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."