Making Sense of Signals

How do we know that another person is parenting a young addict? What signals do we give? Midwestern Mama explores the subtle ways we communicate and the important connections we make when we share that we know addiction.

Confession: As a high school student in the early ‘80s, I tried marijuana. It’s entirely possible but I may be the only person on earth to say I did not like it in the least. I actually tried to like it, but after a couple months of trying I gave it up declaring it just wasn’t for me.

That’s not say I didn’t continue to hang around high school friends who used marijuana regularly. It’s also not so say that I didn’t engage in some teenage and college drinking; for whatever reason, my “experimentation” was just that and it didn’t manifest as addiction in any sense.

Decades later, with a high school kid of my own, experimentation with drugs and alcohol went in a vastly different direction. My teenager became an addict almost immediately, and I gained a whole new understanding of substance use … addiction … mental health … treatment … relapse … recovery, and a whole lot more in between.

As much as I have learned, there remains so much I do not know – in general as well as specific to my son’s experience. Most of the unknowns I have accepted. The past is the past. I do, however, have curiosity and I have to remind myself whether that knowledge has any great purpose. I also realize, that the missing pieces may reveal themselves at some point in the future, if my son chooses to share and if it’s meant to be.

Even still, I have questions. For example, even for the extent to which I experienced drugs, personally and vicariously through my son, one thing I never figured out is the communication style that drug users use. How do they determine if someone else is a user? How do they find out if someone has something to share or sell? What is the language and what are the signals that that they use?

I may never know these things and I’m OK with that. It’s interesting, but not particularly useful. Save for sharing knowledge with other parents and as my son continues in recovery, I hope I never need to know the language or signals.

It occurs to me, however, that parents of young addicts also develop a language and set of signals.

Just the other day, I met a former colleague for coffee. As we caught up on careers, she mentioned that her 17-year-old son had given them some “challenges” the past few years. That’s an ambiguous statement. It doesn’t specify anything yet neither does it invite nor discourage any follow-up questions – unless you are a completely nosy person or a parent who has experienced your own ambiguous “challenges.” Instead, the ambiguity either goes without notice or it hangs there waiting to see if the other parent will pick up on something.

Acknowledging that we’d had challenges with our son in recent years, I gently asked if she cared to share what kind of challenges.

Quietly but without hesitation, she said, “Addiction.”

And, without hesitation, I said, “Oh my goodness, my son, too,” adding – to give her hope, “he’s now one year sober.”

You can imagine the rest of the conversation as we shared our experiences. It was refreshing to connect with another parent who understood what it’s like to have a young addict in the family. We listened to each others stories, empathized and validated feelings, and we exchanged ideas on what had worked and what hadn’t. All of a sudden, we had a new appreciation for each other and a renewed sense of our parenting roles not to mention additional hope and belief in the possibility of recovery for our sons.

What’s interesting about this scenario is that it is increasingly common. It seems I’m having this conversation more and more often. A part of me is glad that we are talking about our kids’ addiction and connecting rather than going it alone. At the same time, a part of me is sad that there is a seemingly rising number of families dealing with young adults substance use – too many kids are using and becoming addicted.

It got me wondering about what is the language and what are the signals that someone is parenting a young addict? I always used the phrase, “our son is taking a detour right now.” This was a nice way of saying, he was not doing what other kids his age were doing ,i.e., he’s not in college, he’s homeless, he’s addicted to drugs including heroin, he lies and steals, he sells his plasma to get money for food and drugs.

Yuck, who wants to say those things even if they are true? Instead, we test the waters with a catch phrase. Some people don’t pick up on the ambiguity and the conversation proceeds without addressing it. Other people do pick up on it, and it’s an opportunity for them to choose whether to engage.

The language and signals may be invisible to most people, but to parents who have been there or are still there with their kids, these are an opportunity to connect.

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