Previously I wrote a blog post sharing some of the things I would do differently if I had the chance to raise my sweet son Henry all over again. Unfortunately, I don’t get that chance but perhaps some of you reading what I have to say will find some nugget of wisdom that you will find helpful as you attempt to raise your children to avoid the deadly path of addiction that my beloved boy traveled before his drug-related death on May 31, 2010.
So here is Part 2 of my list of things I would do differently. I want to be clear that I am not claiming to have all the answers to why Henry became so ill with addiction, nor am I suggesting that if you adhere to my hard-earned perspective that your own child will never experiment with drugs or become addicted. There is still so much that we don’t understand about why some children and teenagers become drug addicts while others – many from the same family and raised pretty much exactly the same way – do not. But I do believe that the perspective I’ve gained in the last six years since losing my dearest oldest child has some merit, and I hope you find it helpful in some way.
Make it clear that you have an absolute ZERO tolerance policy when it comes to drugs or alcohol and your kids. You are not your child’s friend. You are his or her parent. And even though we all knew some kids in high school who drank or smoked even a lot of weed and “turned out fine,” this is not a chance you can afford to take with your own child. We know a lot more about the developing teenage brain than we did even 20 years ago and we know now that for kids who are born with the genetic predisposition for addiction, using drugs or alcohol during those critical developmental years may “flip the switch” for them, igniting a latent addiction that they may never again be able to turn off. This is what happened to my son. He started out smoking pot and for him, it truly was the gateway drug to the opiates that eventually killed him. I am aware that there are many adults who drink alcohol and use marijuana recreationally with no negative consequences to speak of. But teenagers do NOT need to drink or even use what we think of as a mostly benign drug – marijuana. There is just no good reason and there are lots of very bad reasons for adolescents to use or abuse these intoxicants.
Let me be clear that when I learned that Henry was smoking pot at age 14 I did not take it lightly. His father and I immediately got him into counseling (which in Henry’s case was a waste of time because he would literally sit for an entire hour without uttering one word, so much did he not want to be there.) But if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I did not take Henry’s pot use as seriously as I should have. Why? Because once again, we all knew kids in high school who smoked pot, even on a regular basis and who turned out to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. I so very much wanted to believe that Henry, a polite, friendly and generally well-behaved kid, would “grow out of” what I also wanted to believe was “occasional” marijuana use. This was a terrible mistake on my part. When Henry came to me at age 14 and admitted to me that he had experimented with pot I should have raised holy hell with my response. Instead I tried to be the understanding mom – the mom he could talk to about anything, I also wanted to believe him when he promised me that he would never experiment with marijuana again. These beliefs prevented me from taking the extremely hardline approach that I should have taken when I learned of Henry’s earliest drug use.
If your kids’ friends are changing radically, believe the worst. Before 9th grade, Henry had a solid group of great friends with whom he had attended school since 1st grade. I’m not saying these kids were perfect, but they were polite, accomplished kids who were involved in extracurricular activities like sports and church youth group. I also knew most of their parents and together, we all kept an eye on our boys. Starting in 9th grade, however, this all began to change quite radically for Henry. Leaving middle school for high school marked a distinct change in the peer group Henry with whom Henry began to spend time. Instead of the sort of preppy way Henry’s previous friends had dressed, these new friends wore baggy pants, tie dyes and dreadlocks. Henry rarely invited these new friends to our house, preferring to hang out with them elsewhere – places that were hard for me to keep watch over (parks, the lake, etc). These kids reeked of cigarettes and often looked (and smelled) as if they hadn’t bathed in days. Now let me be perfectly clear. LOTS of GREAT kids dress in tye dyes and wear dreads. But many if not most of these new friends were NOT great kids – at least they weren’t great kids for my child to be hanging around. In 9th grade Henry still had to wear a school uniform but as soon as he got home each afternoon he would quickly change into his own version of what I have come to identify as his druggy clothes. Once when Henry was in 9th or 10th grade and we were visiting my family in Bell Buckle my dear friend Kimi (who raised 4 very well adjusted boys) tried to have a talk with me about the way Henry was dressing. “Katie,” she told me somberly, “Henry is dressing like a kid who does drugs, and this ‘uniform’ is how other kids who do drugs find and identify with one another at school and elsewhere. We wouldn’t let our kids dress that way and I wish you would seriously reconsider the way you’re letting Henry dress and wear his hair long.” But I didn’t hear what she was saying. Instead I responded by telling her that I felt it was important for Henry to be able to express himself in the way he looked – hemp necklaces, long shaggy hair, tye dye pants and t-shirts advertising bands known for their drug-fueled concerts. Yes, I let him dress this way at an age when I still had enough control over him that I could have insisted on less drug-related attire. But I didn’t. I really did feel like it was important for him to find and hang out with kids who seemed creative to me, and to express his own creativity in the way he presented himself. But Kimi was right; the kids Henry increasingly gravitated to were, in fact, major drug users. And today, a decade later, many of them are dead, some are battling active heroin and pill addiction, and a few lucky ones are in active recovery from their addictions. These kids weren’t being creative in the way they dressed; they were putting out feelers to find the other kids in the school with whom they likely had drug use in common. Henry’s sudden turn from the friend group he’d hung out with his whole life to this new, sketchy friend group should have been a big, flashing warning sign to me, but I wanted to believe the best about my son – that he was just branching out and meeting new and different kinds of people.
This is all I feel like I can write right now. I’m feeling pretty exhausted after sharing so much. But if I can help even one family change the course early with their own child, then all this writing will be worth it. And when I regroup a bit, there may be a PART 3 to this series. I just have to wait until I have the psychic energy to write it.
And remember, you can find PART 1 in the series RIGHT HERE.