An Open Letter to Parents of High School Students

[NOTE: This story first appeared in the Milton Times in the Jan. 14, 2016 edition. Anonymity is a delicate matter. Both the Milton Times and the Milton Coalition considered the matter carefully and concluded the request for anonymity on the part of this author is justified in this case. The reader should understand that although the author wishes to remain publicly anonymous, the Coalition's editorial staff is aware of the author's identity and unanimously approved publication.]

Not too many years ago, I sat at the orientation for incoming students at Milton High, listening eagerly to descriptions of the many opportunities that awaited my daughter - the array of Advanced Placement courses offered, the clubs that she might participate in, the plays and musical events she might perform in, sports she might play.  I was excited for her and couldn't wait for her to find the things that she would want to do, to excel in, to derive joy from.  But sometimes life is what happens when you are planning something else.

My husband and I have three children who attended MHS is the past several years.  They have each had their struggles - maybe more than their share.  In addition to the usual challenges of being a teenager, all of our children came to us through adoption, a couple have learning disabilities, and the teenage years have not been easy - not for them and not for my husband and me.  But, two of them are finding their way.  It's not the straightforward linear path that we took, but it's their path - their journey - and they are doing well.  But our middle child strayed from the path.  She did earn her diploma from MHS, but when her classmates were marching in their caps and gowns on a beautiful Sunday in June 2013, she was in a substance abuse rehabilitation program in California.  It was not her first program and it was not to be her last.

What is different about my daughter?  What could have predicted her situation?  My husband and I have agonized over this for years.  I am sure my daughter has as well. Countless doctors and therapists have their theories, as do we.  Does she have her challenges? Yes.  Does she face obstacles that I never had to overcome? Yes.  But, I can tell you what is not different about her.  She is greatly loved and cherished.  She has a truly good heart and a loving, creative spirit.  She has parents who have worked hard to be there, to instill good values, to praise her when she does well and to encourage her when she falls.  We went to all the soccer games; we delighted when she played the flute in her concerts; we made sure she got her homework done; we encouraged her to seek help when she needed it and to always do her best, but knowing that her learning disabilities made her best often difficult to achieve.  

But, despite doing all the things that good parents do, we found ourselves with a child addicted to drugs.  Those are tough words to say.  We found ourselves meeting with assistant principals, guidance counselors, and adjustment counselors on a regular basis.  I might explain that I went to MHS many years ago and I did well.  I was summoned to the principal's office only once.  That was to be told that I was to be my senior class valedictorian.  I tell you this not as any boast, but so that you will understand what a shock to my system it was to be a regular visitor to the Principal's Office and it was never for anything good.

I thought about sharing our story a year or so ago, but I wanted to wait until my daughter had overcome her problem, so I could tell an uplifting tale of survival and triumph.  But, with every period of sobriety came a relapse - some worse than others.  This past year, she had been doing well - with 11 months clean - until she started to unravel during the summer and she is now getting help again.  This is the nature of this disease.  And it is a disease, as much as diabetes or a heart condition or asthma.  But unlike those diseases, there is a stigma attached to addiction.  People hear that a kid has a substance abuse problem, and the image is not a good one - either about the child or the parents.  People may subconsciously be thinking, "Thank God my kid is a good kid and I'm a good parent, so that could never happen to us." - just like I probably thought, just like you might be thinking now.  Not necessarily directed at us, I have heard people make many unkind or uninformed remarks - "What ever happened to 'just say no' - it always worked for me and for my kids."  "Some parents just don't know how to discipline their kids."  "Well, where were the parents when all this was happening?"  (When I hear these things, I think of my mother, who used to say, "It's so easy to raise other people's children.")  Well, I can tell you where the parents probably were - trying everything they could think of to keep their kids safe and healthy.  Trying to get to know their friends; trying to make sure they were keeping busy with sports and productive positive activities.  Perhaps the parents were, as we were, tearing their hair out and agonizing over what to do and how to find help, as they watch their beautiful children disappear in front of their eyes.  That's probably what the parents are doing.

This is not something my husband and I have spoken about much over the years except to close family or friends.  First of all, we wanted to respect our daughter's privacy.  The people who directly needed to know, knew.  Besides, what was the point?  How would it help anyone if we talked about it?  Well, I now feel compelled to talk about it, with my daughter's blessing, if it can help one child, one family reach out for help.

Over the past several years, my husband and I have been places we never thought we would go; we have met people we never thought we would meet.  While other parents were going on college tours with their children, we were visiting residential rehab programs.  We were getting to know therapists and counselors and substance abuse specialists.  But also, importantly, we were getting to know a lot of teenagers and young adults afflicted with this terrible disease.  They are just like our kids and your kids.  They are white and black and Hispanic.  They are rich and they are poor.  They are funny and artistic and interested in math or science or foreign languages.  They come from homes with struggling single parents and they come from stable two-parent homes.  They have hopes and dreams.  And they are working their butts off to get and stay clean.  They are working to understand themselves and their addiction.  They go to meetings every day.  They meet with their sponsors every week.  They are trying to establish a healthy identity that does not involve substances.  And they are doing all this in a world in which they are often thought of and treated as "less than."  And, as tough as that can be for a parent, it is so much worse for them.

I have told you about my child because I want you to think of your child.  Teenage years are tough for everyone.  Would any adult voluntarily go back and relive those years?  But, many kids also face additional challenges, whether it be a physical problem, a learning disability, trouble at home, depression, questioning their sexual identity, or a host of other problems that others, even parents, may know nothing about.  For these kids, these years can be exceptionally tough.  It's hard being a "misfit."  Even the captain of the football team or the class president may be struggling with challenges that are not obvious to the outside world.  Many kids, for all sorts of reasons, experiment with substances (usually alcohol and marijuana) - I know my other two kids did (we were not ok with that either).  But for some kids, the attraction is stronger.  My daughter told me that the first time she smoked weed, she knew she would never not want to do it all the time.  That urge to use became a need to use, and not limit herself to marijuana.  It led to prescription pills and alcohol.  And her need for those things led her to do things she would never ordinarily do.  Her school responsibilities quickly fell by the wayside; she stole; she lied.  She became a person we did not know.

If you think there is something wrong, there probably is.  If your child's grades are falling, check into it. If your child loses interest in things they used to love to do - sports, music - look into it.  If your child stops spending time with their long-term friends and they don't want you to get to know who their new friends are - look into it.  Talk to teachers and counselors at school.  Talk with other parents.  Snoop, if you must.  Ask their old friends what's up.  Ask your kid what's up!  (They probably won't tell you, but they need to know you're concerned.)  If money is missing at home (you could have sworn there was a $20 bill in the cookie jar) or your child is routinely not where they say they are; if you just know in your gut something is wrong - then something is probably wrong.And, even if your child seems to be doing fine, remember what it's like to be their age and protect them and their friends from themselves.  Lock up your alcohol.  Lock up your prescription meds.  Don't just hide them - lock them up.  Kids are very clever; they will find them if they want them.  (My daughter has told us that her first venture into prescription drugs was Percocet that she and her friend found in her friend's medicine cabinet.)

If you suspect or know that your child is in danger, seek help.  Do not just think it will blow over.  Maybe it will, but maybe it won't.  Perhaps you feel that someone will think your kid is a bad kid or that you are a bad parent.  Don't let that stop you.  Seek help.  The reason I am telling our story is to try to dispel the notion that this cannot happen to you.  This will not happen to your child because he or she is a good kid and you are a good parent who has taught them right and wrong.  My child is a good person and my husband and I are good parents, and our beloved daughter is a drug addict.  This can happen to anyone.  There is no shame in it.  There is only shame if you think there's a problem and you let fear or embarrassment prevent you from seeking help.

Of course, once you do look for help, there is no guarantee you will find it immediately.  The substance abuse and mental health systems can be hard to navigate, expensive, and, frankly, downright horrible.  I have spent countless hours, making thousands of phone calls to care providers and insurance companies, to counselors, therapists, outpatient and inpatient programs.  My head spins when I think about it.  In the past four years, our daughter has been in a dozen or more programs, including eight residential programs.  Some have cost an arm and a leg, some are covered by insurance, and some are sponsored by the State.  Some have been great and some have been absolutely terrible (and, in our case, we have found that the more money we spent, the worse the program has been).   But in the past year or so, we have found great support in a parent group, Learn to Cope, which has been a source of information and inspiration.  There are parents who have been through it all, and are willing to share their experience, expertise, wisdom, and compassion.  They do not judge; they listen and they help.  There are other programs, for example the Adolescent Substance Abuse Program at Boston Children's Hospital, which have kept us going.  While they were working to help our daughter wrestle with her demons, they provided my husband and me ongoing support and counseling.  Sometimes, I'm not sure we could have made it without them.  (And they take Blue Cross!)

The bottom line:  These high school years are an adventure.  They can be positive, uplifting, and exciting.  But some kids, some families, will find these years to be a tremendous struggle.  Substance abuse is on the rise.  It can ruin lives; it can kill.  As parents, we all need to acknowledge that no one is immune to this disease.  It can happen to anyone.  When my daughter started high school, we did not see this coming.  But now my daughter fights this disease every day.  We know how difficult her struggle is and we are proud of how hard she is working.  We continue to have hopes and dreams for her, as you have for your child.  Continue to love and support your child and to be the good parents you are.  And if you have concerns, ask for help.  There are resources to turn to.  Milton is fortunate to have a growing Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition (www.milton-coalition.org), which can help point you in a direction.  There are people at the High School who can help.  There are other parents out here who can help.  Ask for it.  Demand it.  Your child is counting on you.