You know how every single one of us parents dreads the phone call that tells us something is wrong with our kids?
Mine came one evening in May. As I picked up the receiver I noted the caller I.D. revealed it was the eldest of my five children, Nick.
“Mom, I’m in trouble and I need help.”
That phone call launched a series of events in our lives which could have gone one of two ways; it could have catapulted me (as his mom) into denial and despair, or it could (and, by the grace of God, did) allow me to pull my head out of the sand and work with my son toward a positive resolution.
But it wasn’t quick, and it sure as hell wasn’t easy… in fact, it is probably one of the hardest things our family has ever gone through. Upon reflection, Nick’s problem with teenage alcohol abuse had slowly developed over a five-year period of time.
The “trouble” my son referred to during that May evening ended up being his admission of a day long fight through the physical and emotional repercussions of binge drinking to a point of a three-day blackout. Nick shared with me this wasn’t the first time it had happened to him. In fact, the cycle was becoming a regular occurrence in his life, and he really wanted help to turn things around.
After my initial shock and disbelief, I realized I had only one choice: set aside my own anxiety and shame as a mother for having missed all of the signs put directly in front of my face over the past several years and, instead to invest my energy into learning how to help my twenty-year-old son (at the time, living 1,200 miles from our home) develop a plan to turn his life around.
Anyone who has been through addiction with a loved one knows there is no one-size-fits-all, step-by-step process to this challenging and emotional dilemma, however, the one thing I knew not to do was to waste time wondering where I had gone wrong as a parent and wallow in my own shame and despair. Let’s face it, the time taken to wander down that path may have been all the time needed for the disease to take Nick’s life. And, as the woman who had brought him into this world, I wasn’t willing to let him go without a fight.
Nick drank in order to quell the anxiety and depression he had dealt with on a daily basis since he was ten years old, as opposed to it being a social desire to be the “king of the party”. Because he had learned to cope with life struggles, from getting to sleep at night to dealing with a bad grade on a term paper, by drinking alcohol or smoking pot, he had not developed the kind of skills he needed to overcome both large and small obstacles which came along in his daily life.
That’s where good, quality inpatient rehabilitation was able to really treat his anxiety and depression in order to give him a fighting chance against his desire to self-medicate.
While Nick received six weeks of inpatient treatment, the rest of our family got educated as well. My husband and I invested in the process of learning what addiction is, where it comes from, how it affects the brain, and how (usually) the person who is addicted is the last to understand there is a problem.
In our case, we were lucky enough it was Nick who came to me, and thank God he was strong enough to do so.
In tandem with our education, I spent some time reviewing my parenting, my choices as a mother, and how I would proceed in raising the rest of our children with regard to everything from house rules, discipline, and coping with the inevitable stress of daily life.
Since I knew of no other friends or family members who had experience with teenage alcohol abuse or other forms of addiction like drug abuse, I turned to the Internet for resources on parenting an addicted child (for example: Addiction Journal and Parent Pathway), as well as books that were published relaying the personal journeys of parents faced with their child’s addiction (two of my favorites are Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking by Chris and Toren Volkmann).
Upon reflection I realize some of the signs I missed while Nick was a preteen and during his high school years including –
- Weird smells coming from his room (he found a way to ferment his own wine) which I wrote off as “teen hormone odors”.
- His use of a locked bank from his grandfather (which sat right on top of his dresser in plain sight) to hide his marijuana which he would smoke at night and blow out of the open window. Part of the problem was that he had started smoking tobacco (a choice I did not promote or agree with in any way) which masked some of the smell of the pot.
- Although my husband and I didn’t often allow sleepovers for Nick, he spent every other weekend with his dad (who died of complications due to alcoholism at the age of forty-two) who let him come and go whenever he wanted. While I had more control over what the rules were in our home, I had no control over what his dad allowed Nick to do when he was in his custody.
- Weird sleep patterns as well as an inability to get himself up for school a good portion of his junior and senior year of high school.
- Nick always had great excuses or reasons why the alcohol in the liquor cabinet might be missing, and I chose to believe him even when my husband came to me with strong evidence of the contrary.
In hindsight I know this all looks like I was an absent parent, however, this was my first go-around with a teenager. Even when something felt “off” I was quick to dismiss it…. There is no question I should have paid more attention to my gut instinct and responded to the tell-tale signs instead of staying in denial.
As a result of my education about addiction and observations I made about the kind of parent I was while Nick was a teenager, we made a few fairly substantial changes to our family life. Three of the major ones are:
1. We instituted a “no sleepover” rule.
Yes, sleepovers are fun and a rite of passage for many kids, but given what we just went through, I felt that the risks involved far outweighed the fun.
2. We made “family time” a priority.
We make sure our family calendar has lots of holes in it so we can spend time together at meals and on weekends to discuss our everyday life events and struggles.
Research has consistently shown that spending time together as family, particularly eating together as a family, reduces the risk of addiction among kids. For instance, this report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicates that teens who have 5 or more family dinners per week are two and a half times less likely to smoke cigarettes, one and a half times less likely to drink alcohol and almost three times less likely to try marijuana, compared to teens who have two or less family dinners per week.
3. We started volunteering as a family in our community.
This has helped us better understand how important it is to be part of something bigger than ourselves and has created multiple blessings for us. While volunteering in general offers a lot of benefits, recent research has shown that it is particularly helpful in aiding sobriety among adolescents coming out of addiction.
With regularity I see how these changes have impacted my 21, 16, 11 and 9 year-old children, in addition to Nick, as we journey down the path of life.
I’m proud to say Nick is now more than four years sober. While his addiction to alcohol and drugs was a struggle, I feel fortunate he was able to reach out to us for help. We never take this for granted as he continues to work on his sobriety each day of his life.
Nick’s challenges made me a better mother. If we allow our children to become who God wants them to be, instead of who we think they should become we (as parents) can learn a great deal in the process of childrearing.
What an awesome and humbling gift!
2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
I have shared my story here in the hopes that I can prevent some of you from making some of the mistakes I made. For the contemplations questions today, please consider the following –
- Do you discuss drug and alcohol use with your children? You might be surprised to know the prevalence of drug use even among middle school age students. To prevent teenage alcohol abuse, the time to start discussion and education about drugs and alcohol is in the elementary years, with regular, ongoing conversations throughout the growing years. In addition, consider taking a careful, honest look at your own habits to be sure your words and your action are in sync.
- If your kids are tempted by peer pressure to try alcohol/drugs, would they be comfortable to talk to you about it or would they be scared of your reaction and try to hide it?
- If they hid it from you, and you suspect an issue, what do you think your reaction might be? Will you be able to deal with the situation in a way to strengthen your relationship with your child instead of ripping it apart?
[Note from Sumitha: These are probably some of the hardest 2-Minute contemplation questions we’ve had so far. That said, I urge you to give it some thought. As with the little 2-Minute exercises on other articles, there are no right or wrong answers. The key is to just discover where we are, decide where we want to be and take one step at a time in the right direction. A little bit of discomfort now is far better than a lot of pain and suffering later!]
Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
The plan for next week is simple – establish some simple rituals such as family dinners, volunteering etc. that bring you together as a family and create the space for discussion. Resolve to stay open and non-judgmental during these discussions. State your stand on topics and let your kids question it so they can see your point. Conversely, ask them a lot of questions so they can discover some of these for themselves. The foundations that we lay now go a long way in helping them grow into confident individuals with enough self-esteem to ward off peer-pressure and avoid the need to experiment with alcohol/drugs just to look cool.