HARWICH ─ It’s not often that an auditorium full of high school students is so silent one can hear the proverbial pin drop, but that was the case when Chris Herren spoke at Monomoy Regional High School on Monday.
Herren, a former member of the Boston Celtics and a recovering drug addict now sober for eight years, brought a powerful message to students, many of whom were moved to tears by his words.
But it wasn’t just his story Herren told.
“My story’s not enough,” Herren said. “You kids deserve more than just my story.”
Though Herren's story played out in a short film prefacing the talk, detailing his dark plunge from basketball star to struggling junkie, Herren, somberly and with razor-sharp intent, recounted young people who shared their painful truths with him.
He recalled a girl who escaped the ongoing pain of a home life impacted by substance abuse, coupled with the shame of in-school bullying, by cutting her arms, and then her ribs and thighs when her arms became too scarred. He spoke of an 11-year-old who snuck out of his home to seek advice from Herren at a Pennsylvania event on how he might help his addicted sister. He talked of a girl at another high school event, wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, who confessed to shooting heroin in the school bathroom that morning. And he talked about himself.
Herren’s downward spiral began when partying with pals from Durfee High in Fall River over beer and blunts before moving on to cocaine at Boston College, where he’d been given a basketball scholarship. Eventually, Herren delved into opiates, which led to a full-blown heroin habit that derailed not only his professional basketball career, but also his life.
As part of his sobriety, he has made it his mission to bring his message to young people across the country. That includes his children, two of whom are in high school. Herren told the Monomoy kids that if his children ever turn to drugs or alcohol, he’ll be quick with a query.
“I’m going to make them look me in the eye and answer one question – why,” he said.
It is a question he feels not enough parents ask their children, opting instead to blame friends or other parents.
“The kids who have been caught? I’m willing to bet…your mom and dad never asked you why,” he said. “Instead they tell you they don’t want you hanging out with those kids or at that house. They ask where you bought it. They don’t ask why. If we don’t understand why, we’ll never think we can get there.”
Herren’s “why” involved an alcoholic father.
“Unaddressed sadness,” he said. “I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know where to begin. That’s my why. What’s your why?”
Herren acknowledged self-esteem and identity issues played a significant role in his illness.
“I wish I had the courage to cry when I was your age,” he said. “I wish I was tough enough to talk. I wish I never pretended everything was OK.”
He encouraged students to be themselves, and be comfortable with it.
“In eight years of being sober there has not been one day I wanted to go back, except the days I didn’t want to be me,” Herren said. “That’s the biggest struggle, fading away from yourself for a little bit. Letting go for a couple hours. The struggle has always been not being me. Drugs and alcohol was just the vehicle to take me away from it.”
He is not in favor of legalized marijuana.
“Kids ask me all the time, ‘Don’t you agree it’s just weed?’” He said. “My honest answer is always the same: I find it really sad when a kid loses the ability to be themselves 24-7. When you cross that bridge. When you need that escape. When you start smoking the drug you promised your mother you never would.”
The slide from alcohol and weed, Herren said, can be swift, especially when opiates enter the picture.
“Pills kill twice as many people every year combined than heroin and crack,” Herren said. “Why would you take a chance at dying for that little thing?”
As he told the girl in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, “Those percs, they turn into needles. The pills become syringes.”
Herren knows well the “I won’t go that route” mentality, and said so.
“I made a promise to myself and I made a promise to my mother,” he said. “I broke that promise when I was 14 years old in eighth grade when I started drinking my father’s beer. That beer broke me. It broke my mother. It broke their marriage. How could it possibly be cool to drink something that ruins your family?”
But it is possible to turn one’s life around, Herren said, noting that if family members weren’t able to help, teachers could.
“Everyone has a teacher in this high school right now that would be more than happy to help you,” he said. “That will extend themselves to make sure you’re OK.”
One of the biggest joys of being sober, Herren said, is stable fatherhood. After years of unpredictable behavior driven by his addiction, Herren delights in being there for his kids.
“I’ve been the same father for eight years. My kids know who I am 24-7,” Herren said. “That’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been able to give anybody.”
Today, Herren invests himself in his Hoop Dreams youth basketball training, and sharing his message of sobriety through his motivational speaking engagements.
“I surround myself today with people that make me better,” he said. “I will look you dead in the eye and tell you, with all my heart, it’s not easy being sober, but it’s way easier than getting high and living that life.”