Is there a way to detect the early signs of addiction and stop the train wreck from happening, or is addiction inevitable in people who are wired that way?
This issue recently came to the forefront in a heartbreaking series of posts on Babble.com by blogger Katie Granju, whose son died of complications from a drug overdose when he was a senior in high school. He started smoking pot before he was 14, and when he confessed his behavior to Granju, she felt happy that he'd come clean. She felt certain that any kid who could be so honest about what he was doing wasn't going to get into trouble. His casual use spiraled into serious use, and like most parents, she was in denial until it was too late to stop the train wreck.
Granju's wake up call was extreme: she lost her son. And many people would differentiate drugs from alcohol and think to themselves, oh, my kid just drinks. That's normal. Every kid does it.
The thing is: if you're from an addictive family, you never really know what might set off the spiral. These are Granju's words:
If your child has the genes for drug addiction -- as mine clearly did (and unfortunately, there's no way whatsoever to know this unless and until it happens) -- triggering that genetic "on" switch at age 15 with the "input" of whatever it is your child is messing around with creates an incredibly high-risk situation.
Addiction is a deadly, terrible disease, no matter what age the victim is when it ramps up. But when a 16 or 17-year-old becomes actively addicted to drugs, you're dealing not only with the challenges of an insidious, often-fatal, progressive disease process, but you're dealing with it in an adolescent who doesn't yet have the judgment or life experiences that can help adult addicts realize when they need help, or why.
I, too, am from an addictive family. My mother is a (recovered) alcoholic and my sister is a (recovered) drug user. I never knew my mother's father, since he left the family when she was 1. She didn't speak to him much, and the only photo of him I've ever seen is a group shot of a "Teetotaler's Club." Does this mean that he, too, was a recovered or recovering alcoholic? Or that he never touched the stuff? How strong is the genetic component for alcoholism, and is one of my three children destined to have addiction issues, since they seem to run on one side of my family? These are important questions to ask.
Should I warn my kids about this genetic component and ask them to steer clear of drugs and alcohol? Is this realistic?
My thinking is this: I've already told them about my mother's and sister's histories, and we've talked about how dangerous alcohol and drug abuse are and how addiction can ruin lives. My kids have also seen me drinking wine with friends, whether we are having people over or are out to dinner. So they know I choose to drink in moderation.
As they grow up, I plan to reinforce the message that -- because of their genes and because their brains are developing -- it's best to put off drinking for as long as they can. I will encourage them to go to parties and socialize, but I'll tell them that it's okay to have seltzer or to hold a beer and pretend to drink it. It'd be good to wire their brains in such a way that socializing isn't inextricably tied to drinking and/or substance abuse.
I didn't start drinking until college, and that's when I started feeling comfortable going to parties, as well, so parties and drinking are somehow fused together in my brain -- not a good thing.
I don't want my kids to drink and do drugs ever, but if that's totally unrealistic, I'll settle for them waiting as long as humanly possible. I'm not going to be shy about telling them this, even if it seems laughable.
A Facebook friend of mine -- the daughter of a woman who died because of her alcoholism -- wrote that reading Granju's post made her look back on her mother's life and wonder if "a lifetime of alcoholism and its subsequent destruction" could have been stopped "if my grandmother, if anyone, had taken her partying seriously?" Many of the markers of alcoholism were there from the start: Even in her high school yearbooks, her friends were telling her to slow down the drinking.
How effective is early intervention? Is it possible to catch addiction early, and prevent it? These are questions that haunt me.
Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.