ELIZABETHVILLE — It didn’t take long for Kristen Harootunian’s life to spiral, following the death of her mother when she was just 11.
By the time she was 12 years old, she was depressed. Her negative thoughts eventually led to negative actions, she said. At 15, she had become addicted to drugs and alcohol and, by 16, she developed a self-harm habit.
“I told myself I was not good enough. I wasn’t a good enough daughter, a good enough friend, and I didn’t know if I even wanted to be alive,” she said.
Harootunian, now 20, shared her journey to recovery, serving as keynote speaker Tuesday during Upper Dauphin Area High School’s Drug Education Day.
Joann Brim, high school wellness instructor, along with librarian Janet Denlinger, organized the day of activities for the district’s sophomores. Brim arranged for 10 other guests in a variety of fields to visit the school, ranging from neonatal health care to counseling and law enforcement.
Travis “Featherhawk” Snyder, creator of Skook Recovers, brought his own message of overcoming a heroin addiction. Part of his group’s motto is “For those who still suffer, there is hope.”
Snyder showed a video of people who have addictions and what they’ve faced during the recovery process. Snyder said each person on that video was once a student, same as those attending.
“Each and every one of us is vulnerable to lead that chaotic life,” Snyder, Hegins, said.
He commended the district for hosting the drug awareness event.
Snyder was asked if he thought he’d be treated differently if he asked for help, how his addiction affected his family, and what he does today instead of doing drugs.
He last used drugs Dec. 22, 2011, when he was sent to Schuylkill County Prison and sought treatment.
When he was using, Snyder said, “I put my family through chaos. My mother couldn’t bear the thought of me overdosing and dying. I didn’t have a rational thought about how that affected her.”
“If you’re struggling, there is no shame in reaching out for help,” he said.
Snyder attended 12-step meetings and became involved in church and volunteer groups. He spent time with family and got involved in his community through litter pickup and playground improvement projects. He also focused on his fitness, his art hobby and began a screen printing business.
Having positive influences was also a message shared by Harootunian.
“Isolation is a negative coping skill,” Harootunian said.
Although she was a straight-A student, she started getting poor grades, eventually stopped going to school and hated the person she saw in the mirror.
She said she went through drug treatment and learned to tell the truth about how she was feeling.
“I needed to find new friends because all of my friends were drug addicts. You need to surround yourself with positive people. I switched all my friends and changed schools,” she said.
She continues going to therapy and today celebrates three years of being sober and 2 1/2 years of being free of self-harm. Harootunian encouraged students to find three, trusting adults in their lives. For her, those people are her father, therapist and sponsor.
“I want to let kids know they’re not alone. There’s always someone that can relate to what you’re going through. I leave happy, knowing that I can inspire someone else with what I’ve gone through,” Harootunian, Delaware County, said.
She has speaking engagements scheduled about twice per week. Her visits are scheduled through the Minding Your Mind organization, which provides mental health education. More information can be found at www.mindingyourmind.org.
Sophomore Amber Boyer said she enjoyed Snyder’s presentation.
“That stood out to me. He wanted us to know that we can get help and just because you make a bad decision when you’re younger, you can have a good life afterward,” Boyer, 16, of Elizabethville, said.
Indiana Miller, Gratz, found the Skook Recovers information helpful.
“He showed how people can make a positive difference in their community and showed the way to get back and to succeed in life,” Miller, 16, said.
Meanwhile, Stephen Boyer’s presentation demonstrated the reach of the opioid crisis. During the brief time he was at Upper Dauphin Area High School on Tuesday morning, his company had received a call to respond for an overdose. Boyer is a paramedic supervisor with UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg. He also teaches police departments and fire companies about the use of Narcan. Boyer is a graduate of Upper Dauphin Area High School, and his children, Patrick and Paytn, attend the district.
He spoke of how opioids affect the brain, different types of narcotics and how to identify when a person is a user and if they’re suffering an overdose. Narcan should not be considered an antidote or a permanent treatment, he said.
“There was a common thread. In every class, I asked if they’d seen or knew of someone who had an opioid overdose. Every class had someone who raised their hand,” Boyer said.
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