The drug epidemic has afflicted young people in America for decades. There is no shortage of ideas on how to solve this problem. From “The War on Drugs” to the “Opioid Epidemic” there have been several campaigns started with the idea of stemming the overwhelming tide of drug abuse. While these approaches are always well intentioned they have done little to decrease drug abuse among young people. There is no magic cure for this problem. Medication may provide temporary relief but it does not change an addict’s thinking. Therapy can be helpful but the discovery of root causes does not motivate a young drug abuser to abstain from mind changing chemicals. Church attendance can lift an alcoholic’s spirits and provide a new perspective but sobriety is certainly not guaranteed. Changes in diet, more exercise, better sleep, and other physical changes are undoubtedly necessary but will not stop a young person from using. A fundamental tenet in any twelve step program is “First Things First.” In order to start the process of recovery an addict must become abstinent. This is the number one priority.
A Program of Attraction
A young addict or alcoholic uses or drinks because the chemical provides a desired effect. By the time drug or alcohol abuse become problematic the abuser knows there is something wrong. One of the primary reasons a person will not stop using is because he or she does not see a better alternative. From an outside perspective this looks insane. To the person who is using, it makes perfect sense. An addict is not concerned with “consequences” until these ramifications stand in the way of being able to get high. Drugs and alcohol affect a person physically, mentally, and spiritually. An addict must have these needs met.Fear is not a good motivator because most young drug abusers are numb to it. Sobriety has to be attractive and fun.
Young addicts and alcoholics wrestle with the temptation to use for a long time after they get sober. They are always aware that “relief” is available from their drug or drink of choice. It is imperative that they have a firm grasp on abstinence before beginning to dig into underlying issues. For young people, this process involves a combination of fun and inspiration. Enthusiastic sobriety opens the door to enjoying a life without drugs and alcohol. It also allows young people to begin coping with difficult issues in a safe and supportive environment.
Substance abuse recovery for young people is not the same as it is for adults. A common misconception is that a program designed for adults can be delivered to young people in an effective manner. There are numerous problems with this belief. People will often assume that a young person has the same sense of urgency as someone who has been drinking or using for several years. This rarely happens. There are several reasons why this is the case.The combination of years of abuse, brain development, and life experience create a much different perspective for adults than for adolescents.
The Adolescent Brain
One significant factor in the difference between adults and young people in recovery is brain development. When a young person starts using drugs or drinking alcohol he or she is at a point in life when the brain is going through significant changes. In his book Sacred Connections, Dr. Steven Jaffe gives a great explanation of how the brain is affected in recovery. Dr. Jaffe explains: “The nucleus accumbens is the pleasure and reward system; it is responsible for drug seeking behaviors. The prefrontal cortex helps to regulate impulses and make informed and smart decisions. Unfortunately, this area of the brain does not fully develop until a person’s mid-twenties.” (Jaffe, 72) This clarifies why an adolescent struggles to make better decisions in recovery, even after abstinence. The drug abuser’s brain has been compromised and it takes time to create better decision making skills.
Healing Takes Time
Recovery doesn’t happen quickly. It is a process. In an enthusiastic sobriety program the combination of fun and engaging activities with strong counseling is key. Twelve step recovery involves physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. This has to be attractive to an adolescent so he or she can maintain motivation. Fear will not inspire long term change in a young person. He or she needs a loving, safe, and fun environment along with supportive relationships. As the addict forms a strong foundation in recovery, he or she will practice better ways of thinking as his or brain develops. All adolescents experience periods of emotional instability. This is exacerbated when a young person is using drugs and drinking. It takes an extended period of sobriety for emotional and mental health to internalize.
No one wants to wake up one day and realize their son or daughter has a serious drug and/or alcohol problem. Most parents would rather be thinking about how to help their child navigate through more “normal” adolescent challenges. Unfortunately many families will run into this problem. An issue some parents struggle with is the recognition that priorities will have to temporarily change. The sooner a parent figures this out the smoother the recovery process will be for everyone.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Substance abuse recovery for young people is not “one size fits all.” Problems with drug and alcohol abuse among adolescents and young adults can range from periodic alcohol and marijuana use to severe opiate addiction. Some young people are relatively functional while others have no direction. What all young people have in common is that early sobriety is extremely difficult. The more a young person is able to focus on recovery in the beginning, the better. It is extremely important for parents to recognize that it may be necessary to temporarily shift priorities. The simplest example is with school.
This Is Not Forever
We are all conditioned to believe that if a certain level of education hasn’t been attained by a specified age that somehow the child and the parent have failed. Think about that for a minute. There are many things wrong with that perspective. That is not to say that education isn’t important. Obviously, it is critical to gain a worthwhile education. However, if a young person isn’t functioning emotionally it will be extremely difficult to learn, excel, or care. In fact there are some drug abusers who are able to do well in school primarily to keep people off their back. The point is that while a young person is learning to stay sober, his or her focus will not be on school. Once the newly sober person is stable his or her ability to care about work, school, and other aspects of a healthy life will change. It is vital to trust the recovery process. A couple of points to remember:
early recovery is difficult for everyone involved
once an addict is thinking clearly his/her priorities will change
this is temporary
Patience is difficult but in this case it is vital. Remember that building a strong foundation in early recovery sets the addict up for success in life.
Twelve step recovery can be very challenging for young people because so much of it is based on concepts that are usually associated with an adult perspective. A realization of powerlessness, any admission of wrong doing, reliance on a Higher Power, and a willingness to face people who have been hurt is difficult. This is particularly a challenge for adolescents and young adults. Adults in recovery have a difficult time taking responsibility for their actions, much less a young person. In the mind of a young drug and/or alcohol abuser there is nothing wrong with what he/she is doing. In his or her mind if everyone would just back off, there wouldn’t be a problem. This has always been a challenge for young people who need help but is especially difficult today.
Drug and alcohol treatment is not immune to the current climate of identity separation. If you look around, there are 12-Step meetings available to almost every imaginable classification of people. Many of these group distinctions are unnecessary and can water down the message of recovery. It is generally dangerous for a person with drug and alcohol problems to be “terminally unique.” However, young people are at a different stage of development. Not only are they working through a dangerous drug and alcohol problem they are experiencing normal brain development along with hormonal changes. This can be a lot to deal with. These factors don’t excuse poor behavior but must be understood when treating young people. An 18 year old with an opiate or marijuana addiction is not going to experience early recovery the same way a 45 year old alcoholic does. (Yes, I am aware that I wrote marijuana addiction)
Sobriety: The Great Equalizer
Any recovering addict or alcoholic learns the importance of “living life of life’s terms.” The sober man or woman recognizes the value in being a productive member of society. The same is true for a young person. Although some of the definitions may differ, a person in recovery needs to mend broken relationships, become responsible, and learn to adapt to changing circumstances. These characteristics are essential to long term recovery. The twelve steps provide a simple framework to achieve these goals. Change may not happen immediately but with patience and perseverance these turnarounds can be permanent.
It has become common for young people with substance abuse problems to go through multiple treatment programs. Sometimes this is due to a parent not knowing what else to do. In other cases it is because another round in treatment may be necessary to save a young person‘s life. A young person’s motivation to enter drug rehabilitation is usually different than an adult’s. In most instances a young person enters rehab because of outside influences; parents, school, or the law. Adults often enter treatment because of similar factors but can usually see more clearly the responsibility they have for the problem’s existence. What adults and young people have in common is that without significant lifestyle and attitudinal change, long term recovery will not take hold.
Addiction Treatment and Approaches
A philosophy that is gaining momentum in treatment is MAT. MAT stands for medication assisted treatment. This approach is in response to the increasing rates of opiate addiction and is built on the premise that addiction is a brain disease. In other words, the addict is a victim of brain dysfunction. His or her behavior is as the result of something being “organically” wrong. Yet again, we are at the place of treating drug issues with more drugs. Although it seems easier to accept that someone is suffering from a brain disease, the fact remains that if an individual is to achieve long term recovery he or she must address all areas of life. Harm reduction methods, MAT, or any other alternative substance abuse treatment may provide temporary relief and may open the door to long term recovery but the addict must change his or her behavior.
Recovery Doesn’t Always Feel Good
Today it is popular to avoid feelings of discomfort. Who likes to feel any kind of pain? Unfortunately this has led to an increased desire to make sure addicts “feel ok” rather than work through issues. Referring to an addict as an addict is not shaming or demeaning. It gives an individual the opportunity to acknowledge and address the problem. Whether there is an issue in the brain or not the door needs to be open to the recovering substance abuser to own his or her behavior. This can be uncomfortable but with the appropriate level of support the person in recovery will not feel lost or alone. Substance abuse affects a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For recovery to be effective all areas need to be addressed.
Teen drug abuse continues to be a tremendous problem in our country. Although the substances young people abuse change, the plague of addiction is the same as it has been for decades. No matter how people try to solve this issue it continues to grow. There is no simple answer as to why this scourge remains but there are some simple steps people can take to provide young people with some alternatives.
Remember The Angst Of Adolescence
Most young people can’t wait to become adults. In the mind of a teenager this is the time in life when there are no longer any restrictions. Unfortunately, in society today many teens are expected to act as adults before they are truly capable. Rather than adolescence being a time in life when a person can make mistakes and learn from them, in the age of “zero tolerance” and increased isolation, young people are often left to fend for themselves. At some point almost every teenager will have to face the temptation of drugs and alcohol. It is impossible to predict who will wind up with a serious problem but there are certain factors that increase the odds.
Be Available And Listen
Most of how a person views the world starts at home. Throughout childhood and adolescence other factors start to influence how someone thinks but the foundation is laid early on. In substance abuse treatment the person with a strong emotional footing is more likely to grasp a program of recovery quickly. People that grew up around a lot of dysfunction, instability, or spent very little time with positive family members will have a more difficult time connecting with basic concepts common in treatment. At this point figuring out “why” a teenager has a drug problem is far less important than having a stable and secure environment in which to heal. Most teenagers thrive on friendship, security, and (most importantly) fun. Often what they need more than anything else is to be listened to. An easy response to adolescent substance abuse doesn’t exist but society can make a difference with a shift in attitude.
August has arrived which means school has either started or is right around the corner. For familieswho are new in recovery, this can be very challenging. Some parents desperately want life to be “normal” and the newly sober young person is terrified by the idea of facing old friends and other social situations.These can be daunting circumstances for anyone to handle, much less someone trying to develop a whole new set of coping mechanisms. There is tremendous pressure on everyone. This is a good opportunity to take a longer view. Eventually the family will settle into this new way of life and everyone will be more secure. Facing a drug or alcohol abuse issue opens the door to having a healthier perspective and having a different set of priorities.
Recovery Is A Marathon
Long term recovery is contingent on an addict or alcoholic learning to live on life’s terms. This means reintegrating into “normal” life responsibilities. School, work, and healthy relationships are important for addicts and alcoholics in recovery. However, in order to have success the drug abuser must put “first things first.” This means that recovery has to be the top priority. Parents must remember that for an addict or alcoholic, drugs and alcohol are all encompassing. Substance abuse touches all areas of life. Gaining the maturity to make better life decisions takes time. Over the long haul, relationships within the family need to heal. School, work, and other important activities will fall into proper place in due time.
Some Simple Suggestions
Whether new to recovery or not, it is good to be reminded of some basic tools. Some examples include:
Manage expectations. Everyone has expectations but it is vital to expect what a person is actually capable of doing
Seek Outside Help. It is never a bad idea to seek advice from someone who isn’t involved in the family’s situation
Stay On The Same Page A recovering addict needs stability. If there are conflicting messages this can lead to unnecessary insecurity
There are many other useful tools available. Finding the right support is a key element in recovery. Contact other parents or a counselor for suggestions.
A common misconception is that if addicts were more aware of what they were ingesting they would be more likely to stop using. The reasoning is that this form of education would scare the drug abuser into sobriety. The problem is that addicts are either aware of what they are putting into their body and don’t care or they simply don’t care. In fact, many addicts are very well informed as to what they are using. Some have a vast pharmaceutical knowledge. In order to achieve sobriety an addict needs to have the proper motivation. No amount of education can provide this.
First Things First
Most addicts enter treatment because of external factors. The most common reasons are:
loss of employment
being caught at school
More often than not an addict will say anything to get out of trouble. If this includes completing a treatment program, so be it. An addict’s willingness to change cannot be based on entrance into a program. The true test comes after a period of sobriety once the initial crisis has abated.
Recovery Is a Process
Every addict is different and some take longer to develop strong recovery tools than others. It generally takes an addict or alcoholic about 18 months to stabilize. This doesn’t mean that someone in recovery can’t reintegrate into “normal” life prior to this time. This simply illustrates there will be some challenges along the way that are directly related to learning to live sober. A person in early recovery (up to 36 months sober) needs a lot of support from family, friends, and an understanding peer group. If sobriety isn’t the addict’s top priority he or she will likely sabotage any success experienced in the beginning stages of his or her new life. Coping with life’s challenges without a chemical crutch is very challenging for any addict or alcoholic. With a strong system of support someone with addiction issues is more likely to maintain long term recovery.
Over the past several years a great deal has been reported about the opioid crisis in America. It seems everyday there is a story about a young person who possesses boundless potential succumbing to an overdose. Far too many people have fallen victim to this epidemic and many are searching for the best way to approach this deadly problem. Certainly the efforts to bolster prevention, improve treatment, and harm reduction methodology are worthwhile. Addiction impacts individuals, families, and society as a whole. In order to effectively tackle the crisis all areas must be addressed. However, one approach does not work for all facets. Some factors to consider:
Adults are different than adolescents
The role of a spouse of an addict is not the same as the role of the parent
Social change is not created by good treatment
Regarding young people, opioid abuse usually begins with alcohol and/or marijuana experimentation
Placing all addiction issues under the “opioid crisis” umbrella doesn’t repair anything. Understanding the addict, creating environmental change, and helping people find better coping mechanisms lays a foundation for transformation.
Why Do They Get High?
It is vital to remember that young people get high because they love how it feels. By the time a young person’s use progresses to the point of abusing heroin or other opioids drug education is irrelevant. Although education is a useful prevention tool and can be beneficial through treatment, an addict who is using does not care to hear about the potential destruction that can happen as the result of prolonged substance abuse.
When an addict or alcoholic enters recovery it may take a few days, or in some cases weeks, for the dust to settle. Once the initial crisis that leads an individual into treatment subsides, the challenge really begins. For the person in recovery, there can be a feeling of hopelessness due to becoming aware of the damage that has been created. For a family member or loved one, it is normal at this stage for anger to come to the surface. This is the point at which recovery tools become a high priority. Without a new manner of coping, an addict may resort to using drugs and/or alcohol again. A loved one is likely to try and control the behavior of the person in need of help. This stage of recovery is scary but with some awareness deep levels of sabotage can be averted.
Ride the Pink Cloud
When a person enters treatment everyone involved breathes a sigh of relief. Even when someone starts their sobriety reluctantly, physical abstinence usually allows for a degree of relief. Early recovery is usually the first time in a long time that a loved one, especially a parent, has had any sense of solace. This period of time is sometimes described as “the pink cloud.” This break from the insanity of addiction should be welcomed. This is also a good time to start implementing aspects of the 12 steps. Once the pink cloud subsides, it is vital to have a safety net of support. This is created by forming relationships with other people on a similar journey and by developing a basic connection with a Higher Power.
It Is a Rollercoaster
There are definitely lots of ups and downs in early sobriety. It is never a smooth ride. There is a lot to learn and many issues of which to become aware. It is not abnormal to feel a bit overwhelmed. Don’t take temporary for permanent. As scary as the journey up the hill can be, it is exhilarating to rush down hill and discover what is around the corner. If everyone involved stays engaged in a personal program there is endless joy that awaits. There will be ups and downs but the adventure will always be rewarding.