For a parent, there is nothing more devastating than the loss of a child. It’s an ache that never goes away. In 2005, my brother and sister-in-law buried their oldest son, Sean, just before his 20th birthday. My nephew battled drug addiction throughout most of his adolescent years. His parents quietly forged a war against it, doing everything in their power to save their son’s life: counseling, tough love, rehab, treatments, and more. He was in a rehab facility when he died of a drug overdose.
From the moment children enter our lives, we feel a shift in how we approach life. We pledge to do whatever it takes to protect these little people, and to raise them in a loving, nurturing home. And then, right before our eyes, they are teenagers, and their lives are full of stresses and pressures that are often unimaginable. But it’s important to keep trying. In a perfect world, kids wouldn’t take that first drink, or try that first drug, or hang with the wrong crowd, but clearly we do not live in a perfect world.
I keep a photo of my nephew on my refrigerator as a constant reminder to be vigilant. He is my reality check, a reminder to stick my nose in my kids’ business every day.
The reality check
We all know people who have dealt with drug or alcohol addiction in their family or friend circles. A son or daughter. A nephew or niece. Perhaps a friend. No matter, the struggle is real and the outcome is not always what you hope for. It is right outside our door; closer than you think.
Findings from the New York State Department of Health 2015 Annual Report give us an idea of what we’re up against. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug poisoning is the leading cause of injury-related mortality in the United States and was associated with 47,055 lives lost in 2014. In 2013, the number of reported drug overdose deaths increased to 2,175, a 41 percent increase from 2009. This problem isn’t going away any time soon.
I recently attended a parent forum led by New York State Trooper Craig A. Vedder, who serves as Community Outreach Coordinator for Greene, Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and Ulster counties. This forum gave parents a chance to get information about drug trends, awareness and prevention, as well as ask questions.
Trooper Vedder is the first to admit that he purposely “disinvites” students to his presentations, primarily because he wants to arm adults with accurate, valid information that helps them see these realities through the eyes of their child. This perspective, he says, helps parents serve as more effective advocates for their children.
“There is a drug world that swirls around you every day, wherever you are. I’m going to teach you to see things as your children do so you can recognize when they are in danger of making poor choices,” Vedder stated.
An Orange County mom whose son struggled with drugs throughout his teenage years shared that her greatest regret was not recognizing what was right in front of her. His behavior changed drastically and he no longer wanted to be part of the family dynamic. “I just didn’t want to see it,” she said.
The good news is that her son turned a corner. He is 22 today and has been clean for almost three years, bolstered by professional help and the support of friends and family.
Let’s start with the basics: What you should know
What’s a drug? A drug is a medicine or substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body. There are four ways a drug can be ingested (the four S’s):
Drugs can take on many forms, including pills, powder, whipped cream (like you might have in your refrigerator), liquid – simple things that are readily available to kids today.
These are prescription painkillers such as morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Heroin is an opioid and is illegal. Kids often have access to opioids because many of these can be found in any medicine cabinet. The opioid epidemic is raging in many states and is perhaps the most frightening of all, since these drugs are found right in our homes.
According to Trooper Vedder, Marijuana has taken on a new form and a new name. The widely used term for marijuana is WAX, or THC (short for tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical that causes intoxication or the “high” in users. Users today are ingesting a more potent, more concentrated version of THC, which has created an entirely new level of drug use. When it is in “wax” form, it resembles lip balm that can be eaten or smoked.
Many users roll loose marijuana into a cigarette called a “joint.” Marijuana can also be smoked in a pipe or water pipe (called a “bong”) or vaporized using a “vape” pen. A single intake of smoke from a joint or pipe is called a hit. Marijuana can also be mixed into food or brewed as tea and ingested. It has also appeared in cigars called “blunts.”
In states where marijuana has become legalized, more and more marijuana “edibles” are seen in retail establishments where marijuana is sold, including baked goods and candy that closely or even exactly resemble well-known foods (example: brownies, chocolate, cookies, pizza or gummy bears).
Trooper Vedder shared some street names and slang terms – words we wouldn’t typically associate with drugs – used by young people today.
According to the website drugfree.org, there are many slang terms parents should be familiar with:
- Marijuana: bud, blunt, dope, grass, herb, joint, mary jane, MJ, pot, trees, weed, butane hash oil
- Heroin: big H, black tar, brown sugar, dope, horse, junk, smack, china white
- Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids: china girl, china white, murder 8, tango and cash, pink
- Cocaine/crack: big C, blow, nose candy, rock, snow, white crack, coke, flake
- DXM (dextromethorphan): dex, robo, skittles, triple C, tuss
Just for a moment, put yourself in their shoes
Remember when you were a teenager and your “friends” suddenly deserted you? Remember being hurt and confused? Remember being stressed about tests or a “mean” teacher who just wouldn’t give you that A?
Teenage life is challenging, to state the obvious. As a kid, I can remember dealing with peer pressure. I had friends whose parents had unrealistic expectations, which led to unnecessary angst, frustration and anger. Add to that, today’s teenagers are growing up in a very different world than we did. There is increasing pressure to be “perfect” – academically, physically, socially – and the way they handle themselves is often open to public ridicule via social media. Technology is definitely a blessing and a curse: access to online resources is clearly helpful at homework time, but the 24-hour access to the nuances of our kids’ days makes them more vulnerable to hurt and criticism in a very public manner.
According to teen counselor Donna Barr, these types of pressures may lead kids to make choices that, in the long run, hurt them.
“Today’s kids face lots of challenges,” Barr said. “Not only are they going through normal development and dealing with regular social pressures, there is the added element of media influence. They see and hear things on social media and YouTube and these strong visuals are very stimulating and draw them in. They figure, ‘What looks good on YouTube must be good for me.’ They are looking for ways to feel better about themselves, ways to deal with stress, and they unknowingly open doors that cause pain. What they think is good choice in the end turns out to be unhealthy. Kids get caught in a web and don’t know how to get out.”
Barr continues to say that kids are bombarded with expectations, and this pressure, partnered with their desire to please everyone and be liked, leads to a search for convenient, accessible ways of escaping the pressure. Unfortunately, they don’t have the skills to properly deal with these challenges and they get caught up in something ugly.”
“Today’s families are very busy, and sometimes parents are just not paying close enough attention to what’s happening in their children’s lives. Parents should know who their children’s friends are and how they’re spending their weekends. They should check to see if there are any significant drops in their grades. And they should be aware of what’s in their own medicine cabinets. Parents trust that adolescents have the reasoning ability to make good choices, but this is often not the case. Drug use does not discriminate,” said Lisa Shina, drug abuse counselor at Monroe-Woodbury Central School District.
What to do if you think your child is using drugs
Trooper Vedder shared that if parents believe their child is using drugs, they should first gather evidence by checking their bedroom and belongings. And having genuine conversations with their child is the most important step.
In my own home, nothing is more important than having face-to-face time with my kids. Don’t get me wrong: they’re teenagers and having mom and dad ask them questions is not top on their list of how to spend their evening. I have found that once we sit them down and just start talking, they eventually engage and even share a story or two. But you have to take that first step.
“Kudos to the parents who are actually asking the tough questions and accepting the difficult answers. If your child is consistently behaving in a way that is out of the norm, parents should acknowledge this behavior is making them uncomfortable and take action,” said Barr. “But first, parents will need to take a moment to breathe deep, sit down and accept that the next steps are tough ones.”
Barr suggests parents should filter through available resources and determine which direction best meets the needs of their child. The cookie cutter approach doesn’t apply to these situations. Begin by calling your child’s pediatrician or primary physician, school district health office or parent hotlines as the first step. The initial steps will lead parents to a wider circle of resources.
Each child is different in how they communicate; the true gift is when you see them struggle, regroup and come out stronger on the other side. And you were (quietly) there, supporting them and loving them through every moment.
Being a parent has taught me so many, many things. One thing is clear: Parenting is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are endless.
Drugfree.org – the Partnership for Drug Free Kids ™ great source for lots of information; parents can take a quick 6 question survey to get an idea how “drug savvy” they are. This site also offers several parent tool kits and a toll free parent hotline.
Local/county organizations – there are drug awareness organizations in every county of New York State and the NYS Department of Health.
Your local school district – school districts throughout NYS are recognizing the need for drug education for all members of the school community. If you don’t know what your school district has to offer, just ask or check out their website for more information.
Carole Spendley sends a big thank you to NYS Trooper Craig Vedder and Donna Barr, MA, LSMA for sharing their experience, research and insights related to this very important topic.