A deadly cocktail
Stories of two college men highlight danger of mixing alcohol and prescription drugs
He’d developed a drinking problem in high school, but Ray Messenger didn’t totally lose control until he went to college.
He got drunk five nights a week as an 18-year-old freshman at Hofstra University in New York. Like his friends, he often mixed alcohol with prescription pills such as Xanax, Adderall and Percocet, or illicit drugs, including cocaine. His substance abuse peaked when he decided to join a fraternity, specifically during a frat mixer where he “really wanted to impress the guys.” Messenger, who says he gets socially anxious, drank alcohol rapidly, popped pills and probably did other drugs—he can’t remember because he blacked out at around 10:30 p.m.
At the time, blacking out—a form of short-term memory loss—wasn’t unusual for him. “Most of the time when I blacked out, I’d wake up in a dorm or maybe even outside,” he said. “This time, I woke up in a hospital bed.”
His friends had taken him to an emergency room, but it was too late to pump his stomach. Instead, physicians flushed his system with saline, causing his body’s joints to become inflexible. Messenger could hardly move and feared that he was paralyzed.
“I can’t even muster the strength to lift my head off the pillow,” he recalled. “I smell like piss because I’m covered in my own urine. I was so drunk I had lost control of my bodily functions. I’m lying there with two IVs in my arm and I have this moment: I think to myself, ‘I might have died last night.’”
Messenger, 22, is a now a graduate student at Chico State. He’s in long-term recovery and leads a weekly substance-abuse support group for students at the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC). He spoke to the CN&R on Thursday (Oct. 27), the day CADEC hosted guest speaker April Rovero, founder of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.
During a phone interview, she shared the story of her son, Joey Rovero, who also chose to mix pills and booze in an accepting social setting. For Joey, however, the cocktail proved fatal.
Amid the party culture pervasive on so many college campuses, combining alcohol with prescription medication may not seem as dangerous as it really is. Opioids alone are responsible for a high proportion of fatal drug overdoses around the world, according to the World Health Organization, and any sedative’s capacity to cause respiratory depression—the slowing of one’s breathing—only increases when alcohol is added to the mix.
Joey was a member of a fraternity at Arizona State University. He died seven years ago after taking one Xanax, a sedative used to treat anxiety disorders, and 1 1/2 oxycodone, an opioid pain reliever, and consuming enough alcohol to push his blood-alcohol content just over the legal limit, Rovero said. She didn’t know Joey was using drugs until after his death, when she discovered that pill-popping was rampant among his fraternity brothers.
“We had very little warning,” she said. “We were expecting Joey home the next day for winter break.”
His death forever altered Rovero’s life. She’s since dedicated herself to educating the public about the national prescription drug epidemic. In 2010, she founded her San Ramon-based volunteer-driven organization, which advocates for opioid-control legislation at the state and federal levels and provides community education to students of all ages.
“We feel like students don’t necessarily understand the dangers of the medications commonly abused in college and high school,” she said. “Hopefully, through education, they’ll make more sound choices when they’re presented certain opportunities in the party setting.”
To that end, Rovero has told her son’s story countless times, and it received national media attention as it became part of a landmark court case. He got the drugs that killed him from L.A. physician Dr. Hsiu-Ying “Lisa” Tseng, who became the first doctor in the country to be convicted of murder for recklessly prescribing drugs, according to the Los Angeles Times. Three of her patients suffered fatal overdoses.
In February, Tseng was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.
Even after Messenger’s brush with death, he didn’t turn his substance abuse disorder around—not immediately. He still intended to keep partying, even during a hysterical phone conversation with his parents after they received the hospital bill.
“They were both crying, saying, ‘How could this happen to our son?’ and ‘What did we do wrong?’ All these things,” he said. “I said that I’d get sober, yada yada, bullshit-bullshit. Even after all of that, I was like, ‘I can’t wait until this is over so I can go get a drink.’”
Messenger wasn’t moved until he spoke with his 16-year-old brother, who tried to stay composed but was too shaken up.
“Then I woke up,” he said. “I felt like I was awake for the first time since I had started drinking when I was 14.”
He quit drinking cold-turkey, suffered severe alcohol withdrawal and, as he got sober, the friends he used to party with ditched him. It was an isolating experience, but now he has meaningful advice for the students who attend CADEC’s support group, the Collegiate Recovery Program.
“I tell new people in the support group to stop looking around,” he said. “If you compare yourself to your friends, you’re going to find a million reasons to keep drinking or keep using pills.”
That conversation with his brother—and not losing his friends—put everything into perspective.
“A lot of us don’t realize how many people we’re tethered to,” he said. “You have so many people whose lives would be fundamentally changed if you’re gone, and I had never even considered that.”