This is my last column for a while as I embark on another book-writing adventure. I hope to return to these pages at some point in the future, possibly with a question-and-answer column.
People regularly write or call me with questions about what they can do to help a friend or loved one who is struggling with alcohol or other drugs.
“Where can I go for help?” they ask.
“How do I know if it’s a ‘real’ problem?”
“Why do kids get addicted at such an early age?”
“Who is most at risk?”
“What resources are available?”
Recently a mother from California wrote to ask my advice about her son’s marijuana use. Here is her question and my long-winded answer.
My 16-year-old son is abusing marijuana. He started smoking when he was 14 and we have a strong family history of addiction on both sides, so the deck is somewhat stacked against him. He has always been quiet and communicative, but now he is very hard to get along with. He won’t even get out of bed in the morning without a lot of cajoling. It’s awful!
I’m not sure we’re ready to send him to a residential program at this point. Do you know of any good psychologists or psychiatrists who specialize in marijuana addiction in teens in this area? I’ve been wading through a list of names I’ve found on various websites and trying to hone in on someone who would be helpful for my son. I’d appreciate any guidance/suggestions.
“Lost and Adrift”
Dear Lost and Adrift:
You mention three red flags: 1) family history of addiction, 2) use before age 15, and 3) personality changes.
It’s always best (weird as it may sound) to assume the worst. Marijuana is fiercely addictive for young people — if kids use before age 15, scientific studies show that 1 in 5 will become addicted.
If kids use regularly (daily, several times weekly), their chances of addiction are even higher, and a family history of addiction increases the risk.
Marijuana has a profound effect on the adolescent’s developing brain, affecting personality, mood, memory, motivation, impulsivity and judgment.
Kids tend to get irritable and often downright nasty when they use regularly — the F-bomb, blame, resentments, fear and fury foul the home atmosphere.
Your son may have had emotional issues that preceded his drug use, but be very, very careful about getting sidetracked by searching for “reasons” why he is using or unearthing traumatic events that may have led him to “self-medicate.”
At this point it doesn’t matter what led him to use because his drug use is now the main concern and it skews EVERYTHING. When the poisons are out of his brain, individual counseling and group support will help him get his life back on track.
If you can find an American Society of Addiction Medicine doctor in your area, make an appointment. These doctors are educated about addiction and co-occurring problems. (Sadly, most counselors, physicians, and other health care professionals do not understand adolescent drug misuse/addiction because they have little or no education on the subject.)
Your son may fight you tooth and nail as you seek help for him, but resolve to stay firm and strong. You are his parent, he is living in your home, and you are deeply concerned about his health and his future.
As parents, we have to be able to take a strong, unwavering stand. If we don’t, our children will manipulate us in all sorts of ways — not because they are “bad kids” but because they have a bad problem and may, in fact, have a chronic, progressive, potentially fatal brain disease.
If I have learned one essential fact from working with parents for the past 15 years it is this: Act now. Do not wait for things to get worse. Be proactive, learn everything you can, stay strong, and take care of yourself by going to a knowledgeable counselor, Al-Anon, or family support group.
Finally, here is my best one-liner for family members and friends to use with a loved one who has a serious drug problem:
“If you choose the pathway of health and recovery, I will walk with you to the ends of the earth — but if you choose the road to addiction, I cannot go with you because it will destroy both of us.”
If you think a Q&A column is a good idea, please send your thoughts and/or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, as always, thanks for listening.
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and co-founder of Trilogy Recovery Community. Email her at email@example.com. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.