From Sorrow, Strength: A Parent's Crusade to Educate Others

Caitlin Johnson
December 13, 1999

Ken and Anya Shortridge had never heard of the drug GHB in 1998, when their son Caleb inadvertently drank some, thinking it was water, they say. It turned out to be odorless, colorless Gamma-hydroxybutyrate that a drug-dealing friend had left on the counter—and it killed him.

A professional Web designer, Anya Shortridge is used to relying on the Internet for information, and in the aftermath of her son's death she went online to learn more. But what she found didn't ring true. "Just about every site dealt with the drug positively, mentioned its health benefits and was selling it or recipes to make it. Nowhere did it mention that it was dangerous, or potentially deadly."

Troubled, Shortridge contacted the FDA's MedWatch, a site designed to monitor medical products and inform health professionals about reports of adverse effects. Although the FDA is testing GHB components as potential treatment for narcolepsy, in 1990 it issued an advisory warning that recreational GHB use is illegal and unsafe, and can lead to convulsions, coma and death.

The FDA put Shortridge in touch with Trinka Porrata, a retired police officer who consults to law enforcement officials across the country on how to recognize the effects of GHB and similar drugs. Porrata explained that consumption of GHB was becoming popular at rave parties and clubs, and that the involuntary ingestion of the drug had been implicated in several date rapes across the country. In fact, at least 21 states reported GHB-related deaths between 1995 and 1998.

None of this information had been available online. So, with the help of Porrata and sources like the FDA, the Shortridges channeled their grief into an online public advocacy campaign, GHB: The Stone-Cold Truth, a site to help other people get accurate information about GHB.

Point, Click, Counteract

It's hard to know just how prevalent GHB use is, particularly because the drug deteriorates so quickly in the body. Few hospitals and law enforcement agencies have the equipment to test for it. But data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and from hospitals and local poison control centers in Colorado, Michigan, Florida, California, Texas, Louisiana and Washington suggests use and overdose may be on the rise.

The wide-spread belief that GHB is harmless makes it more dangerous, says Anya Shortridge. "The kids using GHB are, often, kids who wouldn't think of using 'hard drugs.' Many are simply unaware of the dangers."

"Because they are colorless and odorless, people think they are harmless ," said Bennett Leventhal, M.D., chair of the Task Force on Ethics and Research at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at a recent NIDA-sponsored press conference on GHB and other so-called club drugs. "But in fact these drugs can have serious, acute effects."

Take the case of California college student Kyle Hagmann, whose friends told him that GHB was a safe dietary supplement and sleep-aid. After doing some research on the Internet and finding only evidence of GHB's safety and effectiveness, he decided to take a little to help him sleep. But, like Caleb Shortridge, Kyle Hagmann never woke up.

"This drug crosses all boundaries: economic, social, recreational, medicinal, criminal," says Shortridge. "People think it's a steroid or aphrodisiac. They think it's a health supplement. It's used for so many reasons and there are victims in every section."

Addressing an Information "Underload"

Shortridge encourages parents to go beyond the obvious information sources to find information about GHB and other drugs. "Schools are a great place to start, but they don't necessarily have all the information," she says. Indeed, school-sponsored programs in many areas are just learning about the dangers and prevalence of drugs like GHB.

"It's important that parents get out there and learn about the types of drugs kids are using," says Shortridge. "Each person who promotes a drug has an excuse about why it's the best, and why it's good or better than the other one. As parents we need to know the specific things to help our kids combat that. We really need to get educated."

Within a couple of months of launching the site, Shortridge was hearing from people across the country and around the world, all wanting to share their experiences or ask questions about the GHB. ""I had absolutely no idea of the far-reaching effects creating this site would have," she says of the many e-mails and letters she received. "There's been a tremendous amount of feedback."

Some of the feedback speaks to the power and reach of the Internet in our techno-saturated society. "A few months after the site went up, the mother of a daughter wrote in and told us that the site saved her daughter's life," says Shortridge. "Doctors don't always recognize the drug because, though it's been around a long time, its effects are often easy to mistake for other conditions. Luckily, a nurse in ICU had a hunch and did an online search on GHB. She found our site and checked the symptoms. They were able to test the daughter and determine how to help her."

Shortridge has also given talks at schools in San Diego, her hometown, and has written to schools to share information and let them know about her Web site as an educational resource. She and her husband plan to start a nonprofit to foster research and education, and the two recently appeared on TV's "Leeza" talk show to reach beyond the Web.

The Shortridge's efforts recently got help in a big way. This month, NIDA joined forces with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Join Together, National Families in Action, and the grass-roots Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America to launch a new campaign to educate American teens and parents on the dangers of GHB and other club drugs. The campaign includes a Web site and hinges on the belief that straight, science-based information can empower teens and young adults to make the right decisions about drugs.

Still, says Shortridge, even the most far-reaching efforts will be useless without involved and educated parents. "We thought we were involved parents and knew what our kids were doing," says Shortridge, "but this just came out of nowhere." Thanks to her efforts, more parents, teens and young adults have a resource to learn more about GHB.

Learn More

  • Visit Anya Shortridge's comprehensive site, GHB: The Stone-Cold Truth.
  • Visit NIDA's new campaign headquarters,
  • For general information on substance abuse and treatment, visit our Substance Abuse topic page.
  • To find a drug treatment program near you, contact (800) 662-HELP or go to HealthSite and select Resources and Referrals. Scroll down to Treatment Programs.

Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.





I appreciate the concern which has been risen. These things need to be sorted out because it&;s not about the individual but it can be about everyone.

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