If my child had come down with any other disease, I would have made it my business to learn everything I could about it. Yet I was slow to accept her drug addiction, and that it is defined as a chronic, deadly brain disorder. What I needed to know: With repeated ingestion of habit-forming substances (in her case, opiates), the brain’s chemistry is hijacked, disabling the ability to make rational decisions. With all disorders, there are signs and symptoms. Warning signs of drug use typically include a cluster of behavioral changes. For young people, these can be: withdrawal from the family, different friends or lack of friends, lack of interest in grooming, schoolwork, hobbies, sports, social activities. Other symptoms: heightened mood swings, depression, anxiety, loss of weight, sores that won’t heal, disrupted sleep patterns.
When my smart, sociable teenaged daughter went from smoking pot to using pain pills to heroin, she got into a world of trouble. As a mother, I naturally wanted to protect her. I bailed her out of jail, paid off a threatening dealer, forgave her for stealing my jewelry, and made excuses for bad behavior. I dreaded confronting her because we would inevitably end up in an argument, regardless of how much I’d vowed to stay calm. It wasn’t until I understood that I had to stick to the facts and boundaries that anything changed, because I was only prolonging her drug use when I shielded her from the consequences of her actions.
I piled on the guilt and self-blame because, after all, isn’t it my fault? Alternatively, I was (ill)advised to “kick her out.” Those are the two poles that many parents shift from in the chaos of dealing with a child on drugs. But learning about the disorder of drug dependency taught me that I wasn’t responsible for my daughter’s dependency. No one sets out to live a miserable life in thrall to drugs, but it is the addicted person who must decide to get help. Seen in this light, I became better equipped both to cope with her, and how to be a positive force in her life. This insight was marked by a shift in our dialogue, from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s troubling you?” Anger, pleading, threats let off steam but they rarely produce a change in behavior. But offering the child choices to get healthy empower him. I told my daughter she could pick from group therapy, outpatient treatment or inpatient. She chose an adolescent psychologist who nudged her to the next step, which eventually led to her recovery.
Why can’t they admit their life is a shambles? Why do some recover while others do not? Not even the most brilliant scientists and the most seasoned addiction counselors can answer this one. But we do know that recovery is always possible. When dealing with my addicted child, I had to keep it simple. It boils down to this: What I say and do either supports her continued drug use, or points the way towards healthy choices. When my daughter relapsed and I found drug paraphernalia in her room, I had a good screaming match with my pillow, and then I laid out some options for her. There is always the possibility that they’ll refuse any help. But this time I was ready. And this time, she said yes to getting well.
Many of us fighting the war on drugs with our children become battle-scarred, traumatized and just plain exhausted. The enemy of addiction wears us down. During the years of my child’s drug misuse, I became more isolated, didn’t exercise as much, even took up smoking after thirty years of quitting. I was obsessed with every detail of her life. This was understandable; after all, addiction is deadly. But with the help of a counselor and a support group, I realized I wasn’t helping her by neglecting my own well-being. I started taking steps to refocus on my needs, my family and friends, work and pleasure. In time, I became much more resilient, and the emotional scars have faded. My recovery was good for both of us.