I wrote these posts last year but I get this question so much from other parents in different ways -“what would you do differently?” – that I’ve decided to post them again. I hope sharing my experience helps even one family make different choices than I did as Henry’s mother.
Many if not most of you know that I lost my oldest son Henry, age 18 to a drug overdose and brutal drug-related beating on May 31, 2010. It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years now. I still hurt just as much as I did in the beginning. I cry almost every day. I feel broken in a way that I am not sure will ever heal. However, the one thing that has changed in the past six years is that I do have more perspective than I did in the immediate aftermath of Henry leaving us. I have a lot to say on this subject so I will divide this blog post into several parts. Here is Part 1. Frequently I receive emails and phone calls from frantic parents whose children are suffering in the depths of addiction. Every single time I hear from one of these parents it takes me back to the several years before we lost Henry – years during which he was actively abusing drugs – a period during which I felt helpless and alone. I honestly had no idea what I should do…what I COULD do to stop the runaway train that my beautiful son was on. I believe we did some things right once he began using. We sent him away to drug and alcohol treatment for basically his entire 17th year. We sent him to counselors and we sat him down with recovering addicts in an attempt to get through to him. However, in hindsight there are things I wish I had done differently earlier, before he began using. The nearly hysterical parents who contact me looking for advice frequently ask me, “what do you wish you had done differently? Is there anything I should be doing that I am not?” After these six painful years without my son, I have come to some conclusions regarding the way I dealt with Henry’s drug addiction before it spiraled out of control and finally killed him. When I speak to these parents I try to make it clear that I am not saying these are not necesssarily the “right” things to do to prevent kids from getting involved with drugs. All I can say is that after some period of hindsight, these are the things I wish I’d done differently and that I believe might have made a difference, and maybe, just maybe ultimately saved Henry’s life. 1. Talk early and often about drugs: I admit it. I did not talk to Henry enough about drugs in his elementary and middle school years. This is because I simply couldn’t imagine my accomplished, well-behaved child would ever turn to drugs. The whole concept seemed foreign to me and to our family. I have never used drugs – I’ve smoked pot twice in my life and got nothing whatsoever out of it – so I didn’t even have the kind of experience that would have allowed me to speak to him with any knowledge or authority. But this doesn’t matter; I should have found the right people to talk to Henry about drugs when he was 9-12 years old. I didn’t do this. I just couldn’t believe that drug addiction was in his future and so I chose to sort of ignore the whole issue. I talked to him about so many different dangers that I believed he faced but I erred terribly in my lack of specific conversations with him about drugs. And guess what? By age 14 my sweet, friendly, kind boy had already started smoking pot. 2. Know exactly what your ‘tween and young teen is doing online. As someone who works in digital media you would think that I would have been more diligent in exploring my son’s online activity. But once again, his demeanor was so very normal, at least until it finally wasn’t, that I didn’t really worry what he was doing online. I mean, I watched him in the easy ways, such as on Facebook, but I had no idea that he was participating in drug-related chat rooms and forums, activity that I didn’t discover until after he died (I had a friend hack into his computer for me after we lost Henry). In these chat rooms and forums he was actively discussing drugs and his own drug use as early as age 15 years old. My failure to pay closer attention to the activities he was having online very well may have cost Henry his life. If I had known – MADE myself know – that at age 15 he was online very frequntly talking with ADULTS about drugs, drug experimentation, and how to avoid detection as a drug user I very well might have saved his life. The three years between age 15 and age 18 when he died were absolutely critical years – years when I still had legal and emotional control over my son. And because I was pretty much oblivious to much of the dangerous activity he was engaged in online, I lost that precious time to try to save him. With H’s younger siblings, when they were teens (they’re 20 and 22 now and living away from home) I insisted on total access to all the info and accounts that existed on all of their interactive devices, including all browsing history and passwords. They complained like crazy but I held firm; it was total access for mom and dad or the phone or laptop got taken away. And we meant it. We had learned our lessons from their older brother’s online use. We also have a content blocker on the server at home that keeps Henry’s youngest siblings safe for now. Ten year old C has a little Chromebook, while neither she nor 7 year old G yet have any devices they use outside the house where a content blocker would be useless. For now, the content blocker keeps them safe. But anyway, be 100% sure that you know what your child of any age is doing online, even – if you suspect drug or other unhealthy interaction is happening – going so far as installing a keystroke tracker on their devices. Snooping by parents is a good thing not a bad one when it comes to the internet and social media. While there has to be a balance between your teen’s privacy and his/her safety, I believe most parents would agree with me that safety has to come first if your child is giving you any reason to believe that texting,the internet or social media is facilitating unhealthy and even deadly activities. 3. Be hyper-aware of any possible mental health issues that your child has that might lead him to self medicate. Henry suffered from what I now realize what was painful social anxiety and acute general anxiety for his entire life. Even as early as preschool he would come home complaining of stress headaches. We did take him to his pediatrician several times over the years to try to address what was clearly an anxiety disorder, and his pediatrician referred him for counseling. But not one of the several counselors we took Henry to see in early and later adolescence properly diagnosed him. Plus, Henry would clam up in couseling and so he got absolutely nothing out of these sessions. He simply refused to talk becaus he didn’t want to be there. In hindsight, Henry almost certainly would have benefited from carefully monitored, prescribed anti-anxiety medication. But he never received this treatment and as a result, fairly early on he began to self medicate. At one point not long before he died, Henry told me that the first time he smoked pot ate age 14 he thought to himself, “Ah, so this is what normal feels like.” Henry shouldn’t have needed to smoke marijuana to find relief from the existential pain he was feeling (and which he described in great detail in the journals that he kept during his 17th year that he spent in treatment.) I failed my son in not pushing relentlessly for the top-notch mental health care that he deserved to receive before his self-medication turned into the addictive beast that took him from us far too soon. Here is PART 2 of this series..