As the director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, a nonprofit organization in Burlington, Vt., I work with teenagers and young adults who are struggling. Some are battling addictions to drugs and alcohol. We have licensed clinicians on staff who provide outpatient counseling, and recently I received this email from a parent:
We just checked our own 19-year-old son into rehab yesterday for an addiction to Xanax. While not an opiate it is just as deadly. This young, beautiful soul comes from an upper-middle class loving family. We talked to him early and often about the dangers of drugs, and we were in his face about not experimenting early with alcohol or marijuana because of his tender brain. We were and are overflowing with love and unconditional support without enabling him — i.e. handing him money, we expected he get a job and work, etc. He was busy with athletics and life with good friends in high school, but then as he went off to college it all changed. He drank and smoked pot, he became anxious and depressed, and then he started using Xanax and experimenting with a myriad drugs.
I knew when he was little he had a personality that would be prone to addiction — the way he played video games, how we had to actually have the Internet stop working for him to stop and go to bed. His love of risky things — we even got him into safe risky outdoors things in an attempt to hook him on his natural adrenaline. It was not enough.
I myself feel very guilty and a failure as parent because I knew this could happen to him; I talked to him about it several times at least in high school (even though I knew it earlier). But talking and a good family weren’t enough.
If there is something we can do to move Vermont in a prevention program direction, I will use my story to help.
Most of the young people we work with at Spectrum come from poverty and extremely dysfunctional family situations. Their homes are rife with domestic violence, parents who are imprisoned or missing, or are addicts themselves, and the kids have been neglected, physically and/or sexually abused, or in and out of the foster care system. But here’s the thing every parent needs to be aware of: Addiction can happen even in what appears to be the healthiest and most loving and supportive of families.
I immediately wrote back to this mother, emphasizing a few key points:
Don’t blame yourself. “Please don’t feel like you are a bad parent,” I wrote. “I’m begging you not to do that to yourself.”
Addiction is a mystery in many respects. “There are so many factors that go into why one person travels down this path and another does not,” I wrote. “Why that happens, it could be genetic, it could be that particular child’s disposition to risk, really, no one knows. I do think that as we learn more about neuroscience in the coming decades, some of these things will become clearer to us, but in my mind there will always be some element of mystery to it.”
Take hope. I wrote about the many success stories we’ve witnessed at Spectrum. “A husband and wife I know, good people, responsible people, loving parents, whose son was so addicted to drugs that he had to drop out of college and was literally living in the woods. That young man is now over 10 years clean, a college grad, a law school grad, married to a wonderful woman, with two children. … We have a woman volunteering with us now who 11 years ago was a cocaine addict and actually tried to take her life while living in our shelter; if not for the medical staff in the emergency room at the hospital, she would have died. She is now drug-free, married, a college grad, sober, happy and helps out our kids in her spare time.”
Finally, I let her know that when her son does exit rehab, we are there for him. “That is great that he is in rehab now,” I wrote. “Let’s hope he gains from it, and if we can help with outpatient counseling after he comes back, let me know. That is a lot of what we do, post-rehab counseling using motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy.”
That last point is important. Residential rehabilitation is vital, but only one tool in the arsenal of recovery, and it is rare that a short stay in rehab will be all that is required to maintain sobriety. The after-work, the skill-building, the learning how to deal with cravings and resist using — these are essential components of recovery and often are learned post-rehab in outpatient counseling.
Only a few days after our email exchange, Vivek H. Murthy, who was surgeon general at the time, issued a 400-page report, “Facing Addiction in America.” In an interview with the HuffPost, Murthy said, “For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.”
I agree with him, and the further that message makes its way out to parents, the more they will understand that they need not feel as if they have failed, and that there is in fact hope for the kind of full recovery that can be attained with most other diseases.
Mark Redmond is the author of The Goodness Within: Reaching out to Troubled Teens with Love and Compassion and hosts the podcast, “So Shines a Good Deed.” Find him on Twitter @MarkRedmond1.
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