Saturday, December 28, 2013
Talk to Your Children About Every Little Thing, Especially Your Unconditional Love
If Ethan had died from long term abuse of alcohol, heroin use, cocaine, crack or meth, I think people would understand better that some system had failed. Kids are taught well in school DARE classes about the dangers of these drugs. Parents through the media and society in general have absorbed the knowledge that these substances are dangerous. Laws exist to make it harder and deter some kids who still feel the need to meet society's standards. There are numerous facilities to treat the addiction. I would feel like there wasn't a lot I could add to that conversation.
But that wasn't the case, so for parents and teens, even middle schoolers, here are some things you should know.
A drug that is legal can still be lethal. Cost, accessibility, and even the lack of a prescription doesn't make it safe. Although we're getting a little more educated about prescription drug abuse and its effects, even that isn't enough. Over the counter cough medicine can be just as dangerous although there are fewer studies, practically no laws, and in general neither children nor parents are aware of the risks. Children, teens and even adults feel like if they can buy it in a store, it's safer than using an illegal narcotic. They are horribly wrong.
According to a 2008 study (yes, the only thing I could find was that out of date), one in 10 teens has used OTC cough medicine to get high. And while we might assume, as the police officer who caught Ethan shoplifting at 16 did, that they are after the alcohol content in liquid medications, we would be wrong. We would also be wrong to believe, as that article did, that it is something they'll move past to illegal drugs as they get older and decide it is beneath them. If they become addicted, they don't move on. There is no need. It is still cheap, legal and deceptively safe.
The active ingredient in hundreds of cough suppressants, including the ones in my cabinet and probably yours, is dextromethorphan. It's a central nervous system depressant that, taken according to directions, is safe. Taken at levels from double to dozens of times the recommended dosage it can mimic everything from being drunk to PCPs. If your child is found in possession of it, no one is likely to think a lot of it. If you go to take cough medicine and discover it's all gone, you probably think you forgot and used it. If they wander through a pharmacy, or even the health care department of a grocery store, discount store, or dollar store, they can easily fill their pockets with boxes of the stuff, since it's not even behind the counter.
Even if you talk to your child regularly about the dangers of drugs, odds are good you won't think about cough medicine. After all, you give it to them sometimes. How do you make them understand that the hazards from abuse are just as real as with any street drug? Somehow you have to include medications from prescription pills to cough medicine in the conversation, because if you don't, someone else will.
That's the cautionary tale to parents.
But yesterday I just kept thinking about the kids. What do you say? How do you talk about a drug you hope they know nothing about in an effort to warn them without giving them ideas.
Be honest. Studies have shown that sex education classes that teach only abstinence don't work because they don't teach about what is really going on. I think that drug abuse classes sometimes have the same problem. Just say no is a wonderful idea, but it doesn't look at anything beyond the small gesture of denial.
It doesn't look at the peer pressure, or the desire to fit in. It doesn't look at the fact that sex feels good and it's easy to go further than you meant to if you don't know anything about the steps leading up to the big "it" you're not supposed to do. It doesn't look at the reality that sometimes you don't want to feel like a kid who doesn't fit in and a cough medicine that you and your buddies can grab off a shelf makes you suddenly cool and relaxed and all the crap you deal with every day doesn't matter quite so much.
As a parent, it's damn near impossible to convince a child that the pain of the ninth grade or the attention of a certain boy, is just such a little part of life that it really won't mean anything in a few years. It's hard for them to believe that the circles of life beyond high school will take them so far beyond both the friendships and rebuttals of their peers. It's hard for them to conceive of a time when it won't matter that they weren't popular, or that someone did or did not like them... a time when the people who are their world won't even be a small part of it.
I know because I tried so hard with Ethan. I didn't know the dangers of dextromethorphan. I didn't know the extent of his pain. But I did know the danger of peer pressure and how keenly he wanted to fit in, when what he really needed to do was carve his own path. I don't know how to tell anyone to fix that, but I know I have to tell you to try.
My son used with his two best friends, and to the best of my knowledge, all their girlfriends as well. One boy came across as trouble from the get-go, while the other was from an apparently stable, two-parent family, (just to show you that trying to pick their friends may not help). I don't know who the ring leader was and it could have been Ethan for all I know. In any case, they used together and supported one another in the path they chose. I don't know about the "trouble" child, but I know from talking with the other young man that he was addicted just like Ethan. I know he's clean now, but that getting clean cost him a lifelong friendship and left him with a load of guilt; that he's still troubled by a drug he left behind and that he'll never be the same person that he was before he used it.
I know that despite my efforts to talk to my son, I let things slide because I accepted that he'd become more secretive, less willing to share, moodier, as he became a teen and matured, and because other than the drug use, he shared so much of his life that I think now he was probably often covering what he wasn't telling me by oversharing in other areas. That quite possibly from the first use some part of his brain knew that was something to hide. I knew about alcohol, pot and sex, and sometimes about shoplifting, and we dealt with those things. But I didn't know about cough medicine -- something seemingly so innocent -- partly because I wasn't educated to the problem. I know I didn't force him to be part of family meals and outings sometimes because his moodiness and sulking would ruin a whole day, and I wish now that I'd drug him along because maybe that was what he really wanted and at least now that wouldn't be something for me to feel guilty about.
So I'm urging you to educate yourself about things you don't really want to know about, not just the easy stuff. Talk to your children, whatever their age, in an age appropriate way, about all the hazards and the joys life holds for them. Help them understand that sometimes there are trade offs, that not doing the thing that seems good at the time will make something better a part of their future. Make it easy for them to talk to you without judging the little things, so maybe they'll be honest about the big things. Know about things that can hurt them so you can warn them and watch for danger. If something seems wrong, take them to a doctor or a counselor and the sooner the better. Track down the problem if you can, even if it makes them mad and you feel like you're beating your head against a wall. Make them be a part of your life so you can be part of theirs.
Know that all of that may not be enough, but that as important as it is to save your child, if you cannot do it, it may be just as important to know that you did everything you could.
And whatever happens, love them. Make them know you love them even when you say no, even when you have to let them suffer the consequences of their choices, even if they hang up on you half the time or wind up being lost in some place that you can't reach or save them.
Tell them you love them without reservation, even when they are an ass and when no one else does. Make them hear you above the noise of life and peers and pressures. Because right now, that's all I have to cling to.
A memory of a hug and knowing that whatever demons rode him, Ethan knew he was loved.