I am a mother of two children, a daughter who is 17 and a son (“Tom”) who is 15. Their father, my first husband, died when they were 8 and 10. I have since remarried and my husband is a captain with the local police department. He is a career officer and has worked in juvenile services for many years, including a decade as the detective sergeant of family services. While we both knew raising teenagers together would be challenging, we had no idea just what “challenging” really meant until my son began to use drugs and alcohol. It has been almost two years since our first incident with Tom and I find myself grateful every day that my son is alive and healthy, my daughter is growing into a lovely young woman, and my husband and I maintain a close and strong relationship. My main purpose in writing this story is that I hope to help other parents who may be experiencing similar problems in their own family, as well as to give a parent’s perspective to mental health and dependency treatment professionals.
At the end of 8th grade, Tom was turned in by another student for possessing marijuana on the school bus. I was in a meeting when I saw the school number flash on my cell and stepped out
to answer the call. I couldn’t really hear very well because of a bad connection but I got the idea. Stunned, I searched for a better cell connection and I will never forget what the principal said: “I have been doing this almost 15 years. I don’t believe that Tom is guilty of this, there is no way.” I desperately wanted to believe her. But he was guilty, admitted that the pot was his, and subsequently was suspended from school for a week. Our wild ride through the world of drugs, alcohol, and the mental health and juvenile justice systems had just begun.
Reflecting back, I knew something was wrong and I had for months (it’s hard to pinpoint when a mother’s worrying begins). It was difficult to decipher what was the portion of a typically moody adolescent claiming independence, and what was the part of an early indication of a serious problem. Did he pull away from the other neighborhood children he had played with since he was a toddler because he wanted to form new friendships outside of my close-knit social circle or was it for some other reason? When did he start hating school and all his teachers so much? It seemed as though several days a week I was fielding phone calls and email from the teachers and school administration. Tom was disruptive in class, he didn’t do his assignments, and he was too busy being the class clown to get any work done. He routinely lied about assignments (e.g., “No homework again?”). When did my son get so elusive and angry?
At the end of his 8th grade year when he was caught with marijuana, we struggled to do the right thing. I had always maintained a structured home where appropriate rules and consequences were administered. He increasingly chafed under any authority at all, even arguing when I asked if the home he was visiting was supervised and turned furious when I called the parents to find out myself. There were two school-based consequences to the marijuana incident: community diversion and a LADAC (Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor) evaluation. Tom was required to attend an 8 week community-based drug and alcohol education diversion program. My personal opinion is that this well-intentioned early intervention program was a complete and utter waste of time. Not only did all the kids simply sit in the chairs and restlessly wait for the end of the two hour, $400 class, but I believe it turned into a counterproductive social networking opportunity. Tom graduated knowing more about drugs and alcohol, who used them in his community, and more knowledgeable on how to get them than he did when he started the class. The findings of the required LADAC assessment were equally terrifying: it determined Tom was at high risk for using drugs again because he simply didn’t see anything wrong with doing so. This was the core of a battle we would fight over and over. In the months before we pulled him out of public school and placed him in a wilderness therapy program, he just would not stop using and saw no compelling reason to do so. He was unafraid of authority. He was not going to be “scared straight.”
Over the summer and ensuing months, Tom grew more and more angry, moody, and seemed to lose interest in almost anything except his friends. He would no longer read books, go anywhere with us, etc. He would not even go into the same room as any other family member or sit at the dinner table without a major battle. He didn’t really enjoy sports anymore and demanded to quit the lacrosse team. He begged to be assessed for ADHD, which I resisted. I simply thought he needed to show more discipline in his school work. However, the LADAC professional discussed this with me and encouraged me to have him assessed, as there is a high correlation between early drug use and ADHD. I certainly didn’t want to be closed-minded because of my own feelings that ADHD
is over-diagnosed—after all, I had been wrong before! I reviewed the research and this correlation seemed valid, so I had him evaluated by the psychiatrist.
This was done through a series of surveys to the child, parents, and teachers. I was called in to review the results, which the psychiatrist said were “compelling.” I looked at the “compelling” evidence and I saw what I thought to be marginal results for ADHD behaviors. Not one teacher had ever mentioned ADHD before. Like me, they believed Tom simply preferred not to pay attention and liked joking with his friends more than math class. However, I was pushed by Tom, the psychiatrist, and my own sense of wanting to do something – anything - to make things better. We decided to give a low dose of the medications a try. The drug of treatment choice, Vyvanse, did seem to help with the mood swings at first, although he later grew more aggressive and I wondered if this behavior was in part due to the side effects of the Vyvanse (i.e., Lisdexamphetamine).
Our lives became worse when high school started in the fall. Beginning in October, Tom’s drug use, mood swings and deviant behavior started to escalate. I began to regret agreeing to the ADHD treatment when I learned by reading a text message from one of his friends that he was pocketing the medication and selling it at school. I put an end to that, hiding it in my room and literally placing the medication in his mouth each morning. I kept an inventory of the pills. Having a drug with high street value in our home was one more maddeningly stressful element of our lives. We took away his cell phone permanently. He started football, once his favorite sport, but was routinely seen cutting or going late to practice. He showed up high to the last game of the season and broke his thumb during the last play of the game.
We began to suspect Tom was using marijuana on a much more frequent basis. Although wildly popular at school, his peer group changed exclusively to kids I knew smoked pot (and more) on a regular basis. One of his friends overdosed on mushrooms and another on ADHD medication. Tom failed a home drug test for marijuana, and was put on restriction until he passed. He asked twice to have another home urinalysis to prove he was clean, and both times I discovered that he faked the results (once with urine that wasn’t his and once with warm, dyed yellow water). When I asked him to turn his pockets out before the second home drug test, a $50 bill dropped to the floor. I began
to get more and more alarmed and had a terrible sense that I was losing my son and there wasn’t one thing I could do to stop it. He just didn’t seem to care about doing the right thing, respecting authority, or following the simplest rules. His grades went from bad to worse, and he failed a course because he didn’t like the teacher and refused to complete the work.
His teachers began to call and email on a regular basis that he was disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriately aggressive in class. He was sent to the principal’s office on a regular basis, and by the end of the winter he was missing hours of class. I apologized so many times to the school staff they probably stopped reading my emails. I began to notice that petty cash was missing from my wallet and Tom’s sister began to report her babysitting money was gone. He took his new (Christmas) iPod to school against my wishes and when pressed on its whereabouts, he told me that it was “stolen” from his locker. I suspect that he traded or sold it.
His behavior began to worsen still. He changed his morning routine, leaving early, skipping breakfast, and rushing out the door to meet friends. I found out he had begun to stop at a friend’s house on the way to school to meet a group of boys to smoke pot. His language and behavior became threatening, intimidating, and even menacing. He is a big kid—at 14 he was 5’10” tall and 175 pounds. He used his size to scare us, screaming and swearing at all of the family. He began to come and go as he wanted, telling me to “fuck off bitch” when I told him “no.” He destroyed his bedroom, taking a golf club and smashing holes in the wallboard. He broke two wooden doors, four telephones, and the TV remote. The police - my husband’s employees no less - were regulars at our house. Every time Tom opened the front door to come home, my stomach clenched and I felt myself hold my breath. I was in complete overdrive because of stress, fear, and the unknown. Would he
be angry? High? Would he threaten us? Or would he just go to the TV room and refuse to interact with us the rest of the day? School was a nightmare. Once he was caught cutting class to get high. When he was returned to campus, the principal gave him a detention. When he was given Saturday school as a consequence, and he proceeded to shred the write-up and throw it at the principal while screaming and swearing at him. He routinely received detentions, Saturday school sessions, and suspensions. Nothing slowed him down or gave him pause to consider the consequences of his actions. He had no remorse for his behavior.
In November of his freshman year he was arrested for possession of marijuana. The prosecutor filed a juvenile petition for drug possession and a CHINS (Child In Need of Services) petition for his behavior at home and school. We went to court, my first interaction with the juvenile legal system.
I am grateful every day that I had my husband to help me navigate the complex and completely foreign world of the juvenile legal system. For example, it never would have occurred to me that we should hire a defense attorney for him until my husband told me it was part of the process. We had to pay legal bills with no information and no input—in fact, by following the mandates of his job the defense attorney often worked against us. As a parent, it was the first time I experienced being
a bystander in the outcome of a serious event which would affect the life of my child. During the hearing, I sat quietly in the galley as Tom, his defense attorney, and the prosecutor made their case. No one asked me any questions. He pled “not true” to the juvenile petition and true to the CHINS. We had been prepared that the State would ask for placement, as it was felt by the prosecutor he might benefit from being removed from our home for a period of time. However, the judge met with him for over a half hour in chambers (which was highly unusual), and determined that with support services he could come home. Tom was given probation for a year and his juvenile petition was placed on file. We were assigned a probation officer and home-based family counseling services. We were required to find him an individual counselor (previously he had always refused to go) and the court ordered a new psychiatric evaluation.
All of these things worked for a while. Tom was drug tested and stayed clean. He obeyed curfew, stayed away from the friends from whom he was court ordered from having any contact, and was courteous to his probation officer. While he deeply resented us his aggression lessened somewhat.
A new psychiatric evaluation determined that indeed he did not have ADHD, and the psychiatrist withdrew the Vyvanse and Tom was placed on a low dose anti-anxiety medication that helped with the mood swings. No one was able to answer if the Vyvanse contributed to the anger and aggression and his seeming inability to control it, but these symptoms improved when he was taken off the medication. He participated, albeit reluctantly, in family therapy.
Through all this, what I missed was that Tom was passing the drug tests because he was drinking.
I was always looking for signs of marijuana use, but I was wrong. Yet as we moved from winter
into early spring, I knew something was wrong and I worked obsessively to figure out what it was.
I researched the side effects of mushrooms, which I knew could not be tested for in a urine kit. I even contacted a national expert on psilocybin through my research connections. I described Tom’s behavior and he told me in an email, “nope, not mushrooms.” Reflecting back, my only hint was that he wore cologne. I took it away, but it kept re-appearing. Then my husband came home early one Saturday afternoon and found Tom and a friend, passed out on his bedroom floor with a bottle of vodka next to them. I had literally been gone for 45 minutes when he came home and found the boys. It was March.
I knew something had to happen or we were going to lose our son. The principal mentioned in passing about having worked at the National Outdoor Leadership School, and that maybe a program like that would help him. This was the first idea that I thought, “Okay, that makes sense.” So I did what I do best: I researched, read, emailed, and asked. I finally connected with faculty who evaluated wilderness programs. When I talked to admissions staff and read the websites of some of the highly regarded programs I was stunned: Many of the case studies described my son. I contacted the one most highly recommended program and arranged his intake.
We went to the high school at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning; the probation officer called early that morning to say the judge had signed the order allowing him to be placed in private treatment. I had taken the day off and we had packed his things after he left for school, put them in the back of the van, and drove a surprised, sullen, and angry Tom for 2-1/2 hours to begin his wilderness program. When we pulled out of the driveway of the treatment center I felt an immense sense of relief. For the first time in months I was not going to worry where he was, what he was doing, and who he was with. He would be safe.
Tom confessed later he entered the program intoxicated. I have to admit, we just didn’t understand how bad it was and I am not sure we ever will know everything that happened. Over the next weeks in the program, Tom slowly began to improve. He responded well to the structured environment of the program. We had weekly conference calls with the therapist and Tom, who became less angry as the weeks passed. Over time he became an active and engaged participant in the program, and seemed proud of his newly found wilderness skills. The staff truly liked him. He stopped talking obsessively about drugs and started to think about the future, particularly about wanting to go to college. Surprisingly he began to realize that he could not go back to his high school and his old friends, and
he agreed to research boarding schools with the staff and other students. Our conversations were not continuous arguments about privileges he wanted restored when he returned, or obsessions about the friends he left behind. The program moved him from a dedicated drug user to someone who wanted to have a future, and when he made mistakes he contemplated the consequences of his actions. I believe the combination of a high staff (“guide”) to participant ratio, the demand for accountability in all aspects of the program (e.g., outlining their own treatment goals, packing their own backpack, doing assigned chores), and the intensive and relentless group and individual therapy were key elements of the program. The staff were excellent and clearly able to connect well to teenagers. As he progressed through the levels of the program, he was able to assume more responsibility, until he told us proudly on his last week that he had planned a “tough expedition” for his team. Tom later told me that he didn’t think a “pure wilderness” program would have worked for him. “I would have just been pissed off that I was in the woods all the time. I needed wilderness and the program at the center,” Tom later told me.
He graduated from the program in six weeks and transitioned into the program’s school and therapy program. Altogether, he was in treatment for three months. There was one interesting occurrence at the end of his stay at the program. He had graduated the program, successfully completed the school year, and was looking forward to coming home. However, his behavior became more and more confrontational, agitated to the point I believed that he was in danger of relapsing at home and losing all of the hard-won progress he made. Reluctantly, I went to pick him up and when I was 15 minutes away, I received a call from the lead clinical therapist—himself quite surprised, indicating Tom wanted to stay another week. It seemed this behavior was attributed in part to his own internal conflicts about being home and using substances. This was a real turning point in Tom’s ability to recognize the magnitude of his dependence on drugs and alcohol. He told me he had an “epiphany” and wanted to stay until he felt more ready to transition home.
At his graduation ceremony I could not believe all the wonderful things his guides, therapists, teachers, and peers said about him. They talked about his sharp sense of humor, his intelligence, and how he was a great leader and a peer they could look up to. Tom spoke of his time at the program and how he felt he had changed, and chose a single parting word to describe his time in the program: “brotherhood.” He chose this because he felt his team were brothers and were always there for each other. I wept not only because he made such amazing progress, but because for the first time in years I was hearing really nice things about the son I love so much. The day he was discharged he came home, and for the first time in two years we spent the afternoon together. We talked and laughed, and at one point over dinner he said how very sorry he was. That wasn’t why
I sent him to treatment, and it wasn’t what I needed to hear—it was the fact that he finally had empathy for those around him. And one more thing that I thought was the most dramatic: when he went into his program, he had $20 which was kept until he was discharged. When we were shopping at Walmart, he picked out a pair of clippers for cutting his hair and asked if he could have them. I said, “sure.” When we got to the counter he gave me the $20 to put toward the purchase without being asked. That he voluntarily gave me $20 and didn’t hide it away to use for drugs was the most small, yet powerful indication that he had started to change.
There are several things I learned from our experiences that I would share with other parents.
First, if you think something is wrong, there is something wrong and it’s probably worse than you think. Follow your instincts and don’t listen to people who give you some version of “kids are kids, they outgrow it.” That is true, some kids do. But be honest with yourself and about your child’s problem. Assess if your child’s behavior is a phase or if your child needs help to quit. No matter how much of a problem your child has with addiction or other issues, no expert knows your child better than you do. Don’t let things continue because your kid has convinced you that you are “crazy” or “irrational.” At the height of his substance abuse, these were Tom’s favorite words for me. Address each and every thing when it happens, no matter how exhausted it makes you.
Second is use your connections. Get to know other parents, teachers, and community members and talk to them. Ask people to share any suspicions and be open to hearing negative “rumors” about your child and his or her friends. We caught Tom skipping school to get high one day because a neighbor happened to be home and saw him walking up the street with a friend he knew used drugs. He texted me immediately, and Tom was caught within 25 minutes of leaving school (the school did not yet know he was gone).
Third, if you allow your child to use Facebook, require that you are their “friend.” Many children leave their privacy settings on low, and you’ll learn a lot about what your child and his or her peers are doing in their spare time. Information is power, even if it is painful.
Fourth, do not wait to act or think it will get better. It won’t. One reason I believe that Tom was able to make these changes, or that the treatment “worked,” is because he was so young and we caught his problem relatively early. Many parents wait until the child is in their late teens when the family is finally so desperate there is no other conceivable option. That’s more years of using, which makes it much harder to quit.
Fifth, think hard about what kind of program might work for your child. Conduct extensive research, get referrals, and ask to talk to other parents who had a child go through the program. Take this very seriously. These programs are exceedingly expensive, often not covered by insurance. You want it to be the right fit for your child and your family. After careful research, I chose wilderness not because it would be tough or make my child “think twice about the comforts he has,” but because my son is a physical, athletic child who I knew could be successful in wilderness. In my opinion, he needed success to start to feel good about himself and begin to work on his addiction issues.
Sixth, and the most difficult thing I would say: You cannot put your child through treatment and then put
them back in the same community or school with the same friends and expect different results. I do know two other parents who did so, paying for expensive wilderness treatment with dramatic results, only to see the changes erode almost immediately when the child returned to their old crowd. As the secretary of my son’s school told me, “He can’t come back here, the other kids really just wait for them to get out of treatment.” In many ways, having my son attend boarding school is the only option for him—our family can’t move to a different community, although it breaks my heart to have him live away from us. But I would rather have him sober and away from home than being at risk of making life- altering choices which threaten his future.
Tom is only 15 and I know we are far from “out of the woods.” The parties, the pressure, and the lure of drugs and alcohol will be everywhere around him. But I know we won’t ever go where we were before. Under his own initiative, Tom selected and enrolled in a private boarding school this coming fall and wears his new school shirt with pride. We took a family vacation to visit prospective colleges for his sister and it was actually fun! These everyday things, these simple pleasures are hard won and I intend to enjoy each single day with my son and my family.