Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Allow Me To Introduce Myself

There's been a lot said recently in the comments section about what I'm doing and why, and it is sadly off the mark. I'm just a mom trying to help parents understand that the drug world has changed since they were kids, trying to help kids understand that it's best to understand the risks involved with your choice-making, including whether you choose to use drugs.

Rather than repeating all this again myself, I'm presenting a lengthy article on me and my films that appeared in the Orange County Register in Feb., 2004.
SUNDAY SPOTLIGHT: A NEW VOICE

By Theresa Walker

It all started two years ago, the morning Beth Pearce's husband clipped the newspaper article about Erin Rose and put it on her chair to see before she headed to work.

Laer Pearce wanted her to read the story of the Laguna Niguel teen's overdose on a drug called ketamine, and the brain damage it caused.

They have three daughters of their own, two still in their teens and one not quite there yet. He had never heard of this drug and was sure his wife hadn't either. Had their daughters?

Beth Pearce cried reading how ketamine -- the kids call it ``Special K,'' like the cereal -- stopped the flow of oxygen to Rose's brain for eight minutes and left her comatose for two weeks.

It shocked her to learn how seven months later, when Rose's story ran in the paper, this drug that is used by veterinarians to tranquilize large animals and in burn wards as an anesthetic turned the clock back nearly to toddlerhood for the once bright and athletic 18-year-old.

Rose couldn't walk straight, couldn't speak clearly, couldn't remember how to do the simplest things, like telling time.

"I thought, I can't believe this is happening to our children,'' Pearce says.

She held that thought on the 20-minute drive from their home in Coto de Caza to her husband's public-relations firm, where she helps with the accounting.

There might be other kids out there who would end up like Rose, or worse. There must be other parents out there who never heard of this drug. Somebody needs to do something, she told herself.

Who?

By the time she got to work, she decided: me.

She would get the word out to as many people as possible. After more thought, she determined the best way was to produce a video and let the victims tell the story.

What did it matter that she knew nothing about filmmaking? That she had no recording equipment and wouldn't know how to use it if she did? A sense of urgency and commitment can carry you a long way, past doubt and inexperience.

Laer Pearce didn't blanch at his wife's proposal. Even though she's the kind of person who has trouble putting film in a camera, she also is a quick study who throws herself completely into a project.

The image of coming home one afternoon and finding Beth standing outside their home with an air compressor, a 20-foot extension pole and a breathing apparatus covering her mouth and nose as she painted the outside of their house crossed Laer Pearce's mind.

"She does that kind of stuff. She's just not afraid.''

The energy this woman, who describes herself as "just a mom,'' once put into hanging wallpaper, sewing quilts and raising money for her children's schools, she channeled into producing her documentary, "Voice of the Victims: True Stories of Ecstasy and Ketamine.''

Making the video carried her into the life of Erin Rose, who is now like a fourth daughter to her. It carried her, too, into the short-circuited lives of three other teens who weren't lucky enough to be left with a brain injury like Rose.

They died.

She ended up charging $160,000 on her credit cards to produce the two DVD versions of "Voice of the Victims,'' one for parents and one for youths.

Even for a woman who drives a leased Porsche Targa, those American Express bills are daunting.

"We are in so much debt,'' she says.

Again, her husband -- who had to downsize his company by two-thirds just three years ago -- didn't blink at the bills.

"I figured if God had wanted us to do this, we would get out of debt. If God wants us to struggle with debt, we'll struggle with debt. It seemed to me there was a higher purpose here.''

Beth Pearce hopes her dedication will carry the voices of the victims into people's living rooms. She wants to reach kids with a message they won't laugh at or mock.

Not to preach, but to let them hear from Rose and her mom, Maryanne Rose. From the parents and sister of Cathy Isford, 18, a Foothill High senior who took "ecstasy'' the night of her prom, lapsed into a coma and died two days later in May 2002.

And from the parents of two Chicago- area teens whose deaths Beth Pearce read about on the Internet: Steven Lorenz, 17, and a girl identified only by her first name, Sara.

"Let them see what can happen and make up their minds while they still have a mind and a life,'' she says, holding up a copy of the DVD and shaking it like a preacher would a Bible.

Since she started marketing "Voice of the Victims'' in January, Pearce has sold about 50 of the 3,000 copies she had made. For now, they are available at $19.95 through a Web site.

In a downstairs room with flowered wallpaper where she set up her video operation -- once a playroom, later a homework room for her girls -- Pearce wrote the names of people and organizations she wants to contact: first lady Laura Bush, Focus on the Family, Oprah Winfrey, the Boy Scouts of America. "Good Morning America'' has shown interest, she says.

She appeared on Hugh Hewitt's radio show in December, and is taping spots to be aired on upcoming segments of the syndicated "Spread a Little Love Around'' show, which runs weeknights on Christian radio station KWVE/107.9 FM.

Pearce intends to educate the parents who don't have a clue, and to redirect those who are so misinformed as to think that since kids are going to experiment with drugs no matter what, it might as well be with a "safe'' drug like ecstasy rather than something hardcore like cocaine or heroin.

"Voice of the Victims'' is being released at a time when overall drug use by teens has dropped. Last year, a bellwether national survey that tracks illicit drug use among 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders reported a decrease by more than half in the proportion of teens who reported using ecstasy between 2001 and 2003.

It's true, too, that the number of emergency room visits and deaths related to the use of ecstasy and ketamine are dwarfed by those involving use of such drugs as cocaine, heroin and marijuana, or alcohol in combination with other substances.

Still there are indications that abuse of ecstasy and ketamine remain a problem.

While no statistics are available for Orange County, the federal agency that tracks drug abuse related emergency- room incidents reported an increase in the number of visits in the Los Angeles and Long Beach area involving ketamine use, up from seven in 1999 to 52 in 2002. Ecstasy related emergency-room visits for the same area more than tripled, from 52 in 1999 to 176 in 2002. Last year the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reported that a majority of adolescents don't see any risk in taking ecstasy.

Pearce is trying to show kids and parents that there is a risk. Maybe people will cry when they watch "Voice of the Victims,'' like Pearce did when she read about Erin Rose, or like Maryanne Rose did when listening to Sara's mom tell how her daughter died. A male friend of Sara's, later imprisoned, secretly laced a glass of water with four extra doses of the ecstasy she had freely taken earlier. He wanted her pliant, to rape her.

"It affected me, and I've been through a lot,'' says Maryanne Rose, who along with Erin, speaks at schools and other organizations around the community. "I mean, I cried during Sara's story.''

David Lorenz, a three-pack-a-day Teamsters truck driver who smoked pot in his youth, hopes that the stories of Erin, Cathy, Sara and his son, Steven, will do more than make people cry.

A single father raising three boys, Lorenz had no idea that his skateboard-loving son was doing drugs. A week or two before Steven died, Lorenz had found a pill in his room and confronted him. His son lied and said it belonged to a friend. Lorenz counseled him and thought that was that.

"He went out and did it one more time,'' Lorenz says, "and that was all it took.''

Steven thought he was taking ecstasy the night of May 7, 2000. But it was a lookalike sold to him by a friend -- the potent hallucinogenic paramethoxyamphetamine, or PMA. The fatal dose shot Steven's temperature to 108 degrees, frying him from the inside out until he looked like a shriveled up old man to his father when he died.

"I don't want it to just be sad,'' Lorenz says, the weariness from his efforts to make a difference evident in his raspy voice. "I want it to be a learning lesson.''

USING HERSELF AS AN EXAMPLE

Erin Rose wears two frayed red cloth bands, one on each wrist along with her crystal bracelets and her watch. They are the wristbands kids get at school during Red Ribbon Week. "Drug Use is Life Abuse,'' they read.

She won't take them off. She used to wear the same kind of bands back when she was doing drugs. She thought that was funny, then. Now, she takes them seriously.

"I just wish the young people out there could realize what can happen,'' she says.

She can't pronounce her R's properly, so she sounds like a 4-year-old saying it.

Rose is visiting Beth Pearce on a Friday afternoon. She's come to spend the weekend, something she started doing back in December when she was up to overnight stays away from home.

For nearly three years, Rose has spent her time trying to regain all that she lost the third time she took ketamine. She had to learn how to breathe on her own again. How to walk. How to talk. How to take a shower. How to dress herself.

She still has trouble with her balance and falls now and then. Pearce helps her come down the stairs, like you would someone far older or younger. Rose's small- motor skills are so shot, she has difficulty writing. She once had such beautiful handwriting, her mother says.

She still goes to occupational and speech therapy. Rose, 20, attends a half-day program for the brain-injured at Coastline Community College in Costa Mesa. The other day she broke into frustrated tears trying to do third-grade multiplication and division.

Someday, she hopes to further her education at a four-year college. She wants to study about drugs, she says, so she can teach kids what she learned the hard way.

Rose was always smart, always good in sports. But she was emotionally troubled, too, Maryanne Rose says. She would get depressed. She became bulimic.

She smoked pot, drank and experimented with other drugs. Her family tried all sorts of interventions. Her mother was on the verge of kicking her out of the house when she got the call early one Saturday morning that Erin was in the emergency room. The next day was Mother's Day.

Erin doesn't remember anything about the night she overdosed -- or even weeks before that. But it's her short-term memory and her ability to make decisions that suffer the most. Doing the laundry can confuse her. Beth Pearce tried to teach her by drawing red lines on the washing machine dial so Rose would know where to set it.

The Pearce household is becoming a second home to her. She says Beth Pearce is like "a best friend.''

Rose is sitting with Pearce in the editing room, one of her favorite photographs filling the computer monitor behind her. It was taken a few months before she overdosed -- she's at school, surrounded by some of her cousins and her friends. She is smiling, her reddish-blond hair pulled back behind one ear.

Rose thinks she looked "cool'' back then. Not anymore. She says as much in "Voice of the Victims.''

As she did with all four teens, Pearce incorporates in the video photographs of Rose as a child and in her adolescence to drive home who she was, what she lost.

There's a snapshot of Rose as a girl in her soccer uniform, her hair tied back with ribbons. There's Rose as a teen in a long dress, her hair done up for a formal dance.

And there's up-close video of Rose at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, tubes running up her nose, eyes closed. Comatose. Her mother shot it. She wanted Rose's sister and brother and cousins and friends to see her like that. She wanted them to know what could happen.

Rose says she gets sick of repeating the story of what happened to her. Because it's frustrating to think about how her life changed so dramatically. But she feels compelled to tell it. "Voice of the Victims'' lets her do that on a much broader scale.

"I just want to get my voice out there. So does Beth. We just want to save so many people.''

To Glen Stanley, a narcotics detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and an expert in drugs like ketamine and ecstasy, the painful stories told by Erin Rose and the families gives "Voice of the Victims'' its greatest impact.

"I can stand up in front of a group of 300 kids and talk all day about how bad drugs are for you, and half those kids are going to turn me off because, one, I'm twice their age, and, two, I'm a cop,'' says Stanley, who is among the voices of authority Pearce includes in her video. "Erin gets up there and you can hear a pin drop.''

"She can say, 'I was like you, and now look at me.' There isn't anything more powerful than that.'' Stanley plans to use "Voice of the Victims'' in talks he gives at schools and to parents.

"I think it will help fill a void. I see it as a real good icebreaker, a way to get your kids to sit down and talk about drugs without you having to sit down face to face and go, 'Are you using drugs?' You can ask questions like, what do you think about that, do you know any kids at school who are doing that -- without it being an interrogation.''

Until she made "Voice of the Victims,'' Pearce hadn't talked to her girls about drugs.

"Having daughters herself,'' Stanley says, "it's very easy for her to see her daughters in Erin's place. I think that scares her -- and would a lot of parents.''

LEARN-AS-YOU-GO PROJECT

Beth Pearce spent hours that sometimes stretched into days editing "Voice of the Victims.'' For the last six months of production, she moved her operation from her husband's offices to the downstairs room in her house. The video had taken over her life, and she didn't want to be gone from home anymore.

In June, she had to start all over again re-editing around 20 hours of raw footage when her computer crashed and she lost the work she had done to that point.

By then she was working pretty much on her own. She had hired a good cameraman to shoot the footage, but the video editors were taking too long. So she decided to do it herself, using the digital video-editing guide "Premiere 6.5 for Dummies.''

From the start, "Voice of the Victims'' was a learn-as-you-go project. She researched her topic and found the people she needed to talk to on the Internet, a source she had never really explored before.

"I kept double-clicking and double-clicking. I'd find something, print it out and take it upstairs to read on my bed, making notes to call this person, that person.''

She didn't really have a set plan when she began. And that made it better, she thinks. "I went out and listened to the people. I just went out and listened.''

At the beginning, she was reluctant to call the families, worried about upsetting them more. She enlisted her brother-in- law, a police officer in Fresno, to make contact, figuring he would have more experience in dealing with people who lost loved ones.

"I was afraid they wouldn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to bring up the whole, horrible subject again.''

But they were more than willing to talk, because Pearce was so willing to listen. And they wanted other people to know what had happened to their children.

"We can't save our children. They're gone,'' Lorenz says. "We're trying to help other people. That's what it's all about. It just seems like nobody really cares. There are some people out there that care, but not enough. There are a few Beths, and people who have lost their kids.''

Pearce enlisted the aid of Dr. Mike Ritter, assistant director of the emergency room at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, where he sees firsthand the damage that drugs like ecstasy and ketamine can do.

Ritter, who appears in "Voice of the Victims,'' spends a lot of time educating the community on drug use by talking to parents and teens. Pearce heard him speak at Dana Hills High.

Ritter gets the sense that most parents still don't know much about these drugs, despite concerns that grew out of the rave and club scenes over the past few years, and stories in the news, like the death of Cathy Isford. Kids, however, seem to be more sophisticated about using them -- following advice available on the Internet, he says.

"It's kind of intriguing. I'm not seeing as many kids in the emergency room with ecstasy- related problems, but when I talk to kids they're still using it.''

Ritter says kids are simply unaware of the long-term effects of taking ecstasy. Scientific studies have shown that the drug damages the serotonin receptors in the brain, which control our moods, causing a chemical imbalance that leads to depression.

Taking ecstasy is like taking a form of Prozac, he says. It makes you feel energetic, happy. The problem is when it leaves your system, you feel depressed. So you take more ecstasy, a vicious cycle.

"Some experts are concerned that it's going to create a whole generation of depressed adults. But trying to pitch that to a teenager is very difficult. To say that they're going to be depressed down the road, they're like, what are you talking about? I feel great.''

If they make it that far. One more time can turn into the last time -- a message that "Voice of the Victims'' underscores.

Earlier in high school, Cathy Isford took ecstasy and other party drugs, but along with her fiancé, she stayed clean for about two years, looking forward to marrying, having kids and becoming a schoolteacher. Until prom night. She secretly told her older sister that she was going to take ecstasy one more time, to make her prom experience perfect.

The combination of the ecstasy and a few alcoholic drinks killed her.

Pearce showed "Voice of the Victims'' to a group of teens before completing the project, to see if it had the kind of impact she hoped. She asked the kids to write their opinions anonymously afterward.

"Some friends of mine used to go to raves & take ecstasy. They told me that ecstasy was one of the safest drugs you could take -- this made me realize differently,'' one wrote. "I liked Cathys story the most. It touched me because she had so much clean time -- then one night ended her life.''

Caitlyn Topper, 15, also saw that early screening. She started doing drugs when she was about 13, developed a substance-abuse problem, and got sent away to rehab. She played water polo on the varsity team at her school. She used to have a good reputation. She used to have scholarships in the works.

"It's all ruined,'' she says. "If I had seen this video, I think I wouldn't have taken those extreme drugs. I think I would have kept the caution with me.''

Caitlyn, who lives in Coto de Caza and is a friend of Pearce's daughter, Christina, met Erin Rose. What happened to Rose stays with her now, and she believes it would stay with other kids, too.

"It's sad to see that person that she was before. You know that she's crying out for that. You can't stop kids from doing what they're going to do, but you can show them what the consequences will be.''

That's what Beth Pearce is trying to do.
I hope this answers some of the unfounded criticisms put on in this site's comment section. I never say in my film that ecstasy is hugely dangerous. I never give any statistics, misleading or otherwise. Dr. Ritter is quoted in the film about the effects of the drug, and as you can see, he believes there are risks involved, but his experience in the ER shows other drugs to be more dangerous.

He asked me to include a section on alcohol, which kills far more young people than ecstasy, and I did. I care about saving lives, not about attacking a particular drug.

I wanted to give parents who had suffered unspeakable losses a way to speak about those losses. I wanted to give them a sense of purpose for their childrens' lives and deaths. I've done this, and they have become wonderful friends in the process.

I do not deserve criticism or ugliness, no matter how well intentioned it might be.

I do want and need your support and prayers. I want very much to make a film about GHB, DXM and ALCOHOL. I want to make one about huffing (inhalants). I've talked to parents who have suffered through the death of their children because of these drugs, and I want to give them a voice, just as I gave the parents of Sara, Cathy, Steven and my beloved Erin voices.

My husband and I are not going to go more in debt to make the next films, however. If you would like to support me in this effort, please consider buying the Voice of the Victims films. Here are links to the both the Young Adult and Parent editions, so you can see what is in them. Here is the order page.

Thank you so very much!

Beth Pearce
Voice of the Victims
Founder/Producer/Director/Editor etc.

p.s. I just received this very affirming e-mail from Gwen, who has left some excellent comments lately on the blog. She is an expert in matters relate to drug use, abuse and addiction.

There is a new study* out that says drug awareness campaigns do not work for ecstasy. I have always said that, which is why I stopped doing lectures -- talk to a drug user and see what they laugh at – DARE especially. The study says that the majority of people KNOW ecstasy carries risks, but that's not important until they or their friends have an adverse reaction, or their doctor enlightens them. That's why I like YOUR videos and approach. You bring it as close to having a friend go through it as possible - you bring the audience INTO the life of an everyday teen we can all relate to and then add quality MEDICAL advice. No police and no government!!!

Gwen

* Is Ecstasy Perceived As Safe? A Critical Survey, Alex Gamma, Lisa Jerome, Matthias E. Liechty, Harry R. Sumnall. Peer reviewed and published in Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence #77, 2005

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