When Alex Denstman speaks with school-age kids about substance abuse, the co-CEO and president of Ashley Addiction Treatment in Havre de Grace shares the tale of a onetime teenage drug addict who struggled to turn his life around.
That was Denstman, 20 years ago.
At the time, he was homeless and hooked on heroin. Now, he presides over a noted nonprofit treatment center that received a $420,000 federal grant in December to forge an interactive program with the Harford County Board of Education to educate middle and high school students about substance misuse.
His is a journey he feels compelled to share, said Denstman, 40, a former patient at Ashley who eventually returned there to work his way up to the top.
“It’s harder now to be a kid than it was for me,” he said. “There are so many ways today to not feel good about yourself, between social media and the pressures kids feel to look and act a certain way.”
Plans for the program call for a multifaceted approach involving parents, teachers and guidance counselors, Denstman said. “We’re not so naive to think we can go in there individually and make a difference [in children’s lives]. And we’re not there to lecture or condemn bad behavior, but to connect with them and create a healthy dialogue.”
Denstman’s struggle with substance abuse resonates with teens. Raised in an affluent neighborhood in Greenville, Delaware — a few minutes from the home of President Joe Biden — Denstman first tried drugs and alcohol at age 13.
“I was well-rounded, played sports and had a solid home environment and plenty of friends,” he said. “But I felt a degree of inadequacy, self-doubt and a persistent sense that I didn’t measure up. At a party in the basement of a classmate’s house, like others, I took a drink of Jack Daniel’s [whiskey] and smoked pot.”
He remembers the feeling: “It was like my skin shifted 1/4 of an inch, and fit better,” he said. “The voice in my head that said I’m not good enough went silent.”
For seven years, Denstman’s world unraveled.
“Everything in my life moved off-course,” he said. “Lying became second nature. I stole money from my parents. It wasn’t about what alcohol and drugs did to me, but what they did for me.”
At 18, riddled with despair, he attempted suicide. After getting drunk in his family’s home, Denstman said, “I took every pill I could find in the house and went to bed, expecting that I would not wake up. But I did and was violently ill, which filled me with more self-loathing: I couldn’t even commit suicide right.”
He bottomed out, owned up to his parents, sought treatment at Ashley — twice — and has been sober since March 2, 2003. Married and the father of two, he finished college, earned an M.B.A., and is passionate about sharing his story as part of the addiction center’s forthcoming educational program.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like I did at 18, so hopeless and helpless,” said Denstman. “It’s unfair to ‘just say no’ to kids; by 15, half of them will have tried alcohol. We say, ‘I trust you to make your own decision, if you are armed with knowledge and facts.’ ”