Drug Addition – Not My Son is a common refrain. Parents can’t even imagine let alone consider their child may be developing (yes, developing) or have the brain disease of addiction. This is due in large part to society’s utter lack of understanding about the nature of this brain disease, the key risk factors contributing to its development and what parents can do to halt the progression or help their child once it’s taken hold. Yet, “[a]dolescence is the critical period both for starting to smoke, drink or use other drugs and for experiencing more harmful consequences as a result. The teen brain is primed to take risks including experimenting with these substances and, because it is still developing, it is more vulnerable to their harmful effects,” according to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Use at Columbia University’s 2011 report, “Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem,” page i.]
It is a great honor to carry this series, “Drug Addiction – Not My Son,” by Mother D, which is obviously a pseudonym for the real mom, a pseudonym still necessary, today, in order to protect her son’s identify because of the shame and stigma that surrounds this disease of addiction. To shatter this shame and help other parents avoid her family’s nightmare, Mother D has chosen to share the story of her son’s addiction and his and her own recovery journey.
Drug Addiction – Not My Son | Part 1: The Journey Begins by Mother D
On the evening of October 5, 2010, I got the phone call every mother dreads. My son, who was attending college in another state, had binged so heavily on alcohol and drugs that he had a complete psychotic break from reality. Horrified friends had dropped him off at a local ER, I was told by a terse social worker. She suggested that I come get him, and, after hastily answering a few questions, hung up.
Less than two hours later, I boarded a plane and found myself stunned, frightened, confused and soaring 30,000 feet above the earth towards what felt like another planet. Now, almost four years later, I realize that I had indeed been hurdled into another world—one that I had heard about and read about, but one I never thought I’d be a part of—the world of addiction.
We are all surrounded by addiction in our society. Documentaries, newspaper articles, stories, and rumors regularly circulate about the addiction of stars, athletes, politicians, acquaintances, and neighbors. With such exposure, most people think that they understand this world. However, until one is forced to deal firsthand with its nightmarish landscape riddled with mirages and booby-traps, it is impossible to understand what a terrifying, confusing, and destructive place it is.
And, there is not a clear or easy way out. All souls who find themselves in this world have to navigate blindly, and mostly alone, through fields of unmarked land mines. I’m hoping the story of my journey might help to point out a few of those land mines along the way.
The Journey Begins
Unbeknownst to me, my journey began years before I answered the dreaded 2010 phone call. In my mind now, I consider the day we sent our son off to college as the beginning.
Ron (as I will call him in respect to his desire to stay anonymous) had been an easy child to raise. He was bright and sociable, always maintaining good grades and plenty of friends. Because as a teenager he was so devoted to sports, his interest in drugs and alcohol was minimal. Once he could drive, Ron was usually the designated driver, and he would frequently come home sharing stories of safely dropping off his drunken friends to angry, but appreciative, parents. Teachers and coaches alike would report to us that Ron had a “good head on his shoulders,” and that “his strength of character” would take him far.
My husband and I, both college graduates, have had a strong marriage, and we have showered our son and daughter with nothing but love and positive attention. I chose to be a “stay-at-home” mom because we felt that such an arrangement would be the most advantageous for raising healthy, well-adjusted children. For the same reason, we have both been active participants in their schooling and extracurricular activities. My husband has been a great provider, and we have enjoyed the comforts and opportunities of a stable middle-class life.
Given my son’s profile, upbringing and family background, my husband and I watched with pride and confidence as he boarded the plane headed toward his freshman year at a highly respected university.
Here, perhaps, is a good place to point out a landmine, one that I had been warned about, but one that I certainly hadn’t paid attention to: The disease of addiction can and will manifest itself at any socio/economic/educational level, and there is no amount of preventative upbringing, love, attention, or education that can guarantee safe keeping from it.
Most unfortunately, parents cannot immunize their children against addiction.
Our unrealistic belief that our son was “immune” to addiction, I now believe, allowed us to overlook many ominous signs pointing to his trajectory into it.
The Power of Denial
It’s hard to separate out normal young adult behavior from behavior that is abnormal, given that most seventeen to twenty-five year olds do experiment with alcohol and drugs while simultaneously trying to “cut the apron strings.” So, when Ron came home drunk after parties during spring break or started acting rebellious, we chalked it up to his age, especially given that he was maintaining good grades at school—at least for his freshman and part of his sophomore years.
Then, other signs began to pop up. More than once he lost his cell phone, or, admittedly, “dropped it into his beer.” More than once he couldn’t find care packages we sent from home. More than once he visited home with a black eye. “Just friendly wrestling with friends,” he explained.
After his freshman year when my husband and I would fly out to attend a football game or school event with him, he would spend minimal time with us and then disappear. Over time he became more and more fidgety, nervous, overly sensitive, negative, hot-tempered and less concerned about his waning grades. Frequently his younger sister expressed concern that Ron was “acting weird.” Then, shortly into his junior year, friends from home told him he’d changed and quit hanging out with him during school breaks.
“Oh, he’s just under pressure at school, “ we would tell ourselves. “Oh, all young adults act weird when they’re trying to ‘find themselves’.” “Oh, it’s just hard growing up.”
The power of denial is unbelievably strong, and my husband and I were powerfully steeped in it. We could rationalize anything away, including his declining personal hygiene and appearance. “He’s just getting into grunge,” we told ourselves.
And then his grades began plummeting, and then he quit calling home, and then he quit answering or returning our calls.
And then, I got the call.
I will end this post pointing out the second obvious landmine: Denial.
Sadly, much of denial stems from our lack of understanding of what addiction is and how it can manifest itself. Like most other diseases, addiction is non-discriminatory. But, also like other diseases, there are signs and symptoms that present themselves long before the disease becomes full-blown. Here are some warning signs from HELPGUIDE.org:
Behavioral signs of drug abuse
- Drop in attendance and performance at work or school.
- Unexplained need for money or financial problems. May borrow or steal to get it.
- Engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors.
- Sudden change in friends, favorite hangouts, and hobbies.
- Frequently getting into trouble (fights, accidents, illegal activities).
Psychological warning signs of drug abuse
- Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
- Sudden mood swings, irritability, or angry outbursts.
- Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation, or giddiness.
- Lack of motivation; appears lethargic or “spaced out.”
- Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid, with no reason.
In retrospect, it is absolutely clear to me that Ron had been struggling with addiction long before he hit a crisis level, and, although I certainly was aware that addiction existed in our world, I was in denial that it had anything to do with my own. Disease can present itself unexpectedly to anyone, and the disease of addiction is no exception.
Please look for my next post: “What Next?”