Perfect Little Girl

One Teen-Ager's Bout With Ecstasy

Kati Stephenson was a vibrant young girl who liked school and loved to dance. Then she was introduced to ecstasy. Kati and her parents recount their struggle for 48 Hours Correspondent Peter Van Sant.
Once upon a time, Kati Stephenson was a little girl with big dreams.

"I was pretty much an all-American girl," says Kati. "I loved, I was really into, school. Was on the honor roll. I was a cheerleader, involved in student government. And dancing. I loved to dance. I just had a lot of goals, and I wasn't going to let anything hold me back."

Her father, Gene Stephenson, who was a juvenile court judge in Orlando, Fla., says, "She was the perfect daughter. And she was so loving and caring and attentive."

Her mother, Grace Stephenson, stayed home to raise Kati and her three sisters. Of Kati, she says, "She was just driven. I thought she was going to be this child that I would never have to worry about anything."

By age 14, Kati's dancing had made her a local celebrity. And then came Star Search, and Kati was competing with her dance troupe, Hot Mix, in front of an audience of millions.

"I just loved the attention. I loved it. It was a high for me," Kati recalls.

Eight competitions later, Kati's dance troupe won the $100,000 grand prize on Star Search.

"It was just awesome, you know," says Kati. "I felt like I had everything... The dreams coming true, people treating me like I was so special. And I really never thought it would end."

But, for Kati, it did end when her mother insisted that she come back home and finish high school. Kati turned back into a 10th grader, while the older girls in the dance troupe went on the road.

"She was just devastated that I wouldn't let her go," says her mother.

"That was a big part of my life," explains Kati, "and then it was gone."

Soon, she began looking for a new kind of high, first by drinking and then with the little pill that changed everything.

"The first time I took ecstasy, I was 16," says Kati. "I had gone to a club with a group of friends. When I took it, I loved it. It'just this incredible full-body buzz. I just remember feeling very connected with everybody else."

She started taking ecstasy whenever she could. And, as with many ecstasy users, when the high wore off, Kati plunged into depression.

"I would go home and, if I didn't have more drugs, I would be so depressed and just lay in my bed for two or three days. I would just have no motivation to do anything," she says.

But her parents did not know there was any problem. Then, one night, they realized their shooting star was falling fast.

"It was the night we came home and an ambulance was there because she had overdosed," recalls her mother.

Kati had swallowed every pill in her parents' medicine cabinet. "And," she adds, "I left my parents a suicide note."

Recalls her father, "I don't think a parent could ever experience something much worse."

Kati's parents tried to get her help. But Kati didn't want counseling. She wanted ecstasy.

"I always would tell myself, 'As long as I'm not doing cocaine or heroin, then I'm OK,' because I never heard of anyone getting hurt from ecstasy," she says.

But, soon, ecstasy wasn't enough.

"It was a gateway drug for me," she says, and it was a gateway that led her to a dozen other drugs, including cocaine, crack, and then heroin.

"All I was thinking was, 'I just want to get high. And if there was no way for me to get it, then I don't want to live,'" recalls Kati.

A life full of homework, cheerleading, and dancing ("I didn't care about any of that stuff anymore") became a blur of car wrecks, jail cells, and detox centers.

"As long as I was high, that's all I cared about," says Kati.

"Every day was a nightmare, not knowing if you'd have her the next day or not," recalls her mother.

"We knew we were going to lose her," says her father.

Because her father was a judge, Kati's parents realized if they couldn't save her, maybe the law could.

"She'd gotten to that point where the law had to be hanging over her head," explains her father.

"My mom called the cops on me," says Kati.

"She had drugs on her, and so we had her arrested with a felony," recalls her mother. "I just knew that was the only way. We had to have her locked up."

Kati spent 30 days in jail. But this time she wasn't allowed to go right back home. Instead, she moved to the Lisa Merlin House, a drug treatment center. And a year later, this former overachiever finally achieved something her parents had come to believe was impossible.

"Basically, (the Lisa Merlin House) gave me my life back," says Kati, adding that she had to learn "how to grow up all over again."

Kati has been clean for more than two years.

"You know, I am taking my dance classes again. And now I go just to enjoy it and just to have fun," she says.

But she has done damage that may never compleely heal.

"Now I have this chemical imbalance in my brain because of taking so much ecstasy," she explains. "My serotonin has been depleted. I don't get happy like normal people anymore. So I have to take antidepressants for that."

Now Kati talks to other kids who face the same temptation she once did.

"I just see me when I was at that age," she says. "It's so weird."

By telling her story, Kati hopes they will see the agony of ecstasy: "That's all I can do...share my experience and whoever's open to hearing it, I hope they do."

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