Psychology of addiction in the family

by Clay Neely

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When addiction comes home to roost, parents inevitably find themselves asking the same question – how did this happen? 


Editor’s note: This is the third in a Sunday series on the spread of drug addiction, including prescription pills, heroin and other opiates in Coweta County. The series takes a look at drug use, treatment programs – or the lack thereof – as well as what law enforcement, the medical community and the judicial branch are facing. 

When addiction comes home to roost, parents inevitably find themselves asking the same question – how did this happen?

Because the psychology behind drug addiction is complex, there are no simple answers. From those who have lost the fight against peer pressure to those who are self-medicating an underlying problem, teens travel different routes that lead to the same destination.

Natasha Ryles has spent countless hours talking to teenagers who are undergoing drug rehabilitation at Willowbrooke at Tanner, a facility in Carroll County. As the director of nursing, she acknowledged teenagers today are not far removed from those in the past.

“When we talk about the growing number of teenagers using hard drugs, it all comes back to that initial willingness to take an unknown substance from a stranger or so-called friend,” Ryles said. “Smoke this, drink this – they don’t ask questions. They just want to fit in.”

In Ryles’ adolescent unit, she has spent time talking to many teenage patients who were given something and didn’t bother to ask what it was. When asked why they would ingest a substance from someone they barely know, their response was, “I thought it would be fun.”

“These kids simply aren’t aware of the end result – they just do not possess that awareness at this point in their lives,” Ryles said. “It’s always ‘this can’t happen to me,’ because at that age, they feel superhuman. When that feeling is combined with a need for acceptance, it can be very rough.”

Ryles also agrees that the rise of heroin abuse in suburban communities is a byproduct of the efforts by authorities to crack down on prescription pills. While law enforcement, emergency rooms and doctors are cracking down on the problem of prescription drug abuse, the availability, price and supply of heroin is the most common substitute.

“When you’re taking unknown substances from people you barely know, you also have no idea how much you’ve taken,” Ryles said. “If you’re overdosing, the people who have given you the drugs certainly don’t want to be involved – so they leave.”

For many rehabilitation specialists, the story is a familiar one. A teenager may start with alcohol and marijuana, but soon their entire social world becomes oriented toward drug use.

“It comes back to tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” she said. “If you see the progression of addiction, you will see their social group change. When they get to be 18 and have autonomy and independence, if they don’t break away from their social group, it’s almost impossible to break that cycle of addiction.”

Unfortunately, many parents’ understanding of how rehabilitation works is flawed, according to Wayne Senfeld, administrator at Willowbrooke. From his observations, many parents of addicts are just as ignorant of the disease as their children.

“Parents need to go into this process knowing that they could be facing a lifelong struggle,” Senfeld said. “It’s a naivety to believe that once their child goes into a hospital, they will be ‘fixed.’ Unfortunately, we’re not going to fix them the first time, and we might not fix them the 15th time. In fact, they don’t get fixed – it’s learning to live and manage their addiction on a daily basis.”

With the recently passed state Amnesty Bill along with the availability of Narcan, the drug used to counter the effects of opioid overdose, Senfeld feels that bringing awareness to both parents and the general public is the best weapon in the ongoing process of facing down the reality of drug abuse in the community.

But if parents aren’t listening to the dialogue, it’s a campaign falling on deaf ears.

“Parents are very naive about their child’s drug abuse. They ignore the gravity of what they’re both up against,” Senfeld said. “Kids will tell their parents that it’s their first time. But the reality is, kids get caught doing drugs the same way we get caught speeding on the highway. It’s never the first time.”

And because of the parents’ willingness to believe, the child is often given the benefit of the doubt – thus prolonging treatment and exacerbating the problem. But for the parents who accept the problem head-on, Senfeld believes the road to recovery will be a far more fluid and successful one.

“The longer you deny the problem, the worse it gets,” he said. “This problem doesn’t fix itself. Parents need to have their [Narcan] kit and be ready.”

The good news for both parents and teens is that help does exist in their community. For those who are willing to accept the reality of addiction and are prepared to rebuild their lives, the future can be a promising one.



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