A Diet Coke can concealing drugs. A stapler holding prescription pills. A flask disguised as a bottle of lotion. A watch that keeps time, but is also a grinder for marijuana. A slit cut in the sole of a flip flop where an illegal narcotic now hides.
These are just a few of the seemingly innocent items that can be hidden in plain view in a typical teenager's bedroom. "Hidden In Plain View," an initiative by the nonprofit Addiction Is Real to help parents spot signs of risky behavior in their teens, was an eye-opening experience for many Kirkwood parents.
The interactive display included more than 70 items signaling a young person might be involved in risky behaviors or drug-related activities. The exhibit was paired with a personal talk from a mother who lost her son to a drug addiction. The evening, which was recently held at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood, was a learning experience for lots of parents – even those who consider themselves relatively in the know.
Shonda Ambers-Phillips, whose son is a middle school student at Kirkwood schools, is currently a member of the West St. Louis County Opioid Task Force and previously served as a board member of the Rockwood Drug-Free Coalition within the Rockwood School District.
"I thought I was pretty knowledgable because of my work with the task forces, but going through that room (the exhibit) made me realize there's so much I don't know," said Ambers-Phillips, who serves as executive director of student services for the Kirkwood School District, but attended the Addiction Is Real event as a parent.
Ambers-Phillips, along with many other parents, said she was surprised to learn about many of the items teens are using to conceal and consume drugs and alcohol. A small slit cut in a bra to hold a pill, scrap pieces of paper in the trash that were cut from the center of a book that now holds pills, and drugs hidden in the wall behind the light switch are a just few of the hiding places that raised parents' eyebrows.
"I was shocked by several of these things, but I'm glad I know about them now," she said. "You don't want the first time you're seeing this to be in your kid's bedroom."
Which is precisely why Addiction Is Real developed the exhibit for parents.
"It's really hard to keep up with what kids are doing. Our goal is to educate parents and give parents red flags to watch out for with the hope that parents can catch a problem before it's an addiction," said Addiction Is Real board member Teri Douglas, who didn't realize her son had a drug problem until he was already an addict.
"I knew something wasn't right, but I didn't know what it was," she said of her son. "I wish I would have had this (the exhibit, the red flags to look for), but I didn't. My son overdosed, and I had no idea if he would survive."
He did survive, but most who overdose do not. Pam Greenberg, vice president of Addiction Is Real, lost her son to a drug overdose three years ago.
"If you suspect your kid is using, act immediately. Do not wait," she said. "The three most dangerous words a parent can think or say are: 'Not my child.' I thought that, too."
Greenberg has a plea for every parent: "Talk to your kids, and listen to what your kids have to say. Keep your eyes and ears open. Pay attention. Be proactive. Tell them, 'I want to keep you safe.' I lost my only son, which is why I beg you – talk to them. It might be your kid."
Greenberg reminded parents that kids have questions, and it's better they get the answers from them than their friends.
"We have to arm our kids with the information to make good decisions," she said.
Ambers-Phillips echoed the sentiment.
I make him wear his seat belt in the car and his helmet while riding his bike – I feel like I need to give him the tools to be able to fight this, too," she said of her 13-year-old son. "It's everywhere and there's no community that's immune."
Greenberg stressed the importance of parents making their children aware that marijuana and heroin are often laced with other drugs, making for a lethal combination.
"If you experimented with drugs and choose to share that with them, please make sure they know it's different now – that trying something one time can kill you," she said.
She said the affordability of certain drugs is also frightening: Heroin is cheap and it's in the Kirkwoods of America."
"What would be the reaction if we were struck by nearly 21 terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 every single year? That's the toll the opioid epidemic is taking on our country," Greenberg told parents.
She shared other sobering statistics as well: The average age for first-time alcohol use is 12 years old – for marijuana, it's 13. Thirty-four percent of teens think there is no risk in drinking, and 37 percent think there's no risk in using marijuana. Prescription medications are now the most commonly abused drugs among 12- and 13-year-olds.
A statistic Greenberg is glad to share is that teens who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use them. It's her hope that Addiction Is Real helps parents learn not only to spot possible warning signs their child may be using drugs or alcohol, but also talk to them about it – and the earlier the better.
Parents who attended the event said it's already helped them start, or continue, these important conversations with their children.
"It's alarming – everything in the (exhibit) room, the statistics – but at the same time it's empowering," Ambers-Phillips said. "Knowledge is power and this helps us attack this issue and approach it with our kids. It has sparked several follow-up conversations between me and my son, and with my son and my husband as a family as well."
Mike Lane, a Kirkwood parent of two teenage boys, said he and his wife were glad they attended the event.
"It's been eye-opening. Anytime you know more you're better equipped to fight the problem," he said.
To learn more about Addiction Is Real, visit www.addictionisreal.org.