Many teens party with drugs and alcohol then move on, unscathed, to college and careers. That's just what 17-year-old Elijah Huerta had planned to do.
"I said to myself, 'I'm going to do drugs as a teen and when it comes time for college, then I will stop,'" Huerta said.
That plan began unraveling after Huerta answered the phone last March and learned his friend, Hope Sega, had died after using substances they and their friends had all done together.
Inhaling nitrous oxide from whipped-cream canisters, "huffing" chemicals from aerosol cleaners and taking cough medication at higher-than-recommended dosages had seemed like just another way to party.
"I didn't think one of us would die," Huerta said.
Sega, 18, died March 17 after using a combination of substances including nitrous oxide and cough medication. After she died, Sega's family searched through the teen's room and found evidence of over-the-counter substance abuse. Across town, Huerta's mother, Carmelina Grant, and his stepfather searched their son's room and found similar items.
"That was my first indication, knowing that's what he was doing, and that opened up a world," Grant said. "I was shocked ... I was shocked."
On an October afternoon in his Rincon Valley backyard, Huerta and his mother recounted their family's struggle to help him get clean following Sega's death. Huerta said he wanted to share his experience to raise awareness among other teens.
Sega's death prompted "the biggest change in my life," Huerta said. "It had a huge effect on me. Those months (since Hope died) have felt like years."
Huerta described Sega as the kind of person who "really cared about everyone around her."
"She took me and my friend in like little brothers," he said.
They met through mutual friends who liked to party, drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when they could afford it.
After Sega moved with her boyfriend to live in a tent at a homeless camp near Dutton and West Robles avenues about a month before she died, the parties moved outdoors. Huerta said he and others would visit the camp. They would sit around campfires and talk. It felt like a family.
Yet Huerta said that also was when they began opting to take substances they could steal, like over-the-counter medications and cleaners.
He was having fun, but it was clear these substances had a different and scary effect on his body. Huerta described feeling stupid and "feeling like you're losing brain cells."
He said he saw a change in Sega, too, who "wasn't the vibrant, happy Hope I used to know."
"That's the point when I knew it was dangerous. We weren't doing anything else," Huerta said. "Mentally, I didn't care."
Since Sega died, Huerta has spent several weeks in a residential program for troubled youth. He's stopped hanging out with close friends who are still using. He changed schools and last month moved back home.
On Thursday, Huerta and his mother said he has been sober for nearly three months. Huerta said he recently attended Halloween parties and found it easy to abstain from drinking.
"I'm pretty strong in my willingness to say no," Huerta said. "It has a lot to do with Hope."
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.