The Risks of Misusing Stimulant Medication and Alcohol
Podcast date: February 19, 2021
- Learn how mixing stimulants with alcohol can have fatal results.
- Learn about the environments that lead to diversion and substance use.
- Learn how youth who are prescribed stimulants can prevent medication theft or diversion.
- Learn effective communication strategies regarding substance use that parents can use with their children.
Announcer: Hello and welcome to the ADHD 365 podcast. This episode is sponsored in part by Arbor Pharmaceuticals.
Susan Buningh: I am your host, Susan Buningh, and I'm here today with Julie Buckner, founder of the Josh E Levine Foundation. Julie, you lost your son Josh in 2014. Can you tell us what happened?
Julie Buckner: Hi Susan, thank you for inviting me to chat with you today. I'm happy to be here, even though we're talking about not a happy topic. My 22-year-old son Josh had just graduated from college and was starting his life in Chicago when he went out with friends late at night, after already having a very full day on a Saturday. He went out drinking with friends, and then went to the apartment of one of his friends to a small party where a young woman brought out a stimulant, which was crushed and snorted, and then more drinking was going on. He went back to bars where he's drinking more. When he was walking back to his apartment by himself, he collapsed on the sidewalk, where somebody robbed him, but didn't do any injury to him. A [paramedic] squad was called, and they had to work very hard to resuscitate him, but ultimately, he was brain dead.
Susan Buningh: Can you tell us a bit about Josh?
Julie Buckner: Josh was an all-around good kid. He could be described sometimes, as his brother eulogized him, that he is sometimes like a Tootsie Pop, where they're a little hard on the outside, but that's soft mush on the inside. In high school, for instance, he was in the National Honor Society. He was a three-sport varsity athlete. He was on homecoming court one year. He was the type of kid that spanned every racial and ethnic group, had friends from all angles. In college, he went to the University of Michigan, where he was fortunate enough to be one of the student managers of the football team.
He also majored in sport management, and I can proudly say that he graduated on time, which for a parent is always a good thing. Kind of ironic, but he was a bartender at the most popular bar on campus. I described him as the mayor of Ann Arbor, because anywhere that we would walk with him when we were with him on campus, he always knew people. This broad smile, and saying hi, and his ability to work a room and to get along with people. He was a mush on the inside.
After he died, I can't even tell you the numbers of letters and phone calls and emails and conversations from people, and particularly from young women that I didn't know that were telling me these wonderful acts of kindness that he did. As a mom—I raised five boys—and as a mom, I was a little concerned, am I raising a kid... a young man who's going to be a pig, a pig with women or something. And to find out that he was a gentleman. Those were gifts to me to find out in-depth that I wouldn't have known otherwise.
Susan Buningh: What have you learned since this tragedy?
Julie Buckner: That's kind of a philosophical question you're asking me here. What have I learned in terms of mixing alcohol and stimulants? What have I learned about living life? There's a lot that I've learned. I was definitely aware of stimulants being misused inappropriately as a study aid. Where the students, well, students and even non-students who are not ADHD, will use stimulants with the false impression that they're going to perform better academically and on tests. What I have found since then is that there's zero proof that those students will perform better academically. In my mind, I view it as cheating. I just view that as out-and-out cheating, of trying to get an edge academically. When, actually, the only proof is that somebody will stay up and be more wired, but there's no proof that a person without ADHD is going to perform better academically.
The one thing I will say, talking to friends of his, they said that that was not something that he did. He was more of a “drink a lot of coffee” kind of a guy, or just drink caffeine just to stay awake. From that standpoint, what I learned after his death—and I'll delve in more into how I learned about this and what was going on at this party and so on to give a full picture to all the listeners—is about stimulants being misused with alcohol. That's the situation that presented itself with Josh. I am confident that he and most other people have no clue of the dangers of doing this.
In Josh's situation, he had already spent a full day out in the sun in Chicago in the summer at these outdoor concerts with his brother. In his case, he and his brother had a late dinner and they parted ways at about 11, 11:30 at night. And Josh being Mr. Social Butterfly just wanted to meet up with kids from college that he knew. And he met up with these friends and it was very late, and he also knew that he was going to be moving into his apartment the next morning. For him with the drinking, which typically would make somebody tired, he just wanted to stay more awake. And the use of a stimulant with alcohol is going to keep you hyper-awake, so that you're not going to fall asleep or pass out if you've had too much to drink. He knew that it would keep him awake. He knew that the purpose was to stay awake.
What he didn't know was, when you combine a stimulant with the alcohol, you can drink more without feeling the effects of the alcohol. Your body is going to be processing the alcohol, but in essence, in some ways your mind isn't, because you're not going to feel like you're getting as drunk as you're getting. His body was like a cash register, and it was just going up and up and up with the blood alcohol level. And yet he wasn't falling asleep or passing out, which is really your body's ways of protecting you. Because obviously, if you're asleep, you can't drink more.
In his case, he could keep consuming the alcohol to the point at which it became a lethal amount. When he was walking back to that apartment, basically it was a perfect storm of the stimulant with the alcohol, and the stimulant basically triggering a cardiac episode. I don't know if you'd call it a heart attack, whatever it was, it triggered a cardiac episode that was certainly strong enough for a healthy 22-year-old young man to collapse on the sidewalk. And then I'm sure—because it took a little while for a [paramedic] squad to get there—that kept oxygen from getting to his brain. With that, they kept him on life support to find out who he was. Because he had been robbed, he didn't have his wallet on him. They didn't know who he was. And through different ways, they were able to figure out basically it was [through] my older son [that] they were able to figure out how to get in contact with someone, and [they] kept him on life support for my husband and I to drive 300 miles to see him in the hospital, attached to life support, to make the decision to have him removed from life support, and for Gift of Life to be called in for the opportunity to use whatever they could from him.
I've learned a lot about the ideas of stimulants being misused with alcohol, and that while not always fatal, they can be very dangerous. And there can be other, lesser things that can happen. Somebody may just collapse and so on, and have to have their stomach pumped, or other invasive procedures without death—but that's one of the major things that I've learned. Let alone, obviously, the philosophical on how fragile life is and that we can't take things for granted. I also would advocate for the Gift of Life, that if you can help another family going through their own trauma, as in Josh's case, I'll put it out there. His blood alcohol level was so high, he'd consumed so much alcohol, that they couldn't use any parts or tissue or anything like that. The only thing that they could harvest from him were his eyes. So, at least we know that we gave the gift of sight to at least one other person—which to me, I'm just glad to know that we were able to do something to help another family.
Susan Buningh: What do you want other parents and caregivers to know?
Julie Buckner: There are a few things. If there's somebody there who has ADHD who is taking stimulants, not to really brag about it or to emphasize it. Because those kids, when they're in high school and college and so on, there can be peer pressure for them to sell or share their meds. That's something that the caregivers need to be aware of. The ones without ADHD, I think part of it is to know that it is being abused as a party drug on a football Saturday. What is often done is it is crushed and snorted and then combined with alcohol, so that these kids, before a game, can drink heartily without falling asleep or passing out or something so that they can continue to party on throughout the entire day. They don't want to just fall asleep and have the day ruined. They want to be able to keep going. For caregivers to have that awareness, that it is definitely being misused as a party drug.
Susan Buningh: The tagline for your foundation is, “It’s fun until…” What do you want young adults to know about taking stimulant medication and drinking alcohol?
Julie Buckner: I think with anything, and in this case the drinking, basically, whether it's with or without the stimulant, but that with anything, there are ramifications and there are consequences. So many people will party and want to drink and maybe combine it with a stimulant or something else, and they think it's all fun and games until “dot dot dot.” In Josh's situation, it is certainly the direst circumstance of anything. But there's so many ramifications that can happen all along the way—from being arrested for a DUI, from getting into a fight with a friend or something, from not waking up for an exam, from passing out… the possibilities are pretty endless… sexual assaults… and we certainly see that on college campuses all the time. And you can't tell me of date rape type things that they're not all substance-related. I have no question in my mind, with this, anything can seem like an innocent activity until it's not. And with our tagline, I didn't want it to be judgmental. I didn't want it to be pointing a finger. I just wanted the tagline to be out there to get people to think about their behaviors and actions a little bit.
Susan Buningh: What recommendations do you have for parents?
Julie Buckner: Certainly, always, it is to keep the line of communication open with your kids and to not be judgmental, but to be there as an open and willing ear. And to maybe talk about things when it's in a calm situation, rather than when you're in the thick of something. In essence, to bring up conversations when you're in the car driving with your kid, or just at the dinner table, or at those innocent times when it's not anything dire, to talk about some of these topics and to ask them if they're aware of these types of things and have they been confronted with these things. And again, without being judgmental, to keep that dialogue open from an emotional standpoint. One of the things that I would say is to never end a conversation with kids without telling them you love them. It sounds like nothing, but to me that's a monumental thing. Because those were the last words that Josh and I said to each other. At the end of the conversation, I said to him, "I love you, honey." And he said, "I love you too, Mom." And those were the last words I ever heard from him.
That to me has been a gift every day since the day he died. To know that those were our last words to each other. The thought that a conversation could have ended in anger or something, and then never speak to each other again, that's one of those things I'm really, really big on. It sounds stupid, but to tell those that I love, that I love them at the end of any phone conversation or something. That's really a powerful message, and it's an important message. That's something that stays with you forever.
Susan Buningh: Have you found out how he obtained the stimulant medication?
Julie Buckner: I found out pretty quickly the scenario of what happened. And it was this case where it was an acquaintance friend of his at this small party. It was kids that he knew from college, some who were graduates, some who were not. And one of the people at the party provided the stimulant. I don't know if it was her prescription or not, but it was provided by somebody at the party.
After he died, I got a call from a police detective from Chicago who wanted more information about this person. I was not willing to participate with that. There are some parents who might've been all over it to say, "Oh, yes, I'm going to turn this person in. I'm going to give the police department the name and they can go after this person," and so on. I was not interested, and I was not willing to do that. I felt that there was nothing to be served by that. I felt that this was something that this person is going to have to live with for the rest of her life. And Josh was 22, and I know that nobody tied his arms behind his back to do what he did. It was a voluntary thing that he did. He didn't intend to die over it, but he just wanted to stay more awake.
Susan Buningh: How do we convince young people not to share their ADHD medications with others? That the consequences could be, you could kill your friend. It could lead to other harm. How do we convince them?
Julie Buckner: This kind of goes back to basic elementary and junior high drug awareness conversations of a good drug versus a bad drug. And when the ADHD med is being used appropriately and it's been prescribed, and the person who is the patient is using it in the proper dosage and so on, then that's fine. That's a good drug. But the minute it goes into somebody else's hands who does not have ADHD, whose prescription that it is, and even if the other person has ADHD, once it's not their prescription, then that's an illegal substance. And so, the sharing of it or selling of it is an illegal act.
That's something that needs to be emphasized too, that in essence they're becoming drug dealers. And I think that a lot of these kids who might be sharing it through peer pressure and just wanting to fit in with their friends and so on, they don't have the intent of doing a truly illegal act and being a drug pusher and so on. That can be spelled out a little bit, that they're actually harming their friends, they're not helping their friends because there's no good that's going to come from giving what now becomes an illegal drug to somebody else, of any form. There's no good that comes from that.
Susan Buningh: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us today?
Julie Buckner: I guess it goes back to the more knowledge you can get the better. The more that you keep your lines of communication open with your kids, the better. The more that you can support them in positive ways, the better. The more that you exhibit your love for them and share this information, the better.
Josh, let me emphasize also, he was not an alcoholic, he was not a drug addict, he did not have ADHD, he did not have mental health disorders. This was a complete aberration, and that's a scary thing. My story is one that I would say, this can happen to anybody. I was totally blindsided with this. And that's something that I think as caregivers, as parents, that you just need to keep your eyes and ears open and be vigilant. You can't live in constant fear, but I will say what happened to Josh is every parent's nightmare. I'm living every parent's fear. From the minute that a child is born, the minute that you have that baby, you just want to protect that child, whatever age that child is.
One thing I would also say [to teens and young adults]: when your parents are calling or texting you, to just acknowledge the parents. Don't just blow them off. Your parents just want you to be safe. They just want to know that you're okay. And when everything was coming down with Josh, I was frantically calling and texting, and I just wanted a response. If he wanted to give me a poop emoji response, that would have been fine. I just wanted a response. Let those that are trying to get ahold of you know that you're okay. Your parents love you, and they just want to know that you're okay. So that's a big message for the kids mostly, but for the parents too, just to tell your kids that. To let your kids, know that you love them, and you care about them, and you just want to know that they're okay.
Susan Buningh: Thank you so much, Julie.
Julie Buckner: Thank you, Susan. It has been my honor and my privilege and my pleasure to be able to speak with you today.
Susan Buningh: Thank you.
Susan Buningh: Thank you for listening to another episode of ADHD 365. Stay up to date on the latest ADHD information by connecting to CHADD's social media page at CHADD.org/social.