The cultural environment today is not exactly conducive to sobriety. It is extremely difficult for young people struggling with drug and alcohol problems to stay focused on recovery. Even though there is a heightened awareness with addiction issues among adults, teenagers have a hard time relating to the danger associated with drug abuse. What is confusing is that some drugs are seen as bad while others are viewed as innocuous. To an adolescent there is no such thing as an innocent drug. While society is hyper focused on opiate abuse, as it should be, marijuana and alcohol have flown under the radar. Not only is it irresponsible to convey the message that marijuana and alcohol abuse are “normal rites of passage” it is dangerous.
Adults vs. Adolescents
Marijuana advocacy has become increasingly popular. Much has been written about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. In the context of adolescence there is nothing positive about pro-marijuana messaging. Teenagers smoke marijuana for one reason and one reason alone: TO GET HIGH. A young person isn’t smoking pot to “relax” or for pain relief. Similar to how marketing has normalized alcohol abuse, we are now at the point that marijuana use has become so socially accepted that many parents are shrugging it off as “something teenagers do”. Not all teenagers who experiment with alcohol will become alcoholics and not all teenage marijuana users will wind up drug addicts. The question to parents becomes: are you willing to take that risk with your son or daughter?
Where Does It Lead?
The fact is that the majority of adolescent heroin addicts began using marijuana long before opiates came into the picture. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances and the development of addiction to other substances.” (NIDA: Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?) In the Insight Program the vast majority of opiate addicts admitted to using marijuana as their first drug of abuse. Many adults rationalize their child’s use of marijuana by stating that they themselves “smoked weed” in high school or college. What they fail to realize is that the pot smoked today is vastly different from what they smoked and the normalization of marijuana consumption has enabled potential addicts much more freedom to use.
What To Do
The first suggestion for any parent who is concerned with a child’s marijuana use is to have the young person evaluated by a professional. This is not an over-reaction and sends a clear message that drug abuse isn’t accepted behavior. Like any other child rearing issue change has to begin at home. Social acceptance doesn’t equal “healthy, normal, and good.” Parents succumb to peer pressure as much as teenagers. No parent should feel that just because social acceptance of marijuana has changed that they need to change their opinion. In reality there may not be a more dangerous drug for a teenager to experiment with than marijuana. Not necessarily because of the immediate danger but due to the treacherous road that lies ahead.
Anyone who has spent any time in 12 step addiction recovery meetings has at least heard a version of the term: “let go.” The actual meaning of this term can depend on either the speaker or the listener. To some, the act of letting go involves withholding affection. To others, letting go means looking the other way. Neither of these extremes has a positive effect. True letting go involves a process of clarifying priorities, learning how to respond, and expressing love positively.
The Myth Of Tough Love
Love is not always pleasant. Sometimes the act of love means taking actions the other person doesn’t like. Bishop Robert Barron says love is “truly wanting what is best for another person and then concretely doing something about it.” When a parent or loved one of an active addict or alcoholic finally says without equivocation: “We cannot continue to live this way”and offers the user a choice between getting help or leaving home they have demonstrated love and begun the process of letting go. A loving act like this is reinforced when a clear plan is laid out and followed through with. Sometimes when people try to act on tough love they do so from a place of anger and resentment. When “tough love” comes from an emotionally charged perspective, the person who needs help may only feel the animosity.
Feelings vs. Reality
The Carl Buehner quote: “They may forget what you said-but they will never forget how you made them feel” is helpful to remember when communicating with an addict. The ultimate goal is to help facilitate recovery. Addiction is a disease. Although a drug abuser can, and should, learn from consequences, he or she needs to know that help is available. Sometimes the person in need of help has a difficult time asking for it. Letting go without love can leave a person feeling lost and abandoned. Remember when letting go to do so with a spirit of love and compassion.
Drug addiction and alcoholism destroy innumerable areas of an abuser’s life. An addict will suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Despondency, anxiety, anger, and guilt are emotions regularly experienced by a drug abuser. Many substance abusers feel alone and that no one else understands what he or she is going through. Most connections with other people, especially family and friends, have been severely damaged. The idea of “sharing” with someone else or asking for help is rarely considered. However, in order to achieve recovery the suffering addict must form real and meaningful relationships with those who can help.
The first year of substance abuse recovery is a challenge for both the addict and the entire family. Not only is the recovering drug abuser trying to stay sober, there is also the challenge of mending relationships and cleaning up other areas of life. An addict’s first holiday season can also bring about new emotional demands. In particular New Year’s is known for its parties and alcohol fueled revelry. It is important to find ways to replace all that is being “missed” at this time of the year.
What To Do?
Enthusiastic sobriety programs hold a major event on New Year’s Eve that includes meetings, games, a dance, and tons of fellowship for the entire family. It is a great opportunity for everyone who attends to start changing some of the associations with the holidays that center on drug and alcohol abuse. For a lot of families it has been a while since the new year provided hope and optimism. Having something to do that everyone can enjoy helps the process of healing for the family. Plus, it is an opportunity to make more connections with people on a similar path.
What To Think
Ending the old year and beginning the new year with an attitude of gratitude goes a long way. For a newly sober addict it is easy to look back on the year with a lot of remorse and regret. This is dangerous because if an addict is caught in self-pity the tendency is to fall into a pattern of depression. Reflection doesn’t have to be morbid. It can be an honest assessment of past events with an awareness of new emotional tools to improve one’s life. Starting the year sober gives a clear perspective on how much possibility exists. Recovery from substance abuse is truly a great opportunity for a new lease on life.
Thanksgiving is an important day for families in recovery. For many of us the holidays used to represent much of what was wrong in our lives. Addicts and alcoholics used holidays to excuse over-indulgence while family members hoped and prayed that somehow “this year will be different.” The acknowledgment of a drug or alcohol problem gives the opportunity for wounded families to begin the process of coming back together.
Every year at Insight we have the Gratitude Meeting the night before Thanksgiving. This tradition has been a significant part of enthusiastic sobriety programs for over 40 years. It is the one meeting a year that the entire family is together in the same room. Young addicts and alcoholics, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and any other significant family members participate. There is nothing like seeing families express gratitude in a real and meaningful way. For many, this is the first time in a long time, if not ever, communication has been this real and honest. It can be an inspiration for long term sobriety and family health. If you are in Greensboro, Charlotte, or Atlanta I would highly recommend attending this important meeting. It could make a difference for you and your family on this very important holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!
It is common for parents of kids with substance abuse problems to believe they are somehow at fault. These parents convince themselves that if certain circumstances were different, or if other decisions had been made, that somehow their child would not have a drug problem. It may be true that some parenting techniques or childhood events may have contributed to emotional factors that predispose someone to a drug or alcohol problem. However, when a young person chooses to use for the first time that decision is almost always motivated by peer acceptance and a desire to have fun.
Not What You Think
On a regular basis I challenge parents to think about their motivation to do certain things when they were teenagers. Whether they drank alcohol or used drugs is irrelevant; most young people find ways to rebel. Almost everyone who is asked admits that even though they may have been taking actions that would be construed as defiant, they weren’t thinking about their parents when deciding to cross the line. Not everyone who grows up in a difficult environment develops a substance abuse problem and not everyone with a substance abuse problem has reason to blame his or her family. I grew up with an alcoholic parent. I often explain to people that this was the greatest form of prevention I could have been exposed to. Living with an alcoholic is horrible. However, when a group of kids who I thought were cool gave me the opportunity, I drank. In spite of everything I knew about the consequences of alcohol abuse, I drank. This developed into a serious drug and alcohol problem for which I needed a lot of help.
Get Help For The Right Stuff
I understand why my parents felt guilty. In fact, I manipulated their emotions as a means to do whatever I wanted to do. But once they realized that my actions were my responsibility and let go of their guilt, recovery for me and for my family became possible. Their are certainly issues a parent needs to resolve. Any family scourged by substance abuse knows this. At the same time, there is no way to go back in time and fix past issues. Self-pity and remorse attached to past parenting blocks a person from being able to heal the relationship with the addict. There is no perfect parent and anyone can look back at the past and recognize all kinds of things that could have been done “better.” This awareness cannot change anything if the focus is not on building a better relationship today.
It is not uncommon to hear stories about “at risk youth.” The term is often used but at times misunderstood. There are so many circumstances that put young people in potentially dangerous situations that in some ways young people are “at risk” all the time. Normally, parents compare what teenagers experience today through the lens of their own life but today’s world is a very different place. Every generation has its version of “these young people just don’t get it” but in reality things have changed significantly in the past three decades.
Information Changes Everything
Access to information has radically changed the way young people react to life. In most cases this is a good thing but there are exceptions. For teenagers prone to drug and alcohol abuse or other forms of self-destructive acting out this can be devastating. People that get high are in constant search of justification. Now it is possible to build an army of support for any behavior without any pushback. This is extremely dangerous for young people who are suffering because if they successfully find others to validate dangerous forms of acting out, they are less likely to find help when it is really needed. A drug or alcohol abuser is an expert at showing the world what he or she wants others to see. The isolation and internal torture a young person lives with is difficult to recognize. Receiving validation from “friends” online only perpetuates the problem. This was not the case in the eighties and nineties.
Same Mindset, Different Circumstances
Teenagers are still teenagers. Anyone can understand that simple fact. Many parents of teenagers today had their own bouts with drug and alcohol abuse in high school or college. However, it is dangerous and naive to think this provides the knowledge needed to help a struggling young person. The drugs of today are different. They are far more powerful and much more available. The social acceptance for drug abuse is rampant. These facts don’t make the situation hopeless. No one needs to accept a loved one abusing drugs or alcohol or convince themselves their child is “going through a phase.” If you are concerned about someone you love, ask for help. If this is an overreaction, so be it. With a problem this serious an exaggerated reaction is better than waiting until it is too late.
Recovery from any addiction is a difficult process. It involves an individual’s willingness to take responsibility for his or her actions, a concrete decision to make significant lifestyle changes, and the courage to repair damaged relationships. The level of emotional maturity involved in taking these steps is usually somewhat foreign to an addict. What about a person who is an addict and, developmentally speaking, a child? How does this person muster the emotional maturity needed to begin the recovery process?
For decades the adolescent substance abuse problem has gotten progressively worse. There have been prevention programs which have had some success, but adolescents continue to abuse drugs and alcohol at an alarming rate. Because of this, it is important for anyone who works with adolescents to understand this unique population.
- The conscious motivation for most adolescents to abuse drugs and alcohol is different than that of an adult. The adolescent abuser is seeking fun and peer acceptance,whereas the adult is seeking pain relief.
- In most cases adolescents have yet to face the same level of physical or emotional consequences most adult addicts have faced
- The adult addict is responsible for all aspects of his or her life, the adolescent isn’t
These are just a few of the differences between adults and adolescents with substance abuse issues. Some of the challenges in treatment include:
- Creating an environment in which the adolescent has fun and gains peer acceptance. Developmentally these are needs which must be addressed
- Helping an emotionally immature child take enough internal responsibility for his or her actions to be motivated to change
- Showing an adolescent how to maintain healthy balance in his or her emotional life, in other words, limiting the emotional extremes
The biggest mistake clinicians make in treating adolescent substance abuse is assuming the adolescent is capable of dealing with life like an adult. In most cases, an adolescent must be able to see recovery as an attractive lifestyle. An adolescent substance abuser already has a general lack of trust with adults or any other “authority” figures. It is critical to maintain patience in order to gain the trust of an adolescent. Once trust is established, it is possible to reach an adolescent at their level.
In 12 step recovery from drug and alcohol abuse the first step involves a willingness to admit powerlessness and unmanageability. The addict or alcoholic must understand that when abusing drugs and alcohol he loses control of the ability to make sound decisions and move in a positive direction in life. He must also accept that the major problems he is experiencing come as the result of getting high and drinking. No matter how much counseling or therapy an addict or alcoholic receives, he will not change until his drug or alcohol abuse is addressed and he is abstinent. Most parents or spouses of addicts and alcoholics understand this. What can be confusing is when someone says, “Now you need to work a program too!” Why would a parent or spouse need 12 step recovery?
What? I’m Not The One With The Problem
As soon as the chemical abusing a**hole gets sober the family becomes eternally blissful and all problems just melt away. Oh, if it could be that simple. Unfortunately, as anyone who loves an addict or alcoholic knows, this is literally never the case. Undoubtedly, sobriety provides the first opportunity to repair the family. But just as the addict’s recovery really starts post abstinence, the family’s issues come into the spotlight as well. When approached with the idea of working a 12 step recovery program most parents respond with a version of “I’m not the one with the problem.” Upon further investigation a loved one of an addict will inevitably come to the conclusion that fear, anger, and guilt have created a fair amount of insanity. With this awareness comes the opportunity to create real healing for wounds caused by years of living in distress.
Families enter 12 step recovery beaten, battered, and scarred. It is difficult to find hope that life will really ever get better. As soon as a parent or loved one of an addict is able to surrender to the idea that continuing along the path they have been on will only result in more pain, recovery begins. From this point the family member of the addict is able to change course and focus on her own happiness and peace of mind. Through the discovery of a Higher Power and an honest and thorough look at patterns that have caused disruption, transformation begins. The process isn’t complicated. It simply requires the courage to ask for help.
“Relapse is a part of recovery.” This is a term that has circulated around drug and alcohol treatmentfor decades. It is meant to help people to not become discouraged when an addict or alcoholic experiences a slip. However, this way of thinking can also be used as a way to rationalize a conscious decision to go back to active drug or alcohol abuse. Because the terminology can be somewhat ambiguous, what should someone do when a “relapse” occurs? What is the appropriate way to react? There can be a fine line between support and enabling consequently any loved one of an addict or alcoholic needs a lot of support.
So, Define Relapse
A simple way to understand relapse is to remember that a person who is new to recovery has depended on a chemical fix for an extended period of time. Abusing drugs or alcohol has become the normal way to live. It is the default response to any aspect of life, positive or negative. An addict uses drugs and alcohol to enhance good feelings as much as attempting to escape emotions that are uncomfortable. It is a major shock to the system to approach day to day life abstinent from all mind changing chemicals. In early recovery when emotions start to rise to the surface the newly sober drug abuser can become overwhelmed. His first thought will be to get high. Obviously it is best to avoid the temptation and work through his feelings. But when the opportunity to use comes up and is acted upon a drug abuser will either admit the mistake and move forward or become discouraged and continue to use. Whether or not this is considered a relapse depends on the reaction of the user. When a person relapses and is able to continue his program of recovery this can be very positive. After a short period of sobriety the positive payoffs of drugs and alcohol tend to fade. This contrast between using and recovery becomes dramatic. In this sense relapse is a part of recovery.
What Can I Do?
One person’s relapse is another person’s manipulation. One of the reasons it is so important for family members to be involved in an addict’s recovery is because of the need for accountability on all levels. No one can “keep” another person sober. However, when everyone is engaged in the recovery process the addict is less likely to see getting high as a viable option. The family has to make the decision that the rollercoaster ride of active drug and alcohol abuse is over. When an addict knows this wall exists and everyone involved is committed to recovery the decision to use again becomes much more difficult. Just like an addict in sobriety needs a sober peer group, parents and other family members thrive with support of an empathizing circle. Family members need counseling, guidance, and support. With the right kind of encouragement the recovery process will continue for all involved.