Stephen Hill is a third-year law student at Brooklyn Law School with a promising future. He is also a polished, articulate speaker who admits he is completely at home at a podium, addressing groups both large and small.
Yet the content of Hill’s talks focuses on a darker side to his life — his decade-long struggle with substance abuse, and the deep reach of America’s opioid epidemic.
The Suffern, N.Y., native described his experimentation with alcohol and illicit drugs to packed audiences at Shelton High School on Wednesday, March 20. What began as “innocent” experimentation led to an addition that spanned all of high school, torpedoed his initial college career and ultimately landed him in jail. Hill followed those with an evening presentation at the school to concerned parents and community members.
“Every day, our youth are faced with pressures, challenges and temptations from their peers,” said Shelton Youth Services Bureau Director Sylvia Rodriguez, who invited Hill to speak to both groups. “We cannot afford to be naive about our children’s exposure and temptation to use drugs, and today, instead of focusing our efforts on treatment we now have changed our focus to drug-abuse prevention.”
Hill’s theme echoed the title of his recent book, “Speak Sobriety.” He has personally known more than 30 people in their 20s who have died from overdoses on heroin or opiates. Hill urges parents and students to guard against substance abuse — and to maintain that vigilance with their friends, with their children and with themselves.
“I have now been clean and sober for six years,” said Hill. “And everything that I have in my life right now is a direct result of sobriety. If you had told me six and a half years ago that I’d be in law school and speaking at colleges and high schools, I’d say, ‘You’re insane. That is never going to happen.’”
Hill’s own experiences began innocently enough. At the end of his first week of freshman year, he and a friend attended a party thrown by seniors where both booze and drugs were readily available.
“I wanted to be part of their world, so I began drinking and smoking pot,” he recalled.
At another party soon thereafter, Hill was approached by a classmate who was a dealer — who recruited Hill to sell marijuana to friends.
Later that same fall, a group of girls who were seniors spent an entire school day sipping vodka from innocent-looking water bottles. When school was out, they all piled into one girl’s convertible and sped off. The driver was intoxicated and flipped the car several miles away. The girl who was driving was killed in the crash.
“It’s safe to say that the shock of her death did not last very long at our school,” he recalled.
Early in his sophomore year, Hill faced the first negative consequence of his drug use when he learned about his first failing grade. That made him ineligible to play on the varsity soccer team. With more time on his hands, he began using cocaine and other substances. Several months later, he got into an argument with the hockey coach and was cut from that team as well.
“By the time I was 16, I pretty much stopped going to school at all,” he recalled.
Then one day, Hill was dragged out of bed by two ex-Marines and driven some 800 miles away to a rehab program in the Georgia wilderness. He endured this “roughing it” — along with constant doses of yelling, screaming and other verbal abuse from his new keepers — for seven and a half weeks.
When Hill returned home, he did everything possible to curry favor from his parents. This episode of sobriety lasted for three months and ended when a friend shared a supply of OxyContin with him. That friend’s sister had gotten a large supply after her wisdom teeth were removed.
“My friend didn’t like OxyContin … but I remember thinking this was just what I wanted,” he said.
College lasted a mere two months, and his return home began a cycle of drug arrests. These were always followed by a mandatory 28-day drug rehab program. During one period when he was out of jail, he drove an all-terrain vehicle "off a cliff and fractured his femur. Ironically, he received a prescription for painkillers as a result of his injury. This ultimately resulted in a 900-milligram-per-day painkiller habit — and a busy career as a pusher and bookie to support his habit.
Several days after his brother’s wedding in 2012, Hill took drugs for the last time because immediately thereafter he entered his seventh — and final — drug treatment program. This was at Turnbridge, a seven-month residential treatment facility in New Haven.
Hill credits the length of stay with his success, which contrasts with the seven-week Georgia wilderness program and the usual 28-day rehab programs to which he was sent by the legal system. During month five of the program, his counselors allowed Hill to enroll in two classes at Gateway Community College. He earned As, which led to further academic success.
Hill had been a longtime cigarette smoker, and tobacco use is often tolerated in treatment programs as a way to wean people off drugs. In response to a parent’s question, he admitted that the nicotine habit was the hardest to break of all. Parents were especially concerned about vaping and electronic devices such as the Juul.
“Juuls have become difficult because kids know they are not going to kill them the way cigarette smoking does,” said Hill, adding that a Juul delivers a strong dose of nicotine, which can easily result in addiction.
Hill’s stay was so successful that Turnbridge’s staff offered him a full-time staff job when he completed rehab.
“I was completely blown away,” he said. “This was truly a second chance … and now, I lead my life completely differently than I did before.”
One key to preventing substance abuse, Hill pointed out, is to realize that drugs and alcohol affect everyone differently. Plenty of people can “dabble” in substance abuse — and then walk away from it, he said. Others become dependent on those substances. A person will never know until he or she experiences addiction firsthand, and it’s not something one should want to find out.
Another important thing to bear in mind is that addiction is a disease, not a personal or moral failing. When word got around in Hill’s hometown of his struggles, people were quick to blame his mother and father for “bad parenting” — which, Hill said, was wrong. For starters, it doesn’t take into account that Hill’s three brothers managed to reach adulthood without becoming addicts. Secondly, such attitudes result in family isolation, leading to further stress at a time when a family needs support.
“All of the people I’ve known who died from heroin overdoses began with prescription drugs, which were usually prescribed by doctors for conditions requiring relief from pain,” said Hill.
In today’s world, it’s important for patients to question whether they need painkillers in the first place and whether the prescription is for too large a supply.
A 30-day or longer supply can often result in addiction. Hill suggested that if an individual has a condition that truly does require painkillers, he or she should ask a trusted family member or friend to hold onto them to act as a check from developing drug dependence.
Parents, siblings and friends should not be shy about confronting suspicions of drug abuse in a person they care about, Hill added
“You can’t control how someone is going to react to that, you just have to accept what happens,” he said. “But speaking up to them is part of being a good friend.”
Hill’s own father made him leave the household — whereas his mother worried about what might become of her son “living on the streets.” He later learned that his father grew up in a family with several substance abusers. He had seen witnessed firsthand the harm that an overly tolerant approach could bring.
Lastly, a key part of recovery is finding one’s passion. Hill found his own in his studies and, ultimately, the law. He graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, took the LSAT and entered Brooklyn Law School. He will soon begin an internship at the Rockland County, N.Y., district attorney’s office — the same team that led several prosecutions against him.
Loved ones can certainly help an individual find a similar path to success.
“Don’t just say, ‘Just say no,’” Hill said. “Help that person find something he or she truly loves and is not willing to throw away.”