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Identifying the Signs of Drug Abuse in Teens & Young Adults: 1 Parent’s Journey to Recovery

It’s been over five years ago, now, that I was on a business trip in Washington, D.C. when I received a jarring phone call from my wife at home in Los Angeles. The second I heard the phone ring, I knew she wasn’t calling to say hello. After all, it was 4:25 a.m., Pacific Time.

As it turned out, just minutes earlier, our twenty-one year-old son had confessed to his mother that he was an addict—another victim of prescription painkillers. Hanging up the phone, I felt numb.   All I could think was that our younger son is a good kid. He’s smart, lively, sociable and loving. A sophomore in college, majoring in English, he has a bright future ahead of him—a future that I never imagined might include the agony of addiction.

How could I have been so completely unaware of this double life he’d been leading? I felt guilt at being oblivious to the situation, anger at him for not telling me about this problem and overwhelming fear that his life—our family’s life—had inescapably changed. I asked myself repeatedly: How could it be that I had no indication?

Many parents have heard about the warning signs of excessive drug or alcohol use in teens and young adults. A list provided by The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) includes these standards:

Most parents would say these are easy behaviors to spot, and common sense tells us that sudden changes in our kids’ behavior could be the harbinger of a negative development. But the problem, as my experience confirmed, is how such obvious signs are interpreted. It’s the interpretation that’s not always as clear-cut as one might think.

First of all, with my son off at college, living one-hundred miles away from his home, there was an immediate geographic disconnect. I’d phoned at 3:00 in afternoon and caught him still asleep, but I chalked that up to the “college life style.”

Even when he sounded distant and distracted, I assumed he was simply focused on the new relationships he was forging with classmates or roommates. After all, the familiar connection with his family was bound to change as his horizons expanded.

As far as academic performance was concerned, I knew he was smart, based on the grades he’d made in high school and the interest he took in learning. When I heard he’d dropped a class, again, I merely attributed it to the college factor—more difficult curriculum, busy social life, freedom from constant parental oversight.

And when his mother complained about his spending habits and the neglect of several expensive items we’d purchased for him, the typical, “well, after all, he’s a boy” refrain came into play.

Was I a completely clueless dad, insensitive to my son’s plight, wrapped up in my adult world? Yes, I was. And I think a large part of my self-imposed ignorance was a function of denial. How could it be possible that my child, whom I loved fiercely and unconditionally; had raised, coddled and encouraged for twenty-one years, had done something to endanger himself and disappoint his parents? So, in spite of his displaying known signs, I chose to disregard them, simply because I had no desire to admit they might be revealing something I didn’t want to know.

If I had the luxury of reliving this experience, I’d make sure my son had the opportunity to talk to a professional who could accurately assess the situation. Issues with self-esteem could be a precursor that might eventually cause kids to exhibit one or more of those NIDA warning signs—and, ultimately, to experiment with drugs. In my case, psychological evaluation and counseling could possibly have prevented that outcome, and I realize now that affordable options are readily available in almost all communities.

But do know that if you miss the mark—like I did—there’s still hope. Through the plethora of recovery programs, there are ones that fit each family’s financial situation. But no matter the program, it takes the addict’s intense and fervent desire for sobriety that will save his and your family’s lives.

Yes, this story has a happy ending. My son is gainfully employed, excited about life and his future, gaining maturity and self-respect every day. The agony of addiction undeniably exists; however, with love, perseverance, the fortitude of his mother–Janet, and faith in the 12-step program, our problems can be overcome—one day at a time.

Ironically, my son’s recovery has impacted my own recovery from this ordeal by completely changing my life. Today, I’m a life coach (thanks to Maria Shriver) committed to working with families in crisis by guiding them through the treatment options that will work best for them and their financial situation. My mission to help other families in crisis never would have happened had it not been for my son’s recovery.

Despite our nation’s polarized political climate, however, there seems to be growing bipartisan support for changing our drug laws and draconian mandatory sentencing for non-violent, drug-related offenses. I like to think the reason for that is because addiction is a nonpartisan abuser. It hits Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, and hopefully our laws will reflect what is already known by a growing number in our society, that drug addiction is a health issue, not a matter of law enforcement.


{Image credit: Pixabay}




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