Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Blind Eye

When you first discover your own child is mixed up with drugs, it’s a hard thing to absorb. Most people, myself included, go through an absurd period of denial.  “He was just experimenting. I caught it in time. He’ll outgrow it.”   
     When the school principal told me he suspected my fifteen-year-old son Leland was using drugs, I first reacted with anger. How dare you? Then I went home and sat in the dark, arguing with that deep hidden feeling; the possibility that he might be right. So, I tricked my boy into taking a urine test. I’m a realist. No use getting upset until we have the facts. 
     The lab results were the stuff of nightmares: Leland tested positive for marijuana and cocaine. When I confronted him about it, he laughed. “Everybody smokes weed on the weekends, Mom. That was the first time I ever tried coke. My friends sprinkled it on my blunt while I was rolling it. Don’t worry. I didn’t like it. I’m not stupid enough to do it again.” 
     Thankfully, I wasn’t convinced. The school principal suggested Daytop, a drug rehab center for adolescents. So, I dragged Leland in for the interviews. It was a terrifying place: a cinder block cracker box with no windows, and kids as young as twelve hysterically begging counselors for anything, even “a sip of cough medicine.” Leland and I were interviewed separately, and at the end of the day, I’d enrolled him in the daycare program. He would be at the facility from seven in the morning until five in the evening, but be able to come home at night.
     Leland was less than enthusiastic. He countered with frantic arguments about my ruining his future, teaching him how to use “serious” drugs by putting him in contact with all those addicts, and the destruction of his life by my poor judgment. He called his dad Peter, a physics professor, and roped him into the fight. My ex-husband tried logical reasoning, telling me I was going to destroy any hope Leland had of a decent college if I did this to him. But our son hadn’t seen his dad for over a year, and Peter was going on blind faith in his son’s abilities. He didn’t know, and wouldn’t believe, how far Leland had sunk. 
     Personally, I struggled with my own sense of responsibility toward my child and a need to keep him from the worst scourge of the modern age. What I didn’t realize was that Leland was lying. He’d already been using heavily for four years. Baby junkies. The new trend. 
     I wrote a poem once about Leland’s drug use; a maudlin bit of self-pity and sorrow. Not very practical. It was rather like stating the obvious. Of course my heart was broken. Of course it was the worst time of my life. But where’s the good in that? How is that going to help me, or anyone else? I had to find a way to show other parents how dangerous a blind eye can be.
     So, eight months after Leland began his rehab stint, I started lecturing about the red flags I had ignored in my boy’s behavior, the glaringly obvious warning signs of drug abuse. I wasn’t interested in discussing how terrible the experience was. I was interested in educating other parents so they wouldn’t have to go through the same thing. 
     You hear the term “tough love” all the time, but it’s amazingly difficult to enforce. When dealing with a drug addict, it’s pretty much impossible without outside help.
     The first problem I had was with my own instinct for privacy. Oh, keep it in the family, this is nobody’s business. Don’t tell. I can handle this. 
     Wrong. If your kid had cancer, would you be thinking that way? No. You’d take your child to an oncologist immediately. To a professional. Drug addiction is as dangerous an enemy as cancer, although I don’t consider it a disease. It’s a willing self-destruction, where the addicts themselves become the virus. Users hate doing drugs alone, and pushers give out freebies to anyone who brings them new clients. That’s how it spreads. “Don’t knock coke ‘til you’ve tried it.” One addict I know addicted his entire high school soccer team that way. Peer pressure and charm. “I don’t get tired on the field because I do a few lines first. Here. Try it.” Children are the easiest to corrupt when it’s fellow children doing the corruption. The old days of sinister pushers in scandalous clothing are over. Today’s pushers are classmates. “Did you know cocaine helps you lose weight? How about some speed? That’s the main ingredient in diet pills, anyway. Heroine is an appetite suppressor. Here’s an eight ball for the prom. You’ll fit into that dress or tuxedo if you do this. You won’t even want to eat. Want to stop being such a shy nerd? Try some of this. You won’t be afraid of anything or anybody, ever again. Depressed? This’ll fix it.” That’s the kind of conversation swirling around our schools every day. They know what will get the kids to use, because they’re children, too. Free samples for everyone.  
     And it happens right under the adults’ noses. Non-users simply don’t recognize the behavior of users until it’s too late. The warning signs are often shrugged off as depression, lack of physical activity, or plain old teenage angst. Mass vomiting at school, for example, is usually misunderstood as a particularly violent strain of flu or food poisoning, when it could be free methadone tablets handed out at lunch. Itching is a side effect of many drugs, especially heroine. Paranoia and a short fuse are symptoms of cocaine. Do you find cigar butts around your property when you don’t smoke them, or loose tobacco in the trash can? Somebody’s rolling blunts: cigars carefully unwrapped, the tobacco scooped out and replaced with marijuana. My son smoked blunts which helped cause his heart attack at fourteen. He filled the blunt with hydroponically grown marijuana, sprinkled it with cocaine, then soaked the whole thing in liquid angel dust. He smoked three to six of these a day, along with his other habits.  
     After first experimenting with liquor at a friend’s house (I don’t drink), Leland started smoking marijuana because he had a nervous stomach and insomnia. An advanced placement “brainiac,” Leland had a genius IQ and a problem with worrying about everything. Liquor just exacerbated the problem. After trying “weed,” it became his gateway to being cool. His nervous stomach disappeared; he could sleep through the night. Other kids accepted him, admired him, and when he started on the cocaine, all trace of his pathological shyness disappeared.  He talked back to teachers, protected other students from being ridiculed, and considered drugs to be the best friend he’d ever had. Now, effortlessly, every social problem could be solved by sniffing, snorting, shooting, or swallowing something.  He had new friends, cool friends, and the teachers were afraid of him. His new personality was as addictive as what he was ingesting, and there was no way he was going to give it up. 
     My own problem started with denial. I was going through a particularly nasty divorce from my husband, and I initially blamed Leland’s moodiness and sarcasm on the breakup. After all, when I questioned him about it, that was the reason he gave for his antisocial behavior. “Come on, Mom. I’m just having a hard time with the divorce. I know Dad was rough, and I don’t blame you for kicking him out, but he’s still my dad. It’s just hard, that’s all. Be a little patient, huh?” 
     I believed him, and even felt guilt about putting him through all the divorce trauma. So, I reassured Leland that he had my support, and that I was glad he was making so many new friends, even spending the night with his new buddies. Before the divorce, Leland had always been too shy for sleepovers and parties. Now he was going out a lot, and I rejoiced that he was learning such important social skills. Maybe his friends could snap him out of his funk. 
     Denial takes many forms. My personal choice of denial was my own insecurity. Since I’d never done drugs or turned to drinking, and my childhood had been far worse than Leland’s, it never occurred to me that my brilliant son would ever do anything so stupid as drugs. I’d drummed it into both my kids’ heads since they were tiny, that drugs and alcohol were bad. My daughter Rhianna, the eldest, had never been interested in any of that nonsense, so I took it for granted that my son wasn’t, either. 
     Symptoms of the addiction showed themselves early, but I didn’t know what to look for. Hiding out in his room, snapping at me for nonsensical things, loss of appetite and weight; all of these made me uncomfortable, but I decided to persevere and wait for my once cheerful son to return.
     Discussions with my friends were no help. They laughed at my trepidation and told me to relax. Leland was a typical teenager. “Don’t worry. We all went through our wild period. He’ll grow out of it.” 
     Experimentation as a youth is often looked at with a sort of whimsical fondness, a laugh and shake of the head remembrance that few parents want to admit to. High school, college, short-lived partying before getting serious and going to work; these were the common “coming of age” stories so many adults think of when they look back at their own lives. But the fact of the matter is, people who did drugs and were able to stop when they “matured” are very, very lucky individuals, and the drugs of today are not the drugs of the past. Through genetic engineering and manipulation, the addiction properties have skyrocketed, and the common pusher is now a pre-teen. Just saying “no” doesn’t work much, either. Open soda cans or bottles, fast food spiked when a kid’s distracted; it’s easy to drop something in a drink or sprinkle on an order of fries. Effortless. Most present adults weren’t solicited by the time they were nine, the average age of today’s children. Childhood is being stolen from our kids, right under our noses. 
     So, if you discover your child is doing drugs, smoking weed, drinking on the weekends, understand that it’s like a cockroach. The one insect you see on the counter is a fraction of how many there actually are behind the wall. If your kid admits they’re doing a little, chances are there’s a lot more behind their wall, too. Get them in rehab immediately. Don’t believe anything they tell you. That’s the hardest part, because you want to believe a loved one. You want to honor them with your trust. But that kind of thinking is what helps so many of our precious young die from overdoses every day. Get them tested, get them the right counseling, and brace yourself for a whirlwind of horror and rage. Rehab facilities treat everything from residential, hardcore users to after school-once-a-week discussions. Parents willingly drive their kids to soccer practice or other activities. If you can’t get a  school bus, be willing to drive them to rehab. Let your child know you’re serious and don’t give in until the professionals think he or she’s ready to return to normal life. The consequences of simply believing your beloved child can be catastrophic. My son had a friend in rehab; a bright kid, the same age, with a cocaine addiction, just like my boy. They hatched a plan to torment both their parents into signing them out. They agreed to keep nagging until we all gave in. I refused, but the other set of parents didn’t. They signed their boy out, grateful and happy to have him back, relieved that the worst was now over. In less than a week, their sixteen-year-old boy was dead from a crack overdose. The only crime the parents committed was that they loved their child and believed him when he said he was all better. Just because you can’t visually see addiction doesn’t mean it isn’t a malignant nightmare. Hold on, and finish the regimen. A drug addict is a low down, dirty dog. They have no nobility, no honor, no honesty or principles. They will say anything, do anything, to keep using. Until you realize that terrible truth, you can’t help them. And drug addiction is an epidemic responsible for most of the crime committed in this country. Do what you can for the children. My boy, so far, is one of the lucky ones. He’s a junior in college now, with a 3.8 GPA in physics, and he’s been clean for five years. Keep your children safe and your eyes open, no matter what horror you might see, and never forget that this is, quite literally, life or death.     

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