During the first ever Youth Opioid Summit in Las Vegas, Andy Abboud, senior vice president of Government Relations at Las Vegas Sands, addressed 1,000 high school students on the early dangers of substance abuse, but the resilience of being able to come back from the very bottom. Abboud led the introduction for featured guest speaker, Adam Laxalt, US Nevada Attorney General.
“Adam’s story is one that you need to be aware of,” Abboud told students, “While he had a great family and a great support network, Adam is an example of how addiction can hit anybody. He has dealt with it and has overcome it in a very remarkable way. And it impacted him at a very young age.”
Students attending the summit were selected as school representatives ranging from class presidents to student athletes in their sophomore year. Laxalt’s story was relatable to students because he was just 13 years old when his life started to go down the wrong path.
“I started drinking a lot and I started partying. When I was in high school, I felt like ‘I’m young, this is OK.’ But I started getting into a lot of trouble, I could’ve died a number of times from drinking too much and getting too far off the path,” Laxalt said.
After flunking out of his first semester of college, Laxalt said he was fortunate in his life to have his family lead him to help during an intervention with his mother, a family-friend and grandfather, Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor and state senator.
“I got shipped away to this treatment facility and I was surrounded by, what I felt like, was old drunks and addicts. I was the youngest person in this facility, but I started listening. I started listening to these stories about addiction and how little control we have over addiction.”
For Laxalt, coming to terms with his addiction was a defining moment. At 18 years old, he didn’t believe he had a problem because he was so young.
“I prayed to God and said ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I know I need to do something to make my life better.’ And I turned my life over and said ‘Alright, I’m going to give this shot, I want a better life.’ And that was a big motivating factor for me to stay sober, to stay clean, and turn my life around,” he said on accepting his treatment for help.
Laxalt successfully completed treatment and went on to finish school, serve in the Navy and in Iraq, became a professor in the Naval Academy, before eventually becoming the state’s Attorney General.
“I wouldn’t have had these great opportunities in life if I didn’t make that important choice to commit to sobriety, to commit to a better life,” Laxalt said. “I tell my story because if you are going to be ambassadors and go back to school and try to tell kids the dangers of going down the wrong path, some of them will either say ‘it can’t happen to me’ or ‘I can’t make my life better.’ I want you to feel free to use my story and say, ‘Anyone can turn their life around from the very bottom and make their life better.’”
Like Laxalt, former National Football League (NFL) player Ryan Leaf was only 13 years old when he noticed a change in his behavior. The only difference was that Leaf would not have consumed alcohol or abused prescription drugs until well after his professional football years.
“The idea that I was a drug addict, long before I took a drug, is kind of where this takes hold,” Leaf said. “I started being a different way because I was really good at something. It didn’t matter what athletic field it was, football, baseball or basketball because I was really good.”
Coming from a small town, Leaf was treated differently than his peers because of his talents and knew that if he were to be reprimanded, he could simply make up for it on a football field or on a basketball court. He was hailed a hometown hero. The recognition gave him the mentality that he was better than everyone else. Since Leaf was four years old, he wanted to become a professional athlete. He was on his way to fulfilling that dream once he started college at Washington State, where he led their football team to a victory they hadn’t seen in more than 60 years. A championship led to a Rose Bowl, which eventually led him to become the second player picked in the 1998 NFL draft to the San Diego Chargers at 21 years old.
“When I got drafted, I won my first two games and then we ran into Kansas City. It was a terrible rainstorm and I played the worst football game in my life. I was humiliated by how I reacted.” Leaf said. “I can honestly tell you my career ended after that third game. Because I wasn’t able to live life on life’s terms, which was to just deal with it—Instead, I fought back.”
After six years, Leaf left the NFL, retiring the dream job he’s wanted since he was four years old. For the next 8 years, Leaf would struggle with opiate abuse in order to help him with that transition. He had only used painkillers to help through athletic injuries, but took them one night while at a party.
“Opiates are painkillers, regardless of what that pain is.” Leaf said. “Everyone deals with emotional pain, no matter what. Especially in high school. Social media exists now, the insignificant slight by somebody else, the bullying…You develop emotional trauma from this, and how do you deal with it? You deal with it in a healthy way, or you deal with it in a negative, toxic way.”
It was the ability to feel nothing at all that kept Leaf coming back for more. He was too ashamed to ask for help during his transition and it had gotten to the point where most of his days consisted of when and where he was going to get his next fill.
“The thing about opiate pain killers is that it affects your brain in a way where you have all this shame and guilt about what you’re doing and what you’ve become, but the only thing to fix that was to numb it and that’s the pills.”
It all came to an end when Leaf was arrested and would later serve 3 years in prison. During his time, Leaf helped prisoners learn how to read and realized he was being of service to another person for the first time in his life. Leaf sought additional treatment following his release and later became an advocate with Transcend, a recovery community, where he is able to share his story across the country and raise awareness on addiction.
“What we heard earlier today is so important. The idea that the AG [Laxalt] is willing to be vulnerable and transparent enough to tell you guys his story, I think that’s what you want. We don’t believe in the idea that people are perfect anymore,” Leaf said. “If you take anything away from today, I want it to be this: I want you to understand that everybody is the same. Whether you are the second pick of the NFL draft or you’re a sophomore in a high school in Nevada, every human being is a flawed human being trying to be better every day.”