'Chasing death' and walking away

Former Celtics player Herren shares story of addiction, recovery at Cranston East

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You could have heard a pin drop in the packed auditorium at Cranston High School East last Wednesday night.

Chris Herren, a Fall River native who once played professional basketball for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, visited the school to share his emotional story of substance abuse and recovery – one which started with underage drinking at age 13 and transitioned to cocaine and opioid abuse, multiple overdoses, arrests, and attempts at recovery until his official sobriety date of August 1, 2008.

Herren, now 44, has spent the last decade dedicating his life to his family and sharing his story with others in the hopes of making a difference for those who are struggling with their own addiction or that of a family member.

“Prevention Starts With All: The Chris Herren Story” was sponsored by the Cranston Police Department, the Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force – a program of CCAP – and the state’s Department of Behavioral Healthcare Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, through the State Opioid Response Grant.

Cranston Police Capt. Vin McAteer introduced the event and thanked the sponsors of the event. He spoke about the impact that the current opioid addiction crisis has had on the city, state and entire country.

“Addiction does not discriminate. It doesn’t care where you’re from or who you are,” he said.

He added: “The tide is turning as these organizations and the people inside of them are doing the work, answering the call since 2011.”

Mayor Allan Fung, who introduced Herren, called addiction a “powerful disease” that has “stolen” the dreams and lives of people from the Cranston community and beyond.

He noted that hearing from Herren – whose story was featured in the acclaimed 2011 ESPN documentary “Unguarded” – provided a unique opportunity.

“I am a contemporary of Chris Herren. I grew up following his career,” the mayor said. “I drove to see him play.”

Herren, who played a short video before beginning his talk, started with an overview of his work during the last decade.

“For the past 10 years I have dedicated most of my life to traveling all over, telling my story to teams like the Patriots, the Packers, the Bears, the Red Sox, at Yale, in prisons, at college commencements and to more than two million children in auditoriums like this one,” he said. “When it comes to addiction and the stigma attached to it, it’s presented to our children all wrong. People focus on their worst day and they’re forgetting their first day.”

Herren spoke of his early years in a home where his father, a local politician, struggled with severe alcoholism.

“I remember the fights, the yelling, the screaming, my mom crying all the time, and I remember the first time my mom said she was going to leave him. I said, ‘If you leave him, please take me with you,’” he said.

Herren said the first “red flag” in terms of his own addiction came at age 13, when he began drinking his father’s cans of Miller Lite in their home’s basement.

When he was 18, as his parents divorced, Herren – a high school hoops standout – was named to the McDonald’s All-American team. A coveted prospect, he chose to attend Boston College.

Then, within the first few weeks on campus, he had another fateful experience on his road to addiction – this time involving other students and a new, more dangerous substance.

“At 18 years old, I had never seen cocaine, and I started walking away. But all of my childhood insecurities took hold of me as the girl in my room told me to come back, told me to try it and told me that a little cocaine wouldn’t hurt me, that she was afraid the first time she tried it too,” he said. “I said to myself that I’d try it one time and never again. I had no idea that the one line would take me 14 years to walk away from.”

The escalation was quick. Just four months later, Boston College expelled Herren after four failed drug tests.

“At 18 years old, I was a loser, a failure,” he said. “My mother was crying and for six months I sat on my mother’s couch, hoping a coach would call me to give me a second chance. At 19 years old, as I sat on my mother’s couch, I had no idea that one line of cocaine travels with you, no idea that it follows you.”

A coach well known for giving players a second chance, Jerry Tarkanian, did in fact call Herren and asked him to play for Fresno State in California. The opportunity, however, came with conditions – that Herren publicly acknowledge his addiction and check into a rehabilitation facility in Utah.

“At 21, I sat at a table and cried on ESPN and went for my first treatment center check-in. I looked around me and said, ‘I’m not like these people, I don’t belong with those people,’ but I had to do the 30 days,” he said. “I returned to Fresno and played the season, and I was the 33rd draft pick for the NBA and I was drafted by the Denver Nuggets.”

As Herren transitioned to a new team, he was given ground rules – no drinking, no smoking. The situation was supportive, and Herren reflected on that season as his best.

When it ended, a 22-year-old Herren was at home in Fall River with his wife and kids. Then, one night, a knock on the door marked the start of another life-changing evening.

“I opened the door and there was a kid standing there that I’d grown up with. He said, ‘Remember growing up when we used to get our hands on Vicodin and Percocets? This new drug is like five Vicodin and Percocets in one shot, and I’ll give it to you for $20.’”

He added: “And with that one little yellow pill, OxyContin, in 1999, I had no idea that decision would change my life forever. That $20 would turn into $25,000 a month, and two months later when I was checking into training camp, I was sick. I was dependent. My first five days of training camp was my first detox.”

Before the start of his second NBA season, Herren had been traded to the Celtics – a team for which he had dreamed of playing. But when coach Rick Pitino called him, what should have been a dream come true was in fact the beginning of a nightmare.

“It had been my dream to play for the Celtics and I’d been traded to the Celtics,” he said. “My first phone call was to the kid with the pills. I couldn’t care less about the Celtics. I struggled all season and I was released at the end. I was buying before home games and shipping pills all over when we traveled.”

Then the top team in Europe called Herren to play for them, offering him twice the money he had been making. The team also provided him with a house, schooling for his children and proximity to a hospital as the family prepared to welcome another baby.

Herren’s wife didn’t know that when they went through customs in Italy, he had $24,000 work of painkillers in his luggage. Eventually, that supply ran out and he became desperate once again.

“At 24 years old, I couldn’t say OxyContin in Italian, and I pulled into downtown Bologna, Italy, pulled up to the guy on the street, rolled up my sleeve out the window and pointed to my veins,” Herren remembered. “He jumped into my car and I drove down the alley. He said to me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want cocaine?’ I said, ‘I’m so sick from these painkillers I’ve been taking, I just need heroin to get me through until I can get some shipped to me.’ At 24 years old I’d never seen a needle except in a hospital, and at 24 years old I became an intravenous drug user.”

Four weeks later, there was a knock on his door. It was Herren’s coach, letting him know that the team was heading to the mountains for 10 days of training.

“The $750,000 in cash wasn’t enough. The house, the cars, the school, the hospital were not enough, because I knew there was not enough heroin to get me through in the mountains,” he said. “I walked away. For four months I had no job, and every day I’d go to the same Dunkin’ Donuts and see the same drug dealer, throw him some cash, put the seat back, and wait for the heroin to kick in. I’d go through the drive-thru, get Munchkins for my kids and walk into my house like a hero.”

One day however, Herren, didn’t put his seat back and didn’t bring home Munchkins. Instead, he overdosed, took his foot off the brake and drove right into the woman in front of him.

He was arrested. But once he was bailed out of jail, he called the man from the parking lot.

“How sad we are, how sick we are, that we wake up every single day facing dying, chasing death, every single day,” he said.

The calls for contracts stopped coming, and at 27 years old, Herren found himself hustling for drugs on the streets. He couldn’t afford heroin, so he went for vodka.

“It shuts the noise off, helps you forget,” he said.

On June 4, 2008, Herren put his children on the bus, went to the liquor store and bought four bags of heroin. He felt the overdose coming, and rather than being back home in time to get his kids off the bus that afternoon, he crashed into the cemetery across the street.

He was cuffed and walked into the same hospital he’d been in at 18 years old. He was 32 years old, and when he was released from the hospital that evening, the young police officer released him, saying that he knew who Herren was and used to follow his career.

“It kills me to see you in this condition, I can’t imagine what it does to your family,” Herren remembered the officer saying. “So go home and give your kids a kiss.”

Instead, Herren said he decided to end his life.

“If there was one thing I could do for my family, it was to kill myself,” he said.

Before Herren could leave, however, a nurse was yelling his name and asking him to wait. She was in her 50s. His mom had been in her 50s when she died of cancer. They’d known each other in high school.

“Your mom is talking to me now, asking me to fill in and get you the help you need,” she said.

Herren said while the medical professionals he’d just seen were willing to release him the same night he’d overdosed, telling him that there were more deserving people waiting for the room than he was, this woman hugged him while he cried like a baby.

“I waited day after day while she called center after center and there were no beds,” he said. “On the eighth day I was about to be released and a phone call came in. On the other line were a man and a woman, Chris and Liz Mullen, and they’d found me a place for six months. ‘It’s not the nicest place but hopefully it’s enough,’ they told me.”

He added: “So at 32 years old I walked in, and for the first 30 days I had no contact with my family. I scrubbed floors, I cleaned toilets to earn a two-minute phone call. I called my wife, Heather, and she told me she was going to the hospital to have our third child. She’d been eight months pregnant when I had overdosed. ‘No one is here with me, I have no friends, no family, can you come?’”

Against the advice of the center, Herren went.

“I witnessed my first sober birth of my son Drew. Christopher was 9 and Samantha was 7. Christopher cried when he saw me. ‘I miss you, it’s good to see you. I love you, I want you to be my dad. Promise me you’ll be my dad,’” Herren recalled.

He added: “I told my wife I was taking a walk, and I’d be right back. But I never came back. I went up the street from Women & Infants Hospital and bought a pint of vodka. It took one sip to forget and I finished the bottle. I was still chasing death for a feeling. The next day [Heather] told me I wasn’t welcome anymore. That she was stepping up for our children. So at 32 years old, I had nothing left to live for. I took the elevator down, thinking about dying. I jumped into the car and went back to the center.”

The counselor at the center had heard all about Herren’s return visit home. The counselor, he said, suggested that he cut ties with his family – that he ask his wife to tell their children that he had died in a car accident.

“I went back to my room, a 12-man room, and started crying,” he said. “I dropped to my knees and I started praying. That was Aug. 1, 2008, and that is my sobriety date. By the grace of God, I take things one day at a time with a whole lot of guidance and support in my life. I thank God every day for that man’s words, and for the bad days, and I’ve become grateful for the blessings, grateful for the worst moments. I forgive and I allow myself to be forgiven.”

Herren’s children are now 20, 18 and almost 12. His own father is still struggling with alcohol addiction.

“Every high school I walk into, somebody will say to me, ‘Considering what you’ve been through, what was it like to have your kids come home drunk or try drugs?’ And I am lucky to say that it’s still an ‘if’ situation,” he said. “It’s not a lifestyle they’ve chosen, but if they do, I’m going to walk into their bedroom and hug them and remind them how much I love them and ask them, ‘Can you please just tell me why, why would you take a chance and let it begin for you, considering what it’s done to your family?’”

He added: “Presenting at home tonight was hard. I cried like a baby. I see a lot of familiar faces in the audience. I do this 200 times a year and I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and it never gets easier, but I believe in it. I believe in the hope that recovery can bring in, not just one person’s life but to their families. I empathize with people who have families who are sick and suffering. Understand that it’s not your fault. I hope that one person on the way out will say, ‘I just want to feel better. I don’t want to do this to myself anymore. I don’t want my kids to suffer. I want them to have the dad they deserve, the mom that they believe I am.’”

He encouraged families to be present and to be aware of red flags, such as his underage drinking at 13.

“So many parents are there Monday through Friday, pouring over homework, making fools of themselves at sports games, but on the weekends, they’re not always present, they step away. Be there because [children] need you before they go down into that basement,” he said. “Then, there are parents who have done everything right, who are there, who are having all the conversations. You can’t predict who will suffer, who will suffer from drug and alcohol addiction.”

Herren also encouraged school departments to take a look at their course offerings and consider mandatory wellness and mental health classes for students. He cited the overwhelming caseloads often faced by guidance counselors.

“We have 2,400 kids in some high schools with four guidance counselors. We have more coaches, more gym teachers, more music teachers than we have guidance counselors,” he said. “How can one person make an impact on 600 students?”

Dana DeVerna of the Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force later weighed in on the event.

“The Task Force was so pleased with the overwhelming turnout to such a poignant, inspirational talk by Chris Herren,” DeVerna said. “I loved looking through the audience and seeing people young to old, seeing middle school students to grandparents, all talking his story but able to personalize it to them, to give them the strength to say no, to help stay sober or to help loved ones suffering. We are so blessed to have the best community partners … This event was a huge success.”

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