Adolescent Drug Use. Susan B. heard a knock on her door Tuesday, November 19th, 2002, that every parent dreads. It was the news that her 22-year-old son had been shot to death by their neighbor because he had entered their premises while high on Psychedelic Mushrooms and Marijuana.
John B. was your “typical teenager.” He was active in sports through high school, a high academic achiever, was social, and was a talented artist. Susan admits that her son might have “experimented” with drugs through his teen years, but she in no way thought that his use could have led to this. When asked if she thought he was an addict, she replied that she just didn’t know.
The story of John B. was told to me by his best friend. (Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals represented in this article).
The boys grew up together in South Florida, attending private school, family barbeques and weekend camping trips. They also used drugs together. Their parents knew little of what the boys were doing through the years. Today, drug use, misuse and addiction in adolescents throughout South Florida and nationwide is rampant, there is an epidemic.
I teach English to residential teens seeking treatment for substance abuse and behavioral problems. Currently we have teens from as far away as Tacoma, Washington right to our very own backyard. The ages are as varied as the geography. In this article, I interviewed a 13-year-old male who abuses marijuana regularly and a 17-year-old female who has been here twice for poly-substance abuse. Poly-substance is a fancy term that is used to describe what many teens call “garbage heads.” These are the children using anything they can get their hands on: Heroin, Methamphetamines, Opiates, Benzodiazepines, Ecstasy, LSD, Marijuana, Alcohol and other drugs. There are more male teens here than female, but we have seen a rise in females over the last two years.
There are several areas of concern to take into consideration when evaluating teen drug use. For parents like Susan B. it is too late to address and understand what her son John B was going through. Parents need to actively engage their children in conversations about drugs. They need to find out what types of drugs their teens are using, what is triggering their drug use and educate themselves on what signs to look for in substance abuse. They also need to learn about relapse, relapse prevention, and finally, why and how teens stay sober. The goal of substance abuse education is to help parents never have to say, “I didn’t know” again.
Why does my teen want to use drugs and what kinds of drugs are they using?
On July 17, 2013 I asked 42 teenagers that were in treatment for substance abuse and behavioral issues why they had used drugs. The survey was random and anonymous and the answers were quite revealing. They said that they used for many reasons but some things they said really stuck out in my mind.
Many of the teens said they used drugs because they wanted to escape, enjoyed how it made them feel, wanted to have fun/be social or were curious and bored. Some, however, used for all together different reasons. Chad S. said he used to lose weight, another admitted his use was because he was angry with his father, and another because she thought her mother was never there for her and didn’t want her. Family problems came up again and again. Others said that they used the drugs to self-medicate for depression, anxiety or because they couldn’t handle reality. Three separate teens said they used because they were bullied.
I interviewed Clinical Director Marlene Rodriguez, LCSW, and Primary Therapist Michele NeSmith, LMFT, with one question on my mind: what kinds of drugs are teens using today?
Rodriguez Responded quickly with one steadfast word: Marijuana.
“Marijuana,” she stated, “is used by teens because it is both accessible and acceptable. Teens think that it is ‘not a big deal.’”
Turning to NeSmith I asked, which drugs they are seeing more of this year than last? She also had a singular answer for me: “pills”. Pills, however, encompass a greater area of drug use and abuse. Both NeSmith and Rodriguez agreed that the majority of teens they treated were using MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N Methylamphetamine) or Ecstasy, but that prescription drugs are equally prevalent.
NeSmith said that, “medicine cabinet drugs like Benzodiazepines, Hydrocodone
and other Opiate derivatives, and even cold medicines have become a big
problem for teenagers.”
The teens echoed NeSmith’s statement adding that they are still using alcohol but that it is much easier for them to take pills from their parent’s medicine cabinet than it is for them to take liquor. Alcohol, NeSmith told me, had “lost the appeal – there were more fun drugs to do.”
How do I know if my teen is using drugs or headed towards a relapse?
Lying, manipulation and change in behavior came up again and again when I asked this very important question .Primary Therapist Lisa Cohen, LMHC said that, “they like to lie and manipulate their parents into making them think that their drug use is their fault…they will say things like ‘how dare you”, “you treat me like a baby” etc.. She added that blaming, anger and defensive behavior is very common with teens that are abusing drugs.
Primary Therapist Hernaldo Morales, M.S., MFTI, agreed with Cohen and added that inconsistent behavior or changes in behavior are significant indicators that a teen is using drugs or headed back towards a relapse. He said, “There are two things that come to mind (when thinking about relapse or signs of drug use), the teen shows inconsistent behavior and there is no motivation or interest in previous goals or activities.” He added that things in their life just, “stop!”
I asked the teens to tell me some sure signs when someone is using drugs and their answers ranged from the obvious to the obscure. Some of the obvious indicators included moodiness, missing money, lighters and eye-drops, consuming large amounts of food and staying up late at night. More atypical indicators were reported by Chad S. who said: “Almost everyone who uses drugs in the adolescent phase is usually a compulsive liar. They lie about very basic things. It could be as simple as the shoes they wore last Tuesday to the color of their hair a month ago. Many of the other teens echoed Chad’s admission.
Some teens use drugs to lose weight and some might even have an eating disorder. Adolescent male anorexia is on the rise and often co-occurs with drug abuse. The female teens agreed that weight loss, lying or change in appearance were also key indicators.
I spoke to a few parents who admitted using incense to cover up the smell of Marijuana when they were teens but were quite surprised themselves by the admissions of their own children who used the same devises (with the addition of towels against the door, excessive perfume and room spray) to cover the smell of smoking crack. One teen admitted that he preferred to wear only white t-shirts while smoking crack and often didn’t change his clothes for days, a habit he called, “going hamster.”
Primary Therapist Lisette Lacosta, M.S. RMHCI, said that there are also several signs that are not so obvious when a teen is using drugs or has relapsed. She pointed out that what can be seen as typical moodiness or shyness is often isolation. She said that if a parent can catch the teen in the “emotional-phase” of relapse, they may be able to deter it. The teen may say things like, “I’m fine,” or suddenly like a switch, they turn off, and are no longer interested in talking about emotional issues with a parent at all. This emotional phase is, “when things are starting to get out of control,” or “unmanageable.” Lack of support could lead to the next two stages: mental and physical relapse.
What makes my teen want to stay sober and how do I prevent relapse?
The quintessential question then is, how do we keep teens sober? There is no easy answer to this question. I queried both teens and clinicians, and have been engaged in the research process myself as I work towards my Masters in Social Work (MSW) as a student at Florida Atlantic University. The research is varied and the longitudinal studies are limited. Primary Therapist Damien McKnight, MED, said that a multi-dimensional approach is best. He stated that, “having a support system is essential. They must go to NA (Narcotics Anonymous), AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) Meetings, stay humble, and not believe that they are cured, as well as keeping open and honest communication about the possibility of relapse”. These are key components to keeping teens sober.
A 16-year-old male teen in his second rehab said that the best way to stay sober is to change friends. He said that he thought he could hang out with the same people and watch them use drugs and not participate, but he was clearly wrong. Another teen emphasized the need for a rigid schedule. She said that free time was not good for her because she always wanted to use drugs when she was bored. Still, another teen emphasized developing a “moral conscious” and staying connected to a “higher power.” He also said that enjoying the “other things in life” are important to staying sober.
If my teen is abusing drugs, what can I expect them to get out of a rehabilitation facility?
I hurried past the office of Clinical Director Sam Glenn, LCSW expecting to see a closed door. Glenn’s door is often closed because he is always engaged in teen interventions, parent interviews, staff reviews or other crises of the moment. I seized the opportunity to ask what might be the singularly most important thing for a parent or teen to know when they leave treatment. I asked Glenn, “What is the most valuable skill that a teen will acquire when they have completed treatment”?
Glenn paused for quite some time before answering this question. I could see the years of slogans flying though his mind, ‘let go and let God,’ ‘people, places and things,’ ‘coping skills,’ ‘relapse prevention,’ and ‘go to meetings.’ I had often heard these sayings and ideas myself around the treatment center. He began to speak about one of them, and then shook his head, no.
“When a teen leaves treatment,” he looked up and said with his hands folded in a prayer like position, “they will know without a doubt the necessity of actively practicing recovery as a lifelong process.”
I have no doubt as I watch the teens walk out the doors that they understand this, and many other valuable things about substance use, misuse and most importantly addiction. The thing that I have learned from watching them, their families, and all those who love them is that maybe, just maybe, if Susan B. had said something besides I didn’t know, her son might be alive today. My favorite moment is when a teenager leaves Inspirations. I watch them hug their parents. I watch them both cry. Finally, I hear a relieved mom and dad say, “Thank you for giving me my son back.”
Nina Kramer is an English Teacher at Inspirations for Youth and Families. She is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Social Work at Florida Atlantic University. Inspirations for Youth and Families employ solutions based on 12 Step methods of recovery for the treatment of teens. For more information, please go to www.inspirationsyouth.com/sw