How could a person in recovery from alcohol and drug use possibly fail to recognize the symptoms of substance use in his own teenager?
Stupidity? Blindness? I’d have to say both, combined with a powerful, potentially deadly dose of trust.
In the eighth grade, my son was part of the Gifted Students Program. One year later, he nearly failed his freshman year. But, my wife and I mistakenly thought, this was because of other, mitigating circumstances.
The summer prior to attending high school, my son suffered from mononucleosis and the doctor warned us that the illness could recur. He seemed to have fully rebounded in time to attend classes and compete on the high school wrestling team. But in a matter of months he started coming home exhausted, going directly to his bedroom and “sleeping,” or more accurately, “passing out.” He looked pale, had dark circles under his eyes, had lost his appetite and grew too skinny.
All signs and symptoms of substance use, right? But did we see this? No.
He also quit wrestling. A teen withdrawing from sports and activities they used to love is also another big warning sign of substance use, and we completely missed it.
(Note: It’s helpful to ask yourself what is driving your child’s behaviors around substance use. It could be anything from boredom and a lack of purpose, to feeling left out and insecure, to simple curiosity and thrill-seeking. Understanding the “why” behind your child’s substance use can foster empathy for your child and also help you think about ways to encourage healthier behaviors that compete with the urge to use substances.)
Instead, we brought him back to the doctor, thinking the mononucleosis had returned. His tests came back negative.
Now, let me cut to the chase.
In the first week of his sophomore year he was caught ditching class, four out of eight days in World History. That is when my wife and I finally put it together. We confronted him as soon as he came home that day.
“Are you using drugs?”
“Look me in the eye,” I said, “and tell me you’re not getting high.”
Fortunately, he was not much of a liar. He could only glance up at me for a second and then lower his eyes. But the lie came anyway.
“No,” he said. “I don’t use drugs. I’ve just been sick.”
Our biggest mistake was trusting him. But we trusted him because we love him and because he had never lied to us before. Little lies? Sure, what kid hasn’t? A big lie, like hiding substance use? No. Not to our knowledge. (We later learned that lying is a symptom of the disease of addiction.) We were in denial and wanted to believe him. That yearning, need and desire to trust, that can be lethal.
Given my own dark past, I put the word out about him in my recovering community.
A simple question: “I don’t care who’s selling him substances. I’m not trying to bust anybody. I just want to know what he’s taking. What’s his reputation?”
Inside of a week, I had three reliable sources report that my son was known as a pot smoker, an Ecstasy user, and a drinker. At that point, there was no more denying the obvious; my wife and I had to take action. Here are five things we did. Let’s call them “rules.”
Rule #1: Drug test
It’s best to have a doctor administer a drug test, but we bought an over-the-counter drug test kit. Please keep in mind that drug tests, professionally administered or not, aren’t 100% accurate, and teens often find ways to beat them. Still, our son’s home drug test came up positive for THC and benzodiazepines. He didn’t deny the results.
Rule #2: Consider changing schools
If possible, remove the teenager from the environment and its peer pressure. In my son’s case, it meant changing schools, from public to private. Though it was an expensive move, and we’re not wealthy people, it was worth the sacrifice. In our small community, the only private high school is a Christian academy, with small classes (12-15 students) and a zero-tolerance policy for drugs. There were, according to our son, “no cool kids,” which we took to mean there were only “non-drug users.” Begrudgingly, however, he adapted to his new environment. I should add that in our initial meeting with the principal, because of the fear and stigma of the disease, we conveniently failed to mention his substance use out of fear he’d be denied admission.
(Note: We recognize that many families can’t afford to move or switch schools. What’s most important is to try to understand why your child is using substances.)
Rule #3: Attend AA and NA meetings
Although my son hadn’t yet developed a substance use disorder, he was well on his way. From honor student to nearly failing his freshman year, he was on the fast-track to the dark side. Since membership in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous requires only a desire to quit using substances, I took him to many meetings. For us, it was helpful for him, in the early stages of substance use, to see others his age who have a full-blown addiction. It was important for him to hear the horrific stories of where others’ lives have taken them and, most of all, how they found recovery and turned their lives around.
Rule #4: Set ground rules
We feared if we cut our son off from all his old friends, including his girlfriend, then he’d rebel and we’d lose whatever little ground we’d gained. So, we set some rules. If he went out, he had to be back by 11pm and take a drug test the following morning. If he failed to meet the curfew or pass the drug test, he’d be grounded for a month and his cell phone would be taken away. One night, he missed curfew and Paula and I had to pick him up at his girlfriend’s house. When he got in the car, I could see he was high and could smell alcohol on his breath. The next morning, he failed his drug test for benzodiazepines. This was frightening news, since taking tranquilizers and drinking can be a deadly cocktail.
To his credit, without much grumbling, he turned over his cell phone and accepted his grounding. In time, he lost contact with most of his old friends. Since he couldn’t get high, he didn’t feel — again to his credit — that there was much point in hanging out with them.
(Note: If your child is using opioids, it’s best to seek medical help with detox. Substance use treatment providers and doctors can help young people stop using the drug they are addicted to, control their cravings and get them through withdrawal.)
Rule #5: Spend more time with your child
Paula and I both made a point of spending more time with our son. For her, that meant taking him to the movies, shopping and lunches. For me, since he enjoys wrestling, that meant spending more time with him in training. The benefits we’ve reaped from including him more in our lives on a daily basis have been tremendous. At first, like most teenagers, he didn’t want to hang out with his parents, but that wore off after a couple of months and now we’re closer than ever.
It’s been nearly a year since we first discovered our son was using substances and drinking, and except for the one time he broke curfew, every drug test we’ve since given him has come up negative. I’ve talked to him a lot, especially about my own addiction, where it took me, and how, given our genetic link, he’s right in line to follow in my footsteps if he isn’t extremely careful. Now, since he’s been in recovery for nearly nine months, Paula and I feel he’s earned back our trust, at least enough to let him return to the public school (for a number of reasons — he’s not happy at the Christian academy) and compete again in wrestling. He’s also well aware that from here on out, our eyes will always be wide open.
Obviously, we’re taking a chance.
But we must believe in our child, just as we hope our child believes in us.
James Brown, Parent & Person in Recovery
James Brown is in recovery from substance use disorder. He began drinking and using substances at the age of 9. After numerous relapses and rehab, he is today sober and in recovery. Now 52, Brown is Professor of English at Cal State San Bernardino and lives with his family in Lake Arrowhead, California. For more information on James, please visit his website: http://www.jamesbrownauthor.com.
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