Reggie Whitten admits he once thought drug and alcohol addicts were bad people who made bad choices and who didn't want to quit their habit -- and that he was in denial long after he discovered his own "nearly perfect" son was a drug and alcohol addict.
"Why don't you just stop?" he said he asked his son, Brandon.
Later, addictions killed his son, he said.
Reggie Whitten, who researched addictions after the death of his son, told a crowd at East Central University Tuesday that he now realizes addictions are illnesses, not bad choices. Whitten described his family's ordeal and offered suggestions on how to fight and treat addictions and substance abuse.
Whitten told his family's story to an overflow crowd of nearly 200 students, faculty and professional counselors Tuesday [AUG. 25] at East Central University. More than 100 attendees had to be turned away, but ECU President John Hargrave said Whitten would return and present his program again for those who missed it.
Whitten, an Oklahoma City attorney, said he had risen to the top of a very successful career. He said his job was to take a complex subject, present it to a jury and get them to understand it.
"Today, my job is to convince you of something," he told his audience, "that of all the problems we have in this country, addiction and substance abuse is No. 1. And No. 2 is not even close."
He showed slides of a number of young celebrities who have either run into trouble with the law or died because of alcohol and drug abuse.
"They're everywhere," he said. "They are good people, but something went terribly wrong. I had thought addiction was a really bad choice made by really bad people."
After spending years researching addictions, he said, he now understands that alcohol, drugs and tobacco change a person's brain chemistry.
He and a panel including a judge, district attorney, state senator, strategist and political analyst and a director of prevention services for a state agency unanimously agreed that addictions are illnesses. They also said prevention education and community treatment plans work to combat addictions and get people back to productive lives.
Whitten presented sobering statistics, everything from the average age that youngsters start drinking -- age 12 -- to today's popular "pharm" parties and the economic impact of the "bad stuff" on Oklahoma which runs into the billions of dollars.
It's not just the addicted person who suffers, Whitten said. It affects the entire family.
Whitten's voice cracked several times as he described his son, who had to wear leg braces as a child, but overcame the problem and suddenly showed tremendous athletic prowess. He was a football player and homecoming king in high school and was recruited by several universities before going to Arkansas where he was redshirted for a year.
Homesick, he came home and played football at Southwestern Oklahoma State University where he started the first year SWOSU became an NCAA II school.
"I thought I was Father of the Year," Whitten said. "He was a nearly perfect kid. There was no smoking, drinking or cursing. He was not just my son, but my best friend. I thought my job was over. Now I could turn my attention to my other two kids."
What he didn't know, he said, was his son had started taking Valium, drinking beer and sitting in a hot tub with some of the team members to relax after a game.
One day Brandon Whitten was driving on I-40 with his girlfriend when his car went off the highway. There was no visible water around, but Reggie Whitten showed a photo of the vehicle upside down in a small creek.
"We thought Brandon might lose his right arm," his father said. "We thought his girlfriend was okay, but they had to intubate her because she got a staph infection from some of that muddy water. Six weeks later, she died.
"That's probably the day my son died."
That also was when Whitten began noticing instances when his son had been drinking or taking drugs.
"Reason and rationality didn't work," Whitten said. "It was very hard. He couldn't beat this thing. He couldn't reason his way out of it."
The family had dinner together on Valentine's Day in 2002 and Brandon Whitten made a promise. "I want to turn my life around," he told his father.
"I didn't know the chemistry of his brain had changed," Whitten said.
The next day Whitten's son called him at his office.
"I had become a walking slur detector," Whitten said. "I could tell something was wrong with his voice."
Whitten asked where he was and told his son to "sit tight. I'll be right there."
He didn't know it, but his son was dead by the time Whitten got to the first floor of his office building. Later he learned that Brandon had not told him his correct location. He then headed toward Whitten's nearby house at a high rate of speed on his motorcycle.
"One hundred yards from my house, where my other kids live, he hit a brick mailbox and it just exploded."
Returning to his home, Whitten said he didn't recognize his son's wrecked motorcycle.
"I spent the next couple of years floundering around. Why couldn't he just stop? He had become an addict. His brain chemistry had been changed."
District Judge Tom Landrith of Ada (far left) answers a question from the audience at a program about the effects of addictions and substance abuse Tuesday at East Central University. The panel followed a presentation by Reggie Whitten whose son died as a result of addictions. Other panel members were Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater (second from left), Scott Mitchell of Scott Mitchell and Associates, Jessica Hawkins of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and Sen. Harry E. Coates Jr.
Whitten wants a better database of such statistics as the number of people killed or injured by substance abuse, not by blunt force trauma, for example, when an addiction causes an accident, in order to show the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
"My son didn't die in an accident," he pointed out. "It was bound to happen."
While the tobacco and alcohol industries spend millions of dollars to make their products desirable, "we don't have people spending millions of dollars" to warn about the dangers, he said.
"Treatment programs can help, but they cost money. But for every $1 spent on prevention per person, society would save $18," he said.
Whitten said Oklahoma high school seniors are more likely to use crystal meth than any other state. One use of methamphetamines can change brain chemistry, while alcohol may take years, he said.
The panelists included District Judge Tom Landrith, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, state Sen. Harry E. Coates Jr., Scott Mitchell of Scott Mitchell and Associates and Jessica Hawkins of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. They answered questions following Whitten's presentation.
Landrith runs the third-largest drug court in the state. He said he prefers treatment over sending people to prison, and the drug court has been very successful.
Prater said 87 percent of crime in Oklahoma County can be attributed to substance abuse. He and Coates urged local citizens to get involved and tell the Legislature funding is needed for preventive education, which Hawkins said can be very effective. Mitchell said stories about preventing substance abuse are often overlooked by the media.
The two-hour program was extended for 30 minutes, but it still was not long enough to answer the overwhelming number of questions.
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