Recently I gave a presentation at the high school I graduated from twelve years ago. Even though I speak at the middle school that I attended on a fairly regular basis, this was my first time in the high school that I went through.
I found myself really reflecting on my time in high school and what a challenging time it was for me. As I looked up into the audience, I remembered sitting in the furthest seat I possibly could at assemblies, especially ones about drugs and alcohol. I had already been smoking cigarettes and weed since I was a freshman. By sophomore year, I was on a literal quest to lose my virginity and when I say lose it, I mean lose it like a bad habit.
It was a burden, it was a heavy weight around my self image and it just had to go as soon as possible.
It was like that with every “milestone” of deviance, every piece of myself that I gave away because I wanted to have every experience that would make me more of an adult. I wanted to have agency. I wanted to make choices. I didn’t want to be saddled with responsibility and obligation and to be told to “act like an adult” while simultaneously being treated like a child. I didn’t want to pay for an adult movie ticket but not be allowed to see an R rated movie. I didn’t want to bear the burden of adulthood without any of the cash and prizes that I believed made adulthood worth the hard parts. And for me, cash and prizes came in any substance or behavior that my parents and teachers wouldn’t want me to indulge in. I did a lot of things simply because I was told not to.
I wanted to rebel but also to fit in with other rebellious people. That’s the irony of the whole thing. I was trying so hard to break the molds, to define myself as “other” while simultaneously seeking approval from anybody who I thought was cooler than I was. I wanted to use drugs and alcohol at a pace so aggressive that the toughest guys and oldest people in our group would think I was better, harder, tougher, whatever. I struggled with my grades and I felt like I was stupid, like I was inadequate, like I was less than, based on those little letters on that dreaded maroon piece of paper. I wanted to feel like I was good at SOMETHING. So, I became good at being bad.
I think of these kids, so many of them coming from “good homes” who are just caving under the pressure and expectations. So many of them, even those who excel academically or athletically, are just burdened to the point of breaking. I remember kids in the top twenty five percent of my class literally hyperventilating and having panic attacks that required medical attention because they were so worried about getting into the “right” college. They were worried about making the team, about getting the scholarships and the grades, and many of them working while managing all of this pressure. Whether it comes from parents, teachers, or is self imposed, it’s there and it’s mounting. It’s getting worse as the expectations get higher, as parents become more hypervigilant, each generation adding pressure to what was put on them until the whole thing just goes up in flames.
The opioid epidemic is the smoke you can see from the distance, but for many of these kids and young adults, the source of the fire goes much deeper.
We don’t become addicted to drugs because everything is going great and we’re just thrilled to be alive and feel like ruining our lives just for the fun of it. We use drugs because something is wrong. Something is festering, something is happening long before we start self medicating and become drug addicts.
When the kids started coming down from the audience and waited in line to speak with me, I was instantly transported back to my high school days. I was dealing with tough stuff as a kid, and my parents had no idea what was really going on. They didn’t know the depths of my struggles, they didn’t recognize how hard life was for me, and even though my mom tried her hardest to be open and available, I was afraid to tell the truth about what I was going through.
Almost every kid I talk to tells me the same thing: I’m afraid to tell my parents.
They’re afraid to get in trouble. Afraid to have whatever privileges they have taken from them. If they admit they have a problem with drugs, they’re likely to get locked in the house and isolated from their friends. If they admit they’re having sex, they’ll never get time alone with their significant other. If they admit they’re gay, that will be the end of sleep overs and slumber parties. The fear of the consequence is what keeps these kids from coming clean the vast majority of the time.
Compounding the fear of repercussion is the fear of disappointment. Especially for kids who outwardly appear as “good kids”, it’s even more challenging for them to speak up and ask for help. Or, their issues aren’t taken seriously because they present as “normal” and parents assume it’s just a phase or a kid being dramatic or wanting attention.
I wanted attention, but I also NEEDED help. I didn’t know where to get it or how to go about it. I was in therapy, where I lied regularly because I was afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. I didn’t believe that my therapist wouldn’t tell my mom what we talked about. I also didn’t want my therapist to think less of me, believe it or not, and that’s a real fear that develops with people who have a close connection to their mental health provider. They can become like a surrogate parent, and now we have another adult who we don’t want to disappoint.
I’m not a parent and have no plans to ever become one, so I hate to give parenting advice or act like I have any idea what it’s like to raise children. That said, I’ve sat in treatment for a good portion of my adult life, be it mental health or substance abuse focused, and the themes often repeat themselves. The issues stemming from family dynamics and the expectations put on us by our parents are present in almost every group therapy session I’ve ever been in. It’s not unique to father/daughter dynamics, either. It is a universal issue experienced by anyone who has parents.
I don’t have the answers to how to parent kids today. I don’t have the solutions to these complex problems. What I do have is the first hand experience of going through these tough times as a teenager, and I have the trust of these young adults that they are afraid to give to those closest to them, those who can actually help them, their parents.
I want to encourage parents to be open, and be available. Punishment is not the solution to any known mental health condition, including substance abuse disorder. If your kid needs help, get them help. If you address the root of the problem, address the actual fire itself rather than the smoke you can see from your perspective, you’re much more likely to keep those flames at bay.
Also, please remember that success is not exclusively defined by grades and college acceptance letters and scholarships. There is an entire world outside of academics and athletics. Your kid is good at something, and it’s your job to help them figure out what that is, rather than reminding them of all of the things they aren’t so good at.
That is the message these kids asked me to deliver to you this past week.
I hope you hear it.
©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin