Agoura High School senior Nick Morales is planning to walk with his graduating class this spring. For most teens that’s business as usual, but for the 17-year-old Morales, who never planned on donning the cap and gown, it’s a big achievement.
By age 15 he had been put in rehab for numerous addictions. Now, he’s sober, and a prominent figure at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where he often leads the discussion about taking responsibility and coming clean.
Morales recently spoke about his experience to students at Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo. In December he’ll address students at Moorpark High School.
“I started drinking and using drugs when I was 12 years old. By ninth grade I was selling pot and smoking meth,” Morales said. “By the time I was in 10th grade, I was living at this crack house with a 35-year-old alcoholic and selling drugs to all the kids at Agoura High School. I really hit my bottom. People around me were shooting up meth and heroin. That obviously was not the best environment for a 15-year-old.”
It reached a head when he attempted to run away with his girlfriend and got caught, at which point his mother sent him into rehab.
After a stint in rehab followed by several relapses, Morales found his purpose and today is 18 months sober. Now living with his grandparents, he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, up to 14 a week. He also helps organize weekly meetings for teens who are struggling with drug and alcohol problems.
A friend of Morales’ from AA introduced him to Colin Keller, 39, a therapist and recovering addict who is seven years sober. Keller works at Engage Therapy in Westlake Village as the head of Engage Beyond, a youth substance abuse program.
Keller used to take young members to AA meetings but felt they couldn’t relate to the organization because the speakers were often of a different generation. He and Morales organized a youth-specific meeting to help kids in recovery find a community of supportive peers to help them stay sober.
“A lot of kids wouldn’t be able to organize a meeting, but Nick was very capable. He went out and promoted it, and he’s done a great job of building it up,” Keller said. “He tells a really clear, level-headed story for someone as young as him.”
Keller said the meeting isn’t the first youth-oriented AA meeting in the Conejo Valley, but it’s different because the meeting isn’t alcohol specific—it’s open for kids to talk about mental health and other issues that lead to drinking and drug use.
Keller still supports AA and applauds its efforts, but says that in his experience he’s found the program doesn’t work for everybody.
“There’s (some) people that come to AA and feel like it’s stale, there’s no creativity. We want people to be able to talk about things they normally wouldn’t be able to talk about at other AA meetings,” Keller said. “These kids have a social support network that is primarily using drugs or it’s someone they don’t relate to. They needed an instant group of friends that’s sober so that they can form their identity and start to reach outside of that circle and make other friends.”
Morales said rehab helped him realize that he truly wanted to clean up his life.
“(Rehab) was the first time I admitted that I was powerless over this drug, that I really needed help. I’d tried to quit smoking meth for my girlfriend, but I couldn’t do it. No matter how much I loved her, she could not keep me sober,” he said.
“I used in rehab, and I got kicked out for selling drugs. I still had that little hope of recovery, that I could feel different, ’cause in parts of being in rehab for those three months I had felt genuine happiness while sober. And I wanted that. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t have the tools,” he said.
His first AA meeting gave him hope. When Morales realized he was experiencing the same feelings about his actions as an 80-year-old speaker at the AA meeting, he started questioning what he could do with his life if he got clean. He found a sponsor, relapsed, found another one—and has been clean ever since.
Even though meth was his preferred drug, alcohol was just as big a problem, which started his road to AA.
“It’s what I started with. A lot of people struggle with the idea of being a drug addict and not an alcoholic, but every time I drink it leads me back to my drug of choice,” Morales said. “Maybe (alcohol) isn’t the thing that brings me to my knees, but it brings me to the thing that brings me to my knees.”
He said most of his peers at high school are using drugs, so he socializes with friends he’s met in meetings, most of whom are in their 20s. He said he plans to attend community college and then transfer to a university, but he already knows what he wants to do with his life— work with kids in recovery.
“I have this saying: The people that are in the darkness right now, I’ll stand between the darkness and the light for them but I won’t venture into the darkness,” Morales said. “I’ll ask for them to come see if they want.”