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The Truth About Teens and Drugs


The Truth About Teens and Drugs
By Jodie Gould

Steve Milner looks like any ordinary 19-year-old. His shoulder length hair is tucked into a cap propped backwards, and a rope necklace peaks out of a T-shirt that hangs loosely over jams. He drags deeply on a cigarette as if it contains some life-sustaining oxygen instead of smoldering tobacco, the only clue of his former troubles. The adopted son of a lawyer and pharmaceutical executive from a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, Steve is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.

His problem began in the 8th grade when he started drinking beer alone in his room. “I felt like I didn’t fit in,” recalls Steve who lives with his parents in Wayne, Pennsylvania. “I was a good student until I started hanging out with kids who drank and smoked cigarettes. I just wanted to be popular.” By the end of that year, Steve began smoking marijuana and was arrested for the first time for underaged drinking.

His parents sent him to several educational and psychiatric counselors. The consensus was that Steve was a smart, sensitive child who would grow out of it. “We made a series of well-educated, well-intentioned mistakes,” admits Steve’s father, Byron Milner, now 60. “After a series of drinking incidents and finally the arrest, my wife and I felt like we couldn’t handle it anymore.” At the advice of a psychiatrist, Steve’s parents enrolled him in a wilderness program in West Virginia, where he spent six months camping and going to therapy. The night he returned home he started drinking again. “He wasn’t ready,” Milner says. “They couldn’t get through to him—he hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.”

Once again, his parents decided to send Steve away, this time to a boarding school in Maine, where he was expelled for crushing and snorting prescription painkillers. Steve returned to his local high school, where he financed his drug habit, which now included LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cocaine, by withdrawing up to $1,000 a week with his parents’ bankcard. “I memorized their PIN number,” Steve says, shaking his head incredulously. “I did this for years before they knew what was going on.”

The idea of teenaged addicts might conjure up visions of young mothers turning tricks on the street to support a crack habit, or products of abusive, neglectful, or otherwise dysfunctional families. But national research shows substance abuse is more likely to occur behind the white picket fences of middle and upper class homes. A 2002 study conducted by Columbia University, found that affluent suburban teens are, in some cases, twice as likely use drugs and alcohol as a way to comfort themselves from the stress of adolescence than their poorer urban counterparts.

“Parental pressure and a lack of supervision contributed to the substance abuse, “ says professor Suniya Luthar, co-author of the study. Another Columbia study conducted in 2003 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse cited stress, boredom and too much spending money, characteristics frequently found among suburban teens, as the top three risk factors.

“People used to think drug abuse was an inner city problem, when the opposite is true,” says Ginna Marston, executive vice president at the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA). “Parents from tough city neighborhoods understand how easy it is to get out of control with drugs because they see the effects of addiction more vividly. Suburban parents tend to be in the dark because the problem is more hidden, or they think their child is simply hanging out with a bad crowd.”

Lauren Solotar, PhD, a psychologist who counsels teens at the May Institute in Norwood, Massachusetts, says a negative self-image and a desire for acceptance by peers can also cause an otherwise good kid to turn bad. “Teens are willing to do dangerous things if they feel uncertain about themselves,” Solotar explains. “If they’re struggling to become part of a clique, they will go along with the pack, even if it goes against their common sense.”

“I just thought I was having fun”

Samantha Pierce of Walla Walla, Washington, began smoking pot and drinking when she was 12. She was a self-styled punk, dying her hair bright red and wearing bracelets up to her shoulders. “I thought the way to make friends was to do drugs,” says Samantha, now 18.

When she was 14, a friend turned her on to meth, a powerfully addictive stimulant. “I liked what it did to me,” Samantha says. “I felt like I could connect with people. After that I snuck out every night to do meth and coke. I’d come home at 6:00 am and pretend I was asleep so my parents wouldn’t know. I just thought I was having fun.”

Samantha’s parents finally caught on to their daughter’s nocturnal activities, and, when she was 17, pressed charges after she stole her grandmother’s car and drove it into a ditch. “She was so good at sneaking out, we didn’t know she was gone,” says Samantha’s mother Diana, 45, who runs the family-owned construction company. “My husband and I would set the alarm for 3:00 am to  check on her, and find the bed empty. The next day we’d ask her,`What’s going on? How do we keep you here?’ Grounding her only made things worse because she’d cuss and scream at us and sneak out even more. We were at the end of our rope emotionally.”

Even stints in the local juvenile detention center did nothing to stop Samantha’s drugging, which often lasted for days. Finally, one morning Samantha returned home at dawn to find the doors locked and the windows nailed shut. This time she stayed away for a month and a half. “We didn’t go to sleep that night—we just stayed up and cried,” Diana recalls. “Six weeks after Samantha ran away, I collapsed on the bathroom floor bawling,” says Diana. “The police still couldn’t find her, and it occurred to me that she could be dead. I got myself up and made flyers with her photo on it. I spent the entire night handing them out at the local K-mart, and anywhere I thought she might be.”

While she was gone, Samantha went from couch to couch, boyfriend to boyfriend, staying with anyone who would put her up and get her high. “A girl I did meth with introduced me to a guy who was 38,” she recalls. “He took us to his house and gave us line after line, shot after shot of meth laced with something to make us pass out. I was semiconscious, and I don’t remember much, but he raped us. We didn’t report it because we were so messed up at the time, plus the cops were looking for me. The guy later went to jail for raping four other girls.”With practically no food or sleep for more than a month, Samantha went to her parents’ house and peeked in the window. Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, she saw a life that once was and could be again.

“Everyone seemed to be having a good time,” she remembers. “I had missed Thanksgiving, which was the only time I ate anything. The next day someone I knew brought me the flyer my mom had put up. Seeing my Mom’s handwriting made me homesick. That’s when I decided to come home.”

Fewer Drugs, Younger Users

There is some good news in the fact that drug use by middle and high school students decreased from 2001 to 2003, according to the 2003 Monitoring the Future Survey, which takes the nation’s pulse each year for teenage drug use. While survey found a dip in marijuana, Ecstasy, LSD, cigarettes and alcohol, the same study also shows that teens are experimenting with drugs at an earlier age.

In 2003, nearly 23 percent of 8th graders admitted to having used illegal drugs, 46 percent have used alcohol, and more than 28 percent have smoked cigarettes. For high school seniors, the stats are staggering: more than half (51 percent) admit to having used illegal drugs. “The trial age is getting younger and younger as kids begin to mature faster,” says PFDA’s Ginna Marston. “They are exposed to so much more at an earlier age through the media and pop culture.”

And what few teens on a quest for a chemical sensation realize is the irreversible damage that drugs and alcohol do to their still developing bodies. “An immature liver and brain can’t tolerate drugs the way an adult can,” says Nicholas Pace, MD, associate professor of medicine at New York University and co-author with Katherine Ketcham of Teens Under The Influence (Ballantine). “In early childhood our brains develop at an astonishing rate, reaching about 95 percent of adult volume by age five. But recent studies now show that we get another opportunity to grow more gray matter. This second round of brain development occurs between the ages of ten and 21.”

In addition to the harmful affects early drug use has on memory, speech, learning, and personality, the more drugs children take, the more likely they are to become addicted. “Multi-drug use speeds up the addiction process even in teens who may not be genetically disposed to substance abuse,” Dr. Pace explains. “Sadly, these days it’s not unusual to find children as young as 11 or 12 with full-blown addictions.”

How to prevent teens from experimenting

Drugs are everywhere, including your local high school. Keeping your teenager away from drugs is a challenge, especially when the pusher might be your neighbor’s son or daughter. But experts say there are things parents can do. “Educate yourself about the kinds of drugs that are out there, and monitor everything your teens are doing,” advises Marston. “If your kids go to a party or to the mall, talk to the person who is going to pick them up or drop them off. Ask other parents about their opinions regarding supervision. It may seem nerdy, but your kids will appreciate that you care, and feel more protected.”

And while extracurricular activities are a buffer against boredom, parents who are overly concerned about molding their children’s resume for college need to understand the difference between encouragement and pressure. “Don’t over schedule a child who is feeling overwhelmed or stressed out,” Solator warns. “If your children are struggling academically, they need to feel like they are achieving in some other area. You need to strike a balance between helping them achieve, whether it’s in school or in sports, and things they enjoy doing that will also help them to feel good about themselves.”

Adam Cox, Ph.D., director of Lehigh Psychological Services in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, adds that teenagers must also take an active role in changing their lives in order to improve a low self-image. “You cannot give self-esteem to your child, no matter how positive you are or how many strengths you point out,” explains Cox, who works with troubled teens and their families. “When I was in graduate school I was relentlessly supportive of the drug-abusing kids I worked with, and not one of them got any better. It wasn’t until they made an effort to change their lives that their self-esteem grew.”

Another area where parents should tread lightly while still offering guidance, Cox says, is when their kids fall in with a bad crowd. “Teenagers are searching for autonomy and anything that seems like a restraint is seen as the enemy. So if you want to direct your teens, you have to be able to convey what you want without appearing as if you are controlling them. Instead of forbidding your child from hanging with certain group of kids, tell him, `I love you, and the thought of something bad happening to you is painful to me. Is there anything that we can work out together to come up with another solution?’ Parents don’t often disclose their emotions, but they do readily express their anger.”

What to do if you find drugs

Try talking to your kids to see if they will open up about what’s going on in their lives. If this fails, parents of substance abusing teens say you must think like a detective, starting with a search for drugs or paraphernalia such as pipes, rolling papers, medicine bottles, or small plastic baggies. “If you feel in your heart that something is not quite right, search their room,” insists Diana, whose daughter, Samantha, has been clean for 10 months. “I got flack from other parents who said your children’s room should be their private place. Well, it is unless your child’s life is at stake.”

Gena Lee, a 44-year-old divorced mom from Chandler, Arizona, agrees. She found a pipe after searching her 16-year-old daughter Natasha’s bedroom. “Natasha was doing well in school, but she had lost a lot of weight and she would get up really early or have a hard time getting up,” says Gena, who works for a car dealership near Phoenix. “I’d find her cleaning her room at 2:00 am, which teenagers just don’t do.” It turned out that Natasha was addicted to meth. “I didn’t confront her for two days because I was angry and hurt, and I was afraid she would choose the drug over me,” says Gena. “I finally sat her down and said, “If you keep this up you’re going to die and I’d rather you hate me than die. You need to admit that you’re doing drugs and tell me you need help. I can’t make you quit.” That week Natasha checked herself into a treatment center and has been clean for six months. “If my mother hadn’t confronted me, I wouldn’t have stopped,” says Natasha, who now speaks to high school students about the dangers of drugs.

Resist the temptation to bail them out

As a parent, it’s your natural instinct to do everything in your power to protect your child. Unfortunately, this most basic of all instincts can backfire when you are dealing with a substance abuser. “I home schooled Samantha in the 9th grade because she was failing,” says Diana. “Three weeks before school was out she ran away and didn’t finish her classes, so I lied for her. I said she finished her finals and gave her a passing grade. I realize now that this was a mistake.”

Likewise, Steve Milner was arrested no less than six times for underaged drinking and for forging a prescription. Each time his father, a well-connected attorney, would bail him out. “In retrospect, we should have been much tougher,” Steve’s father says. “A few times I went to court for him and made deals that got him off. All that did was postpone the inevitable. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have picked him up in the middle of the night; I would have let him sit in jail for a while.”

And as much as you might want to be their friend, teenagers need the love, discipline and guidance that they can only get from a parent. “You have to be the most strict, compassionate person that you can be,” advises Dr. Cox. “Never stop reassuring that you love and care for them. But, if necessary, get your child into some kind of a treatment program.”

Steve credits his recovery to the month he spent at the Caron Foundation, a treatment center in Wernerville, Pennsylvania, where he volunteers as a peer counselor. He is taking classes at Delaware Community College and works 30 hours a week for an insurance company. “While I was in rehab, my mom, who is the most loving person in the world, wrote me a 10-page letter about how I had ruined her life. That was the turning point for me. She had never told me what my behavior had done to her. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for what I had done, and I decided to quit after that. Caron helped me to see what this disease does to people. The counselors said, `We are going to you love you until you learn to love yourself.’ It took a while, but I finally learned how do to that.”

Is your child using?

Although it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between normal teenage angst and a drug problem, experts say there are red flags parents can watch out for:

• Your child is withdrawn, depressed, or has poor personal grooming.
• Eating and sleeping patterns have changed.
• Your teen is hostile, uncooperative, and frequently breaks curfews.
• Relationships with family members and others have deteriorated.
• Your child is hanging out with a new group of friends.
• A loss of interest in hobbies or sports.
• Difficulty concentrating.
• Your teen’s eyes are red-rimmed and nose is runny, there is no cold or allergy.
• Household money has disappeared.
• Grades have slipped and school attendance is irregular.

“If your children’s grades start to drop or teachers tell you their attitude and  behavior is changing, it could be drug related,” warns Katherine Ketcham, coauthor of Teens Under the Influence. “If they get picked up for drunk driving, it might not be an isolated incident.”

Getting Help

Remember, no matter how bad things might seem, there are professional resources like the ones below for getting help. Call your doctor, local hospital, or house of worship for the drug treatment programs in your area.

Alcoholics Anonymous
Twelve-step programs and support groups for alcoholics.

Narcotics Anonymous
Twelve-step programs and support groups for drug dependents.

Al-Anon helps families and friends of alcoholics recover from the effects of living with the problem drinking of a relative or friend. Alateen does the same for teens.

Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)
SADD is dedicated to preventing destructive decisions, particularly underage drinking, drug use, teen depression and suicide.

Families Anonymous
A 12-step, self-help, recovery fellowship of support groups for relatives and friends of those who have alcohol, drug or behavioral problems.

Partnership for a Drug Free America (PFDA)
Offers nationwide support and information for parents and teenagers.

National Institute on Drug Abuse
Can recommend a variety of hotlines that provide treatment referrals.

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
301- 468-2600
The world’s largest resource for current information on drugs and addiction.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHASA)
The Web site offers a treatment facility locator with detailed information on programs available in your city and state.

Information and help for people fighting addiction.

Maryville University
650 Maryville University Drive
St. Louis, MO 63141
Smoking Among College Students




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