Note to readers: This continuing series of op-ed and parenting columns addresses matters related to what is taking place in the Catskills. Should you have any parenting questions on these topics, or if you would like me to address a specific aspect of raising at-risk teens, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You see a small plastic bottle of Visine or other brands of eye drops in the room of your teen son or daughter. He/she seems to have lingering colds and reddish eyes. You must have misplaced some cash in the house (several times, in fact) over the past few months. Your adolescent son or daughter begs off family simchahs, and his/her last report card was a disaster. Obviously, any one or two of these factors could be completely harmless. But in the aggregate, they are often signs of impending substance abuse issues. Parents of at-risk adolescents need to become more knowledgeable about these symptoms.
Your parents didn’t know any of this? You are offended at the notion that you need to think in these terms? Deal with it, as the kids would say. But become a knowledgeable and hands-on parent, as it is by far your best shot at guiding your at-risk child through this stormy phase in his/her life. Your involvement in your child’s life is perhaps the greatest predetermining factor as to your child riding out the storm and getting back on track to a productive future.
What are some of the symptoms of kids addicted to drugs? I asked Dr. Benzion Twerski, an outstanding mental health professional specializing in substance abuse treatment, to prepare a list of symptoms. Here are the symptoms he suggested parents should look for:
While other factors can cause many of these symptoms, these are behaviors and activities typical of individuals who are substance abusers:
• Sudden changes in mood, attitudes, or vocabulary – impulsive behavior.
• Sudden and continuing decline in attendance or performance at work or in school.
• Sudden and continuing resistance to discipline at home or in school.
• Impaired relationships with family members or friends.
• Unusual flares of temper.
• Increased amount and frequency of borrowing money from family and friends.
• Stealing from the home, at school, or in the workplace.
• Denial of having a drug problem.
• Heightened secrecy about actions and possessions.
• Association with a new group of friends, especially with those who use drugs or exhibit similar lifestyles.
• Having physical symptoms of drug abuse – such as red eyes, dilated pupils, constricted pupils, sleepiness, chronic runny nose, scars, or needle marks.
• Keeping long hours away from home, especially at night and on weekends.
• Neglecting personal health, and unexplained medical symptoms – such as weight loss and pallor.
• Sudden and continuing change in appearance and manner of dress, especially when contrasting to family patterns.
• Experiencing trouble in the handling of responsibilities.
So what now?
If you are starting to connect the dots, and feel that you may have signs of potential substance abuse with your teenager, it is important for you to proceed slowly and with much reflection. Please don’t overreact or impulsively attempt to “get your child back on track.” The circumstances that created this situation did not occur overnight, nor will they magically disappear. Seek professional guidance as to the steps you should take, and the pace in which you should take them.
I strongly believe that any teenager who is addicted to drugs is a choleh sheyesh bosakanah (one who has a potentially life-threatening illness). A child like this needs a professional drug rehabilitation center, not a yeshiva. You would not consider removing a stage-four cancer patient (G-d forbid) from a hospital in order to send him to a yeshiva. To quote Dr. Twerski, “Alcohol and drug abuse is a disease. It is a fatal illness that begins with casual or experimental use of a chemical for its mind-altering effects. It rapidly becomes an addiction, which involves loss of control over the substance or behavior, and eventually leads to self-destructiveness.”
It is important to understand that drug use also follows a continuum, from experimentation to regular use to dependency and addiction. Not everyone who smokes marijuana is a hard-core addict. But if your child is addicted to drugs, please seek professional help immediately. And seek the help of people who are trained specifically in the field of substance abuse addiction. A rabbi has a crucial and significant role in assisting an addicted child or adult. He can offer moral support, spiritual guidance, and answer any halachic questions that will inevitably arise as a result of the treatment of the addiction. Rabbis (this writer included), however, and yeshivas are not professionally equipped to deal with or heal people who are addicts. If you are not sure if your child falls into the category of a hard-core user, please go to a trained professional for his or her advice.
The YATZKAN Center, founded by Debbie Jonas, recently relocated to Brooklyn, NY under the auspices of FEGS. They offer inpatient and outpatient treatment for addicted teens – with a fully kosher program. Their clinical director, Lew Abrams, LCSW, CASAC, is highly trained in the arena of treating drug addiction. I am familiar with their work, and highly recommend their services for teens and adults who have addiction problems.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, if your child is addicted to drugs, this is a life-or-death matter. Too many of our precious children have died of drug overdoses for you to worry about what the neighbors will think or just hope things will improve. If you even suspect that your child has a substance abuse problem, please contact YATZKAN immediately and find out what you can do to save his/her life – before it’s too late!