Most columns generate a modest response, but some strike a chord. That’s how it was with one published in August about my granddaughter the honor student — and drug addict.
The column detailed her years of Oxycontin addiction, stealing to support her habit, jail time and, ultimately, the glorious day that she graduated from Ada County Drug Court. She’s been drug-free since and — knock on wood — has her life back.
Few of my columns have had a greater response, much of it from recovering addicts or their family members. Many of the responses reiterated the August column’s point that addiction knows no boundaries. It’s a genetic disease striking families of every socioeconomic background.
John (last name withheld) wrote to say that his son, “a high school honor student, valedictorian, captain of three sports, college graduate and business owner — got hooked on opiates,” and was awaiting sentencing. “Despite cautioning my children that all four of their grandparents were addicted to either tobacco, alcohol or both, Oxycontin hijacked his brain during his last year of playing college football. … If it can happen to my son, it can happen to anyone. And statistics show that it does so without regard to gender, ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status.”
Chuck wrote that he and his wife were shocked to the core to learn that their daughter — a wife, mother of two and a respected professional — was addicted to meth and alcohol. A career military pilot, he added that he could “not begin to tell you how many times I preached no drug use in this family. Don’t even think about it.”
An Oregon reader shared a story of parental heartache caused by his young nephew, a heroin addict: “He got there through Oxycontin after a sports injury. … Heroin and opiates are a huge national problem in every socioeconomic rung.”
The stories, many of them heartbreaking, had a common theme of addiction at an early age and a system that too often fails to address the underlying problem of addiction as a disease. Some excerpts:
▪ “As a grandmother, I am dealing with this disease hitting the third-generation victim, my 23-year-old grandson.”
▪ “The disease is always in control, and you would sell your soul to keep it that way.”
▪ “My daughter is dealing with drug problems with her 16-year-old son, and it is heartbreaking for her and all the family who love him so much.”
▪ “I am a 42-year-old woman who became addicted to prescription opiates at age 17. I’ve been in recovery for three years.”
▪ “The real tragedy is that with few exceptions, our legislature, judiciary and law enforcement still see addicts as moral failures that need to be punished instead of treated. … We continue to lock them up at great expense to taxpayers and with no end in sight.”
Ginny Gobel wrote about her experience with her teenage son, which led to her ongoing role as an activist working to help other families and correct misconceptions about addiction and the stereotypes associated with it.
Gobel’s son started using marijuana at 14 and went from there to other drugs. He’d been popular and a good student with wholesome interests — pets, soccer, skiing, diving (he dove the Great Barrier Reef at 11) — but lost interest in them and became, in his mother’s words, “dark, secretive and nasty.”
Unable to find adequate services for him in Boise, she and her husband sent him to a therapeutic boarding school in another state. It helped a lot, but returning to Boise was problematic for a 15-year-old in recovery.
“Just when he started making new friends, his old friends started seeking him out and he started using again. Drugs robbed him and us of his high school years.”
Her son is grown now, lives in another state and is doing “all right,” she said. “But he knows what his life could have been without drugs. He’d have played sports and gone to college. … Drugs derailed those dreams, at least for now.”
These days Gobel devotes much of her time helping others deal with drug-related problems. She started a blog, www.blindersoff.org, on drug-use awareness for parents of adolescents. Boise High School is using it with positive results.
How widespread is drug use among teens? The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that one in four have used an illegal drug by the time they graduate from high school.
Is yours one of them? Red flags, Gobel says, include lying, irritability and changes in interests, sleep patterns, friends, health and acceptance of responsibility. If grades are plummeting and responsibilities at home are being neglected, you have reason to be concerned.
Help is available. Gobel’s blog has useful information, as does Dr. Ruth Potee’s video “Addiction is a Brain Disease.”
If you’d prefer a book, Gobel recommends “What’s Wrong with My Kid: When Drugs or Alcohol Might Be a Problem and What to Do about It,” by George E. Leary Jr. Help also is available from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Behavioral Health Services and from private treatment centers.
Idaho is making some progress on treating addiction as a disease rather than a failure of morals or willpower. Boise is training police officers to deal more sensitively with the mentally impaired. Idaho will soon be the first Western state to have a chapter of Learn to Cope, a peer group for parents. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is supporting sentencing reform for non-violent offenders, many of them suffering with untreated substance-use disorder, and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is on record as supporting the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.
Much more remains to be done, however. Idaho has one of the country’s highest rates of opiate abuse among teens. One in five Idaho teenagers have taken a prescription drug belonging to someone else, usually a relative. We rank 21st among the states in deaths from opiate overdose.
We have a long way to go in fighting a disease that’s erasing the promise and threatening the lives of too many of our young people.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.