at a nearby mental health facility and a $40,000 out-of-state “wilderness” program all failed to stop Zach’s decline.
“The second I was let go, the plan was to get as high and drunk as I could,” Zach said.
That almost killed the then 17-year-old, who returned after 45 days of forced sobriety to a stash of pills and booze hidden in his room.
His parents were devastated and terrified, but pressed on and finally found the Insight program right around the corner in Roswell.
Jaffe, who is also Insight’s clinical director, said when parental involvement is high, 70 percent of children enrolled complete the 8 to 12 week program.
And, unlike the “wilderness program” that Sue and Mike paid $40,000 for, Insight offers support for parents on a weekly basis.
Sue credits Insight with saving her son’s life.
“I got my boy back,” she said.