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When she was 12 years old, Caitlin Acosta of Falls Church snuck into her parent’s medicine cabinet and found a bottle of Percocet, a Class 3 narcotic.

“I didn’t really know what they were,” she said. “I had low self-esteem, and I just wanted to do something that would make me feel different, make me feel prettier and more accepted.”

What happened next started what she describes as a “downward spiral” until she was 20 years old.

She took the drugs to her middle school, where they were discovered in her backpack and confiscated.

The seventh-grader was then charged with, and found guilty of, possession of narcotics on school property — a Class 5 felony.

“After that, everyone looked at me differently,” she said, “And not in a good way. I was a bad kid, a dangerous troublemaker.”

Acosta said the stigma stuck, and although she never ingested any of the Percocet, she found herself drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana while still in the seventh grade. “I was labeled as a druggie, so I started hanging out with a bad crowd because they were the only ones who accepted me,” she said.

At age 17, she began illegally taking prescription medication, this time in earnest.

“Xanax and Oxycontin were my drugs of choice,” she said. “I figured that as long as I stayed away from so-called ‘hard’ drugs like crack and heroin, I wasn’t really doing any harm to myself.”

But her heavy prescription addiction didn’t cooperate with her theory. She became more and more depressed and began suffering from anxiety attacks. At age 20, her liver began showing signs of damage, and that’s when she decided it was time to seek help. “I went to my parents, confessed and told them I needed to get off drugs. They were relieved because they knew something was wrong with me, but they just didn’t know what. They thought that maybe I was mentally ill.”

Now 24 and in recovery for drug addiction, Acosta has teamed up with the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County to tell her story in an effort to educate parents and kids alike about keeping their prescription drugs locked away and out of reach of insecure, curious teens.

“More than 70 percent of those who abuse prescription medications obtain them from friends or family, often from the family medicine cabinet,” said Amy Reif, UPC’s health sector coordinator. “Prescription drugs are deemed an epidemic by the CDC and only about five percent of abusers get these medications from drug dealers.”

As Acosta can attest, it is extremely easy for teens to get these drugs.

“Prescription drug abuse, particularly among youth and young adults, is a growing problem here,” said Acosta, who now works full time at an architectural design firm and volunteers with local recovery groups. “It impacts so many families. We need to educate people of the dangers and encourage them to keep needed medications secure and get rid of those they no longer need.” On Tuesday, UPC conducted a forum in Annandale to kick off the annual weeklong Operation Medicine Cabinet Cleanout, which begins May 27. The program encourages residents to drop off unused or expired medications at Fairfax County Police district stations.

At the forum, Sgt. James Cox of the Fairfax County police said Fairfax County parents also contribute to another narcotic-related problem that exists locally among teens.

“Around exam time, we see an increase of Adderall and Ritalin being sold in schools and college campuses,” he said.

Cox said the little colored pills, intended for a variety of attention deficit disorders, are widely prescribed and used by students without disorders to cram for their exams by helping them to concentrate.

Prescriptions for the drugs are sometimes obtained by students with the blessings of their parents and physicians, but then sold illegally by those students, Cox said. “We recently held a successful undercover operation at George Mason University in which we were able to purchase a lot of them,” he said. “Kids with legitimate prescriptions sell them illegally to other students for anywhere between $20 and $30 per pill, and they sell like hotcakes.”

George Young, a clinician with the National Counseling Group, reminds parents and students that there are serious consequences for selling drugs illegally.

“The sale or distribution of Adderall without a prescription is a felony,” he said.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com