It was nearly a full house on the evening of November 7 at the "Not in My Back Yard" drug and alcohol abuse presentation held at the Northshore Performing Arts Center and sponsored by the PTSAs for Bothell, Woodinville and Inglemoor high schools with the support of the Northshore School District.
The event was filled with true stories, information and resources. On the stage were nine speakers — three offering brutally honest testimonials of what it is like to be a parent of a teen addict, four were once those teens offering their stories about what it took to break free from the cycle of drug addiction. Rounding out the panel were two professionals in the field offering data and resource information.
Among the parents sharing their stories were JP, an Inglemoor parent; EM, a Woodinville parent; and RH, a parent of both former Bothell and Inglemoor IB students.
Each parent shared their personal stories of their child’s fall into drug addiction, the struggles they endured, and offered words of wisdom and encouragement.
Speaking about her son, now 21, who was also on the panel, JP said, "Her son did not choose to be an addict." His journey into drug addiction began at about 11-12 years of age when he started smoking marijuana. It’s taken almost 11 years, and over $120,000 to try to save him, but in the end, it was he who chose to save himself.
"It took being booked into the King County jail and having to go through detox without any medical help. It was sheer hell," he said. He realized he’d spiraled down so far, that the next option was going to be two to five years of hard time in an adult facility. "I begged the judge to go into treatment, and he let me," he said. Now, he’s been clean for two years, and is employed full-time.
EM, the parent of two boys, 19 and 16, regrets when he learned three and a half years ago that his oldest son was smoking marijuana that he and his wife chose to look the other way "because he was a good student," he said. By 2011, he knew something else was going on with his son when he’d fall asleep at dinner and showed other signs.
But, it took a friend of his son’s to finally open his eyes to the severity of his son’s addiction. In his son’s own bedroom, in his own home, he found that his son had been smoking heroin and they’d had no idea he was doing it while they were home. They confronted their son, who broke down crying. A call to Northshore Youth Services led to a 30-day live-in treatment program at Sundown Ranch in Yakima.
"We visited him every weekend and found many other amazing families and children like ours. Nice families who were in this position," he said. Despite the program and outpatient treatment, his son had to reenter treatment in June 2012. His son is clean for now, but he added, "He’s an addict. You hope and pray, but you’re never sure."
Then EM implored with this advice: "If you’re concerned or curious, search their room. Be glad if you find something because then you can start to deal with it."
Parent RH does not seem like the kind of parent who would have had to deal with a child addicted to drugs. She had two daughters, both high achievers academically and in extracurricular activities, but it was her younger daughter, a 4.0 student in Inglemoor’s IB program that shocked her when she ran away from home in the summer of 2011, finally calling her mom a few days later to meet and tell her that she was addicted to heroin.
In the ensuing months helping her daughter become clean, RH shared what she’s learned with the audience. "We need to come together as a community to find solutions. This disease – addiction – is so isolating, but you need to learn what the disease looks like. If you are the friend or family member of an addict, try Al-Anon as a support system to help take care of yourself."
She went on to add, "Don’t ever give up, always hope, but learn to set boundaries, learn how not to enable them."
For KH, 20, she was not the type of student one would think would become a drug addict. She had good grades, hung out with the smart kids, and was involved in high school. "Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate," she warned. For her, it began as a hobby because her cousins were doing it so she started with marijuana, too. When her brother overdosed while she was in ninth grade, it still wasn’t a wake up call to her. Even though she graduated from high school and moved on to Bellevue College, she was so addicted she was selling her body to earn money to do more drugs. It was finally her mother finding her drug stash and confronting her that led her into treatment.
"I saw in treatment that while no one’s stories were the same, their feelings were all the same," Owens said, in reference to feelings of lack of self-worth and depression. Clean for almost 18 months, she can finally say she is happy, clean and in a great relationship with a caring boyfriend.
HP, a 2009 BHS graduate, comes from a family with a hereditary trend of addiction.
His grandfather, father and himself have all battled addiction. It was his father who saw in HP many tendencies that he had seen in himself decades earlier. "I used drugs to be accepted, not because of peer pressure," he said.
It still couldn’t keep HP from becoming a homeless junkie by the time he was 18 despite growing up in a loving "normal" family. It was when he was finally put into the psych ward at Evergreen Hospital and received a letter from his father that was his turning point.
"Drugs had become more important than my dream to become a firefighter, but my dad’s letter told me I needed to focus on remembering what my dreams were for my life and to focus on that. The letter saved my life," HPsaid. He’s been clean now for three and a half years and is working as an EMT and firefighter in the Seattle area. He also spent about a year as a counselor for other addicts after becoming clean.
The evening’s panel ended with two professional presentations. Sandie Tracy, NSD’s director of nursing services, spent time talking about marijuana and alcohol use, since those are often the first drug of choice for teens.
"Legalization is going to affect how marijuana is perceived within families," she advised.
In a survey of 1,200 district students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12, they were asked if marijuana use is a great risk for harm. While 75 percent of sixth graders said it was wrong, only 32 percent of seniors in high school still felt that way. Yet, all grades reported cigarettes’ harm factor was high with no decline as the students became older. Parents need to remind students that marijuana smoke is still harmful to lungs, like cigarette smoke.
"Many people overlook the fact that marijuana is addictive because withdrawal signs are not prominent or present," Tracy said.
The other prominent statistic from the survey Tracy shared was the incidence of students who reported if their parent had talked to them about alcohol in the past year. Over 22 percent of eighth graders, 32.7 percent of tenth graders, and 46.1 percent of twelfth graders reported their parent had not talked to them about alcohol use in the past year.
"It is better to have several small talks than ‘the BIG talk’ that kids dread," Tracy advised.
Last on the evening’s agenda was Rachel Houtman, a mental illness and drug dependency specialist for the Center for Human Services working at Kenmore Junior High.
"Drug addiction is a medical disease. It is not a choice or a moral decision. It is a lifetime disease and struggle," she said.
She reminded parents that ambivalence is seen as "it’s okay" by their children, adding, "Parents are still the Number One influence on whether kids will do drugs, but that doesn’t mean you’re at fault if they do start."
There are many prevention and intervention services available at the junior highs and high schools, along with support groups for students needing life skills training to learn choice and prevention skills, groups for friends and siblings of addicts that provides a safe space for them to talk about the disease of addiction and learn coping skills. And, intervention groups help students learn how to build coping skills to help keep them from turning back towards drugs or alcohol.
If you suspect your child may be using drugs, please visit this website for a checklist and advice for parents: timetoact.drugfree.org/know-get-focused.html.