Parents have a number of worst nightmares most of which involve late night phone calls to deliver bad news. I’ve brushed up against a couple of those nightmares, one of which was the topic of David Sheff’s very personal story in the NYT Sunday Magazine today (requires free on-line registration to read). The title of the story is ‘My Addicted Son’ and is about his son’s addiction to crystal meth.
Sheff recounts how as a boy his son was adamantly individualistic. When he was teased for wearing tights to school he shot back with ‘Superman wears tights’. Like a lot of kids he experimented with pot in Jr. High and got caught a couple of times so the realities of his experimentation were not lost on his parents. They knew. Sheff was told by one of the school counselors not to worry, that it was normal. He, like most of us found himself wondering when to worry and when to chalk his kid’s behavior off to normal development.
When his kid’s drug use started to become a problem Sheff told him about his own drug use – in particular his experimentation with crystal meth. He hoped, like we all do, that because he had first hand experience his son would listen and believe his warnings. No such luck. His son went in and out of addiction, ending up living on the street completely strung out for years.
I’ve never had a kid get addicted to crystal meth but I have watched one of my kids head for the same slimy slope I started to slide down in adolescence and Lord knows I’ve had more than my fair share of experiences with addicts.
Being an addict doesn’t necessarily mean that you are nonfunctional. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t get out of bed in the morning without ingesting your substance of choice. It doesn’t necessarily mean you would sell your grandma’s china in order to buy. It may or may not manifest as those behaviors but what is incontrovertible about addiction is that it means that getting high on whatever it is you’re addicted to is the single most important thing in your life. It means that your relationship to your drug is your primary relationship, usurping all others. It means you abuse drugs regularly in spite of continued negative consequences like loss of friends, loss of jobs, inability to perform in school, etc. and that you blame that destruction on anyone but yourself. This is the problem I was confronted with. I could envision my son ruining his life and cutting himself off from all opportunities for a successful future and it terrified me.
Like Sheff I was aware that my son had tried smoking pot but I assumed it would be okay. I found out about his use when he was about the same age I had been when I started smoking pot – about 14. When he was in Jr. High I didn’t connect the fact that he was perpetually on the brink of flunking out with smoking pot because I didn’t know it was happening. This was not for lack of open dialog about drug use. We talked about it quite a bit. The most alarming conversation we had was one that started with him telling me that they had seen a movie about using drugs during a D.A.R.E presentation and then said, “Mom – they made it look like a lot of fun.” Great, just great. I told him it could be a lot of fun and therein lies the biggest danger of drug use. I talked about how they make you feel so good you start to want to quit anything else you enjoy and just spend all your time getting high.
We also had lots of conversations about addiction. Both his father and I come from a long line of drunks and his Dad is a recovering alcoholic. The recovery part didn’t start in earnest until after we split up but once it started he was very open about it. He even took the kids to meetings for families.
When my son was in 9th grade he got kicked off the swim team for smoking pot on an out of state field trip. I was devastated. My shining star, the guy who was on the varsity swim team as a freshman had humiliated himself, his sister and his mother and had been tossed out on his ear. His Dad was even more alarmed and enrolled us, the divorced but still nuclear family unit, in an early intervention program. While he was in the program they tested him every week so he had to stay clean. A couple of months after the program ended I caught him on a New Year’s Eve so high he didn’t even know what to do when I called him to see if any parents were present at the party he was attending (there were not). Back to the program we went and again he stayed clean for the few months that it lasted. Then his Dad started giving him sobriety chips every month. When he was about to hit his 1 year anniversary he fell apart and said he couldn’t take the 1 year chip his Dad was so anxious to give him because he had been using.
At that point I was done with this program. It was geared primarily at providing education and support to parents which meant that his Dad and I spent more time in meetings than he did. It also was clearly not working. I told him he could go straight or I would send him off to one of those residential programs where they don’t even let you call home for months. A couple of his friends had been sent so he knew what I was talking about. I declared my right to administer random piss tests and I did. Finally, a year later he was still straight, had made new friends and was doing well in school.
So why the worry about pot? After all, as Ayelet pointed out no one ever dies from smoking pot. It doesn’t even increase the risk of a car accident because it tends to slow you down so much you can stop before you hit anything. What it can do, though is seriously nuke a kid’s life. With my son it was clear to me that if he kept smoking he would never make it through high school. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, marijuana really is addictive and that brings us back to my history with addiction.
My Dad died when I was 8 years old and my mother turned to alcohol for solace. She was what is known as a periodic binge drinker so there were long stretches when she didn’t drink at all. And then therewere other times when she would pour Scotch in a coffee mug in the morning and be completely gone by noon. She was lonely and angry and scared and she would rage and rail against us. As a kid I was accused of being manipulative and trying to take control of the house because I cleaned it up when the chaos got to be too much. I was called a worthless little shit and a whore as often as I was held in her arms up close to her boozy breath and told how much she loved me. Probably more often.
Predictably enough I married a drunk who treated me to the same bi-polar existence. One day it was flowers and chocolate and the next I was called a cunt because I didn’t want to wake up at 4AM and hear about what a great game of pool he shot down at the bar.
It was with this behavior in mind that I came down so hard on my son when he started to show the first signs of addictive behavior. I’m reasonably certain he doesn’t smoke pot any more but has told me that he will drink – that I might as well just stop worrying about it. He is well aware of the risks of becoming an addict (alcoholism seems to run in familes). He is certain that he will never become addicted because he’s been through these programs and he knows the score. I keep reminding him that no one chooses addiction, that everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, that no one knows they are addicted until the addiction is starting to bring them down and by then the addiction has won and the addict is in a fight for life.
At this point that’s all I can do. I just have to watch and wait and hope that I never have occasion to write my own story called ‘My Addicted Son’.
What a beautifully written, albeit gut wrenching post. As a mother of a 14 year old myself, I appreciate your perspective and shared experience.
Thanks Jessica. And thanks for the comment. It’s a first and was a big thrill for me.
I’m coming in kind of late on this one, but wow. That was indeed a wonderful post.
I know this is about a year late, but you sent me this about a month ago and because I am a little absentminded, I am just getting to it. Thank you for this. It is so well written. The other thing to remind your son is that pot, alcohol and cigarettes are all gateway drugs to other drugs. I know. I am the adult child of a recovering alcoholic and the sister of a recovering meth addict. Pot in itself may not be “dangerous”, but it leads to other things. I hope things are going well with your son and that they continue in that vein if so.