Today marks the second anniversary of my teenage son Henry’s death. My boy died after fighting for his life for five weeks in two hospitals, but he ultimately succumbed to complications of the brain injury caused by drug overdose.
Since Henry’s death, people often ask me what advice I have for parents – advice that might save their own children from drug addiction and its deadly consequences. I can tell you that there are SO MANY THINGS I did wrong, and would do totally differently if I could get a mothering do-over.
But I don’t get a do-over. And I never get to make right what I got wrong.
Someday, when I feel ready, I will share in detail all the ways I wish I’d parented my son differently, and explain the mistakes I think I made along the way – mistakes that prevented me from protecting him well enough from falling into the terrorizing grip of drug addiction, a threat to our children far more real and likely and lurking than any creepy stranger we’ve worried so much about.
But I’m not yet ready to write those words for public consumption. Especially not today.
But what I would like to share with other parents today is something I wrote 5 days before Henry died, while he was still in the hospital, battling for life. It’s a blog post in which I offered what I knew then and still believe two years later to be the MOST fundamental thing I did wrong, which was to not take his early experimentation seriously enough.
If I could give parents one single piece of painfully learned wisdom from my own parenting failures, it’s this; TAKE ANY TEENAGE DRUG USE AS SERIOUSLY AS IF YOU HAD JUST LEARNED THAT YOUR CHILD HAS VERY EARLY STAGE CANCER. Do not dismiss it just because you know plenty of people who smoked pot in high school and didn’t become addicted to pain pills or die of drug overdoses. That’s like saying you don’t care if your teenager is driving around without a seat belt because you never wore a seat belt back in high school, and you’re still alive.
Kids who start smoking pot or drinking or experimenting with other mind-altering substances in high school are many times more likely to become addicts. If your child has the genes for drug addiction – as mine clearly did (and unfortunately, there’s no way whatsoever to know this unless and until it happens) – triggering that genetic “on” switch at age 15 with the “input” of whatever it is your child is messing around with creates an incredibly high-risk situation.
Addiction is a deadly, terrible disease, no matter what age the victim is when it ramps up. But when a 16 or 17 year old becomes actively addicted to drugs, you’re dealing not only with the challenges of an insidious, often-fatal, progressive disease process, but you’re dealing with it in an adolescent who doesn’t yet have the judgment or life experiences that can help adult addicts realize when they need help, or why.
Additionally, drug abuse can cause brain damage in anyone of any age, but a teenager’s brain is still very much a physical work in progress. Drugs can cause irreparable harm to a developing adolescent brain, damage that can sometimes never be undone, even if the drugs are stopped.
If you believe or know that your teenager is getting high, TAKE ACTION NOW.
I can promise you that if you don’t do every single possible thing you are able to do to not only get your child intervention and treatment, but just as importantly, in my view, to wield your parental oversight to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to prevent your child from continued access to drugs of abuse now, you will be beating yourself up relentlessly once he or she turns 18 and you have lost all ability to do anything that your now-legal “adult” won’t voluntarily agree to do.
I believe this even more fervently now than I did when I first wrote the following blog post here at Babble on May 26, 2010 – 5 days before Henry left us.
Parenting in the Rearview Mirror
May 26, 2010
The way in which I first became aware that my barely 14-year old son was using drugs wasn’t dramatic, like some tales I’ve heard from other parents. There was no call from the police, no big reveal of a stash hidden in his bedroom. I didn’t walk in on him and his middle school friends passing around a bong.
Instead, it happened one night while I was cleaning the kitchen at 9pm, after a long day spent at work, an evening spent overseeing all three of my kids’ homework assignments, and after his two younger siblings were safely tucked into bed for the night. H came into our small kitchen and stood, watching me scrape dishes into the
trashcan. I looked up and noticed that he appeared stricken, panicked. I asked him what was wrong.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” he started, choking back a sob. “I did something really, really bad, and you’re going to be really mad at me.”
Despite how upset he looked, and what he’d said, I wasn’t immediately alarmed. Henry had a life-long habit of “outing” himself over minor transgressions for which he felt inordinate amounts of guilt. As a preschooler, he would frequently come confess in tears after accidentally tearing a page in a book or doing something similarly inconsequential. In elementary school, he would write me long notes apologizing for having made a poor grade on a spelling quiz or for talking in class that day. I had always tried to reassure him that he didn’t need to carry around such a burden of misplaced guilt and remorse, but the habit still hadn’t completely disappeared as he headed into adolescence. I also wasn’t that worried because although his grades at the parochial school he had attended since first grade had slipped precipitously over the past year, he remained a polite, generally well-behaved, friendly kid with plenty of nice friends and a strong connection to his family. Given all of this, how bad could what he had to tell me really be? Still, I stopped what I was doing and asked him what it was, assuring him that I was certain it wasn’t something about which I would be angry.
Looking back, I realize that the words that next came out of his mouth marked the watershed moment in my life as a parent, and in our family’s life. There was life before the words were uttered, and then there has been life since that time. But I had no idea that this was the case, as I casually leaned against the kitchen counter, listening as well as I could, given how tired I was at the end of a long day.
“Mom, I smoked pot.”
I stared at him, not understanding clearly what he’d just said.
“What? What do you mean?”
He burst into tears and repeated himself.
“I smoked pot. I only tried it twice and I didn’t really
like it. But I did it and I know it was wrong and I know you’re going to be really, really mad at me. I’m so sorry.”
Tears were streaming down his face as we stood facing each other.
My heart began racing and I felt like I was going to pass out. A million thoughts collided in my brain at the same instant. How could this be true? When and where could this have happened? Where would my well-supervised child have gotten marijuana? How was he old enough to smoke anything, much less pot? After all, this was a kid who still liked playing legos and climbing trees in the backyard with his 8 year old little brother. What was I going to do?
I tried to stay calm as I suggested to him that we go sit on the front porch of our small house to continue the conversation. We settled side by side on the stone front steps, with my still-weeping son leaning into my shoulder. I tried to ask him for details, but he wouldn’t give me any, saying that he didn’t want to get any other kids in trouble. However, he continued to swear over and over that it had been an isolated mistake, a terrible error in judgment for which he felt huge remorse. He promised me repeatedly that he would never touch the stuff – or any other drug – ever again.
Instead of feeling angry or upset with Henry, I found myself feeling empathetic and sorry for him, as he continued sobbing and offering up his repeated mea culpa. Surely, I thought to myself, no kid who obviously feels THIS bad about experimenting with marijuana a time or two can be in real trouble. And how about the way he had actually come to me to me on his own to tell me about it? As I desperately grasped at something, anything to make myself feel less terrified by what he’d just told me, I found myself naively reassured by the fact that he had come to me to volunteer the information. Certainly this had to mean something, right? It meant that his remorse was genuine, and that I was a good enough parent, a parent with whom he wanted to communicate honestly about this important topic. It meant that he didn’t have a “problem” or even the beginnings of a problem. This was just an isolated mistake, right?
I put my arms around him and assured him that it
would be okay. I thanked him for coming to me and telling me the truth. I explained that we all make mistakes, and that he was very wise to realize what a big mistake this had been. He solemnly vowed one final time that he would never, ever smoke pot again. I told him we would talk more about it the next day, after I’d conferred with his father.
And as we both walked away from the conversation that night, I believed him. I totally, completely believed him. In fact, I actually felt reassured by what I perceived to be his forthrightness and I felt like I’d handled it pretty well. I mentally patted myself on the back for being so close to my son. In fact, however, I had just taken the first step down a road of actively enabling what would become the next four years of my beautiful, brilliant, beloved firstborn child’s ongoing efforts to inadvertently kill himself via drug abuse, one day at a time. This would be just the first of many, many times over the coming years when my own denial and willingness to believe what I wanted to believe instead of what was right in front of my face allowed my child to continue to slip away.
But that night, when I went to bed, after kissing him goodnight in the top bunk in the toy-strewn bedroom he shared with his little brother, I had no idea what had just happened, or what it meant for him, for me or for our family.
Four years later, as I write these words with my high school senior fighting for his life in the hospital after a drug related brain injury, what would I have done differently after that first admission that he was smoking pot? In the most general sense, I would have taken it a hell of a lot more seriously. I would have assumed that any time
a 14 year old is experimenting with drugs, we are looking at a potentially serious problem that needs proactive, immediate and ongoing intervention. I am not saying that every 14 year old smoking pot is a drug addict or will become a drug addict, but NO 14 year old needs to be using drugs. Period. And if a kid that age is using at all, in any amount, there needs to be some serious information gathering beyond just what the kid is willing to tell you. Trust, but verify, verify, verify. Err on the side of over-caution. Consider starting family therapy with your child, enroll him in a good drug education program, and definitely up the level of your adult supervision. Even if you are already watching your child and his friends pretty closely, start watching him MORE closely. Don’t assume that you know the whole story because you probably don’t. That’s my opinion now. Others may disagree.- Katie
My child, Henry Louis Granju died on May 31, 2010.