Normal Teen-Age Behavior or Could it be Mental Health and Substance Abuse? One Mom’s Observations

Over the weekend, Mid Atlantic Mom (MAM) and I had a long overdue phone conversation.  Although we’ve never met face to face, we are quite close and we always amaze each other with parallel thinking on trending topics such as her post on mental health relative to suicide and substance abuse.

With my son in recovery, my attention is less geared toward the day-to-day things he’s doing as I’m letting go and letting him live his life.  Instead, my thoughts are divided between future and past.  I think about his future possibilities as he contemplates returning to college.  Similarly, I’m remembering the genesis of his drug use in high school and our concern about his mental health.

Our first inclination that something was going on had to do with changes we observed in our son’s behavior.  He was sleeping a lot, was irritable.  He had less and less interest in family and was gone more and more – often anywhere but where he said he was.  He would wake up in the night and go downstairs to play computer or video games, to talk with friends on Facebook.

In many ways, these seemed like normal teenage behavior.  Other parents said their kids did the same types of things.  But we knew it was something more.  Even he knew something wasn’t quite right but in his immaturity, he expressed outrage.

Finally we decided it was time for a visit to the doctor.  We wondered what was going on.  His physical health was fine.  The doctor didn’t screen for drugs or do a urine analysis.  We were surprised and asked if that might be a good idea.  The doctor simply said, “He’s a good kid.  It’s tough being a teen these days.  Maybe consider some family counseling.”

During family counseling, our charming and intelligent son said things were fine and claimed he didn’t use drugs.  The counselor didn’t really think he was depressed either, just going through teen-age-itis.  It was very frustrating because we knew in our gut something wasn’t right and felt the professionals were too cautious with their way-and-see attitudes

In time we discovered that our son was doing drugs, primarily pot.  A lot of pot.  Like getting high multiple times a day, every day.  Spending hundreds and then thousands of dollars.  That’s when we started testing him (Wal-green’s pee test – about $19 – well worth it, fast and accurate).  FYI: Marijuana stays in the system for 30 days or longer, while other drugs may only be present for a few days.

And in later years, he learned that he was depressed and having anxiety.  Pot was self-medicating, or so he thought, and so were opiates like Heroin and Oxycontin.

I’m taking a long time to get at a list of signs, but here’s a start of what we saw.  Please add to it with your experience.  In doing so, we can offer other parents and caring adults some valuable ideas and things to consider as young-adult addiction is often masked in adolescent behavior.

  • Changes in sleep patterns – more sleep, less sleep, interrupted sleep
  • Changes in friends – always hanging with different people
  • Changes in plans – never where he says he’s going to be, always has an excuse
  • Mileage on the car – more miles than it should be for where he said he was going
  • Fast-food receipts – for places outside of the neighborhood, at times he should have been at school or sports practice, in the middle of the night when spending the night at a friends
  • Lighters even though he didn’t smoke cigarettes (at the time)
  • Visine – to cover up red eyes
  • Cologne – to mask smells
  • Fabreeze – to mask smells
  • Dryer sheets – to smoke through
  • Tin foil – to smoke heroin (small rectangular pieces with burned black splotches on it)
  • Paper clips, unfolded with black tar on the end – to clean pipes
  • Broken ball-point pens – just the hollow tube for snorting
  • Punch cards for a local “head shop” where he bought rolling papers and other paraphernalia
  • Diminishing bank balances
  • Incorrect change when we gave him money e.g., $20 for a $12 purchase with only $5 in change
  • Leaving early and coming home late from work

For many of these there could be an explanation and our ace debater could talk us in circles to protect himself and guilt us about accusing him of something.  Such is the back and forth of a young adult user and his parents.

If you are concerned, even a tiny bit, act.  Act now.  Don’t wait.  Don’t worry about offending your kid.  Don’t worry about looking silly with professionals.  It’s so much easier to halt the disasters that mental illness and drug abuse bring by addressing it as early as possible.  We were never in denial, but always counseled to not be so quick to jump to conclusions.  In hind sight, I wish we’d pursued this even more vigilantly -especially before he turned 18, because that’s a turning point that changes the parental role forever.

Go forth and be strong, parents.  We believe in you and your young addicts.  There is a better life ahead.

Midwestern Mama

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