Kids and Drugs: Be More Afraid than You Are
Since losing my oldest child to a drug overdose when he was only 18 years old, I’ve given a lot of thought to fear and risk when it comes to parenting our children. In the years before my son Henry became really sick with his drug addiction, I remember that I worried about some things more than others when it came to my children’s health and safety, but mostly, to be quite frank, I was optimistic and confident that all of my children would grow up healthy and strong.
Now, looking back, I realize that I simply wasn’t scared enough about something that was obviously far more of a threat to my children than many of the things I spent alot more time worrying about. The odds that one of my children would be abducted by a stranger or fall victim to a deadly outbreak of Swine Flu or swallow a razor blade planted in his Halloween candy by some psychopath were virtually nil, but the odds were actually pretty damn high that one of my kids would carry one of the genes for addiction, something that, as it turned out, was indeed lying quietly, invisibly, stealthily dormant in my beautiful firstborn’s brain as he grew past early childhood, a genetic switch just waiting to be flipped.
We still don’t know all that we need to know about what causes one 16 year old to start smoking pot and end up just fine while another child the same age quickly progresses from marijuana to halllucinogens to deadly opiates, as my son did. However, we do know that there is a strong genetic component to the complex riddle of addiction, and in my own child’s case, he was clearly at high genetic risk due to addictive disorders on both sides of his family tree. But even as I had watched other people in our family struggle with addiction, I was always far more worried that my children would be kidnapped or die in a plane crash than I was worried that addiction would kill one of them. That’s because genes are silent until they’re activated, and so they’re easy to ignore until they spring out of dormancy. But given my children’s family history, I should have more clearly recognized the very significant risk that the silent, deadly genes for addiction posed to my children.
If someone had told me that my sweet, polite and generally well behaved middle schooler would die of a drug overdose in the same week the rest of his friends walked across the stage to receive their high school diplomas, I would have found that possibility about as remote as the idea that Henry would somehow morph into a Martian with three arms and six eyeballs during the teenage years that lay ahead. That’s because before Henry became a drug addict as a teenager, drug addiction was, to me, all about environment — something that happened to deeply troubled kids with absent parents and juvenile records and, well, I don’t know what else. I just didn’t think it could happen to people like us. But as a family with a history of mental illness and addiction, we were exactly the kind of “people” whose children are most likely to become mentally ill or addicted themselves.
Basically, I was too uninformed and naive and yes, arrogant when it came to drugs and drug addiction to be frightened of the most frightening thing of all. And now I can’t go back and get a do-over. Instead I live with the pain of knowing that my ignorance prevented me from doing all I could have done, and should have done early enough to protect my child for as long as I possibly could.
Now that I know what I know in the most painful way possible, I urge other parents with a family history of addictive disorders to be absolutely terrifiedwhen it comes to what drugs can do to our children. Although we know far more than we used to about how genes impact the development of drug addiction in particular individuals, there’s still a lot we don’t know. There’s no test to tell you whether your 10 year old carries your family’s genetic blueprint for addiction. The only test is one you don’t want your child to fail. This is the test where a parent finds out in the worse possible way what happens to a child with the genetic underpinning for addiction when drugs and alcohol enter the picture early on — in middle or high school — effectively hitting the chemical “go” button on this enigmatic and powerful disease process, often before that child is even old enough to shave or drive or vote.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again — if there is one single message I have for other parents after what has happened to our family it’s to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to prevent your ‘tween and adolescent children from messing around with drugs and alcohol. Experimentation is very dangerous, and for many kids, will mark the beginning of years of addictive disease development, or in my child’s case only a very few years of disease development before he died from that disease.
People frequently ask me whether I have any advice for the parents of middle schoolers and teenagers when it comes to drugs, and the number one piece of advice I have to offer is this: do not ignore, rationalize or justify “casual” alcohol or drug experimentation. Should you learn that your 14 or 15 or 16 year old has been smoking some pot, err on the side of doing too much rather than doing too little. Assume the worst instead of assuming that everything will be okay because, c’mon, everybody smokes some pot or drinks a few beers in high school and look how well we all turned out, right?
In other words, you should actively exercise every bit of control you have over preventing your tween or adolescent’s still jelly-like brain from being exposed to potentially addictive chemicals. Exercise every bit of control that you have to prevent that early exposure from taking place right up until the clock strikes midnight on the last day of their 17th year, when legally, in a literal instant, everything changes for you as a parent, and you are suddenly a pumpkin with no way to be sure of anything beyond hoping and praying that you’ve gotten through to them before they wake up in the morning as “adults.”
When it comes to this evil thing with its genetic tentacles that seized hold of my own beloved child before he ever went on his first real date, do be afraid, and let that fear scare you into action.