How I Knew My Daughter Was Using Substances and in a Mental Health Crisis

mother and daughter hugging

Mid-August was quickly approaching. My 11-year-old daughter was about to start middle school. I was not exactly looking forward to it, as I knew middle school can be a challenging transition and many pre-teens are just beginning to find themselves. I also knew that my sixth-grade daughter would also be exposed to older students; therefore, I assumed she’d be exposed to behaviors that I would not necessarily approve of.

Working in the mental health and substance use field for over 10 years, I have always educated my daughter on the negative effects of drugs and alcohol. I can’t even begin to tell you how many in-depth conversations we’ve had regarding drugs being “poison for your body.” I was always pretty confident in that regard.

The Genetic Predisposition

As middle school loomed, my daughter’s father was very sick and had been for a while. He suffers from the disease of addiction since way before my daughter was born. It’s all she has ever known. Being as educated as I am, I also knew that alcoholism has a very strong genetic predisposition. I always believed that when my daughter would ask me questions about her father that the right thing to do was to be honest. That doesn’t mean I went into every single detail with her. It means that when she asked me a question I would answer it. I have always informed my daughter that addiction is a disease and it does not mean that your father is a bad person. It means that he is sick. Did you know that if a child has a biological parent that struggles with addiction they are more likely to develop addictive disorders themselves? That is the genetic predisposition. As a parent, because of this, I tried to implement moderation in my daughter’s everyday life with video games, sweets, etc. I knew that the “more more more and more is never enough” behaviors needed to be addressed and managed right away.

“Where Did My Daughter Go?”

It was like a light switch — my beautiful, kind and sweet daughter was spending all her spare time isolating in her bedroom away from the family. She’d have random outbursts and treated me very poorly. I kept asking myself, “Where did my daughter go?” It started to get really bad; worse than you could possibly imagine.

One afternoon I received a call from the principal of my daughter’s school. The principal informed me that my daughter was being suspended for possession of marijuana. I was shocked and devastated at the same time. As I raced to the school to pick her up, I had so many thoughts going through my mind — one being: Where did she get this marijuana? When I arrived at the school she was sitting in the principal’s office crying. I immediately asked her who gave her the marijuana. My daughter told me that her friend and her friend’s mother smoke weed together everyday and her friend’s mom said she could have it. As you can imagine, I was irate! After we got home, I immediately called the police to report it.

It was like a light switch -- my sweet daughter was spending all her spare time isolating in her bedroom away from the family. I kept asking myself, “Where did my daughter go?”

The next evening at about 9 PM, two very kind police officers knocked on my front door. When I answered, the police officer stated that they received a “Safe2Tell” call regarding my daughter. They told me that she had been cutting. I called my daughter to come downstairs and with the police officers present, and I asked to see her arms. She had many cuts covering her arms. My heart broke. I knew she was hurting inside.

She was transported to the emergency room and placed on a “M1” (mental health hold) to be evaluated. After she was evaluated, the medical and psychiatric team told me that my daughter’s test results came back alarmingly high for anxiety and depression and that she tested positive for marijuana. My daughter was then transported via ambulance to an adolescent behavioral health inpatient program. She was at the program for almost two weeks, participating in group therapy and individual therapy sessions and met with the doctor daily. She was also educated on healthy coping skills, and she did very well in the program. I strongly believe that the inpatient program helped save my daughter’s life.

Once discharged from the inpatient level of care, she immediately started an intensive outpatient program (IOP). IOP consists of her attending the program three afternoons per week for about three hours each day. She meets with her therapist and mentor each time. She meets with their doctor approximately every two weeks. My daughter really enjoys attending IOP and has not once has she complained about going.

Our Family Today

With tears in my eyes as I write this, I am beyond thrilled that my daughter is coming back! She has been so pleasant to be around. She has been so respectful and is starting to thrive the way she used to in school again.

I think the worst thing a parent can say is “not my kid” — always respond as soon as you can to any warning signs:

Some Warning Signs You Can Look For:

  • Isolation
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Random outbursts
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Red glossy and dilated eyes (for marijuana)
  • Decrease of engagement in school
  • Change of behaviors

Some Tips I Have on Checking in With Your Child:

  • Get to know their friends
  • Lock up all medications at home
  • If prescribed medication by a physician, administer for them as prescribed
  • Never try to be the “cool parent.”
  • Stay involved in their lives
  • Go with your gut! It’s important to try to determine what’s going on if you get that feeling.
  • Talk to your kids about substances. You’d rather them learn from you then from other kids on the playground.

Download Our Mental Health + Substance Use Guide

Learn more about how to identify and treat both substance use and mental health issues at the same time, and see how they interconnect.

Co-Occurring Disorders
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    christy Brown

    May 3, 2019 at 6:47 PM

    Hi Stephanie: I also found out my son was cutting at about the same age and took him to counseling. But I never found out he was also using marijuana until he was older. We had no addiction and no predisposition and I could not imagine him using. He was addicted to marijuana by the time I found out when he was 15 and no matter how much counseling we had he was out of control for the next 7 painful years. From that I learned if your child has one mental health problem such as cutting or depression, it is a good idea to get a full assessment. I wish I had known earlier. Also, I should have gotten my son into treatment like you did rather than just minor counseling thinking the cutting was just an experiment. I would advise not taking this lightly–it IS right to be very concerned when your child is using substances and cutting at such a young age.

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      Stephanie King

      May 8, 2019 at 3:33 AM

      Thank you so much for sharing this. It is definitely very important that they start out at a residential/inpatient level of care and transition levels of care as medically necessary.
      I have worked in the mental health and substance use disorder field for over 10 years now. I am very passionate due to my ex husband and I know firsthand that they are great people they are just very sick people. Many of them have experienced significant trauma in their earlier years of life and need a dual diagnosis program to get that appropriate treatment that they need to live a life clean and sober. I’ll never forget struggling to find help for my ex-husband. That was over 10 years ago and since then I made it my life‘s mission to make sure that I help as many families find the appropriate treatment that their loved one means. I now have residential dual diagnosis treatment centers all over the country and all levels of care. It is a true blessing being able to see recovery every day. Recovery is very possible and it really works if you work it.

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    Carol Hoffman

    April 4, 2019 at 10:35 AM

    I imagine there a lot of parent-readers who will relate to Ms. King’s story; I commend her openness in revealing how she discovered her daughter’s problems and found help in time that seems to be working.

    Having worked in the addictions field for a long time, I am struck by a couple of things that I thought I would add. Frequently people with addiction histories in their pasts now recognize the need to forewarn children about the risks of drugs due to possible genetic predisposition. I think this better than not discussing it, but “warning of the dangers” has not really been found to be especially effective in preventing use. The Drug Policy Alliance promotes a more comprehensive approach (here is a link: https://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/Prop64-Quality-Drug-Education-CA%20Teens.pdf) that includes a balanced discussion rather than a “fear-based” approach.

    I also noticed that none of the treatment description in this story included working with parents. Hopefully this was just an oversight in the telling of her story, but if not, I hope that everyone seeking help – especially the person with the drug problem is young – will seek treatment from a source that uses evidence-based treatment models for youth. They ALL have strong parent components now.

    I applaud all parents who are struggling to find their way in raising young people today. Creating a very engaged relationship as was described here is key; becoming a great listener (rather than “advice-giver”) really helps with pre-teens and teens, too!

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      Stephanie King

      April 9, 2019 at 9:12 AM

      Carol, there was a huge family component in my daughters treatment process and still Is. We had multiple family sessions and I still meet with her therapist at intensive outpatient once a week. Although I have been working in the field for so long, it is different when it’s your child. So when I meet with her therapist for individual sessions they really give me the tools to help me, help her. Nothing changes if nothing changes, right? Thank you for your response.

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        Carol Hoffman

        April 11, 2019 at 4:22 PM

        Thanks for filling in that great information, Stephanie. I am so glad to hear your daughter and you are doing so well. I so agree that there is nothing like personal experience to bring home the reality of the pain of addiction, as well as the thrill of recovery.

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    Wanda Sue Maddox

    April 4, 2019 at 8:56 AM

    As a sister of a brother with a very addictive personality (who is now deceased from self-drowning), I am very sorry that your family (to include your daughter) had to go through this rough patch. As we all know though, sometimes the school of hard knocks is the best way to learn valuable lessons in life. The biggest disservice my parents did to themselves, our family and my brother was to say “not my kid”. I told them at 16yrs old that he was doing dope…which progressed to WAY more than that…to the point of trafficking cocaine up and down the interstate. He was finally busted, spent quite a bit of time locked away…no mental rehab was part of that…and unfortunately his lesson wasn’t learned. He still had demons that eventually got the best of him and as I mentioned, he drowned himself. Sadly enough, this was the only way my parents found solace at the end of the ordeal. The admission that “This IS my child” could quite possibly have saved his life. They both realize there were underlying issues that consumed his mind which he never asked for help for, and their lack of admission could have given him what he needed to fight. Though tragic, his death was the best thing that could have happened to him. He is no longer suffering. They sought counseling to deal with their loss and life is going on. Admission is the start….it’s the key to opening the door, walking over to the mountain and starting the very long and difficult ascent. I’m proud of their progress but sad for their loss. The mental anguish he had he no longer feels and for that we are grateful. I praise you for your ability to put her and your family through your “rough patch” and getting her help she needed. Hold your heads high…..you saved her.

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