For a little over an hour in Walsh Gymnasium Monday night, you could hear a pin drop.
Former NBA player turned public speaker Chris Herren captivated the audience that showed up to hear his story. That story is about Herren’s history of drug abuse, his rise to basketball prominence from high school to collegiate to professional levels, and his subsequent downfall due to addiction.
Herren has become a public symbol of hope for people struggling with the demons of addiction. He gives a voice for all those who do not have the stage he possesses. Sober for seven years now, Herren has spent the last five traveling the country spreading the awareness of addiction.
Even with a story as unique as his, Herren was not ready for some of what has been thrown his way over these past five years.
“The stuff that I’ve witnessed speaking the last five years is, to be quite honest with you, things that I would never anticipate,” Herren said. “15-year-olds killing themselves, 14-year-olds doing heroin, stuff that I wasn’t prepared for.”
Issues of such magnitude are hard things to prepare for. Speaking so openly about addiction is something that, over the last few years, is becoming more routine and accepted. To Herren, continuing to talk about addiction openly is what is going to help get the public to understand the complexity of the illness.
“This is a message that I believe is extremely important, and everybody needs to pay closer attention to it,” Herren said. “If you can shed light on a topic where there’s a lot of shame and guilt and regret, and you can bring that person out of that shadow, that’s what it’s all about.”
Drug addiction in teens and young adults was not always such a problem as it seems to be in today’s society. And there was a lot less conversation on the issue.
With the prevalent drug problem in America and people like Herren speaking out to help those suffering, the message can start to change. But Herren believes there is still a problem with how society views the drug addict in their struggles.
“I think we focus on the last day of addiction rather than the first day,” Herren said. “I think we want to focus on the homeless guy, the prostitute, the overdoses, and not figure out why. Like, why did this all happen? We want to react rather than be proactive.”
However, Herren does believe the conversation is changing— slowly, but surely.
“I think certain communities are more willing to address it than others, and aren’t afraid to talk about it. And that shows a lot of growth. I think we’ll get there some day,” he said. “I think at some point we’ll get to a spot where addiction is accepted, it’s understood and we’re educated on it and we’ll treat it accordingly.”
Not every addict began their story as such. Some come from loving homes, good families or privileged lives. Their end result due to addiction often leaves them in the opposite position. Just continuing to ignore that fact, Herren says, is what keeps those families broken by the illness.
“I often say you can walk past them, you can walk around them, you can step over them,” Herren said. “But there’s a mom or dad at home that really wants them back off that sidewalk. There’s a son and daughter that really wants them home for Christmas.”
When dealing with and trying to understand an addict, it is important to remember one thing.
“We’re talking about people, man,” Herren said. “I think everybody in life is worth a second chance and deserves to be treated accordingly.”
Dennis Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DennisChambers_.
Chambers, a member of Zeta Psi, helped organize the event.