From an outsider’s perspective, they were the picture perfect family.
A long lasting marriage, three children and a beautiful home in an established Charlotte neighborhood. But behind the closed door of the eldest son’s bedroom was a struggle not even the most caring parent could immediately identify.
At just 17 years old, *Johnathan (whose name has been changed in order to remain anonymous) was quietly nursing a drug and alcohol addiction.
“It’s very prevalent… people just don’t talk about it,” Johnathan’s mother said. “I found that when I started sharing my story, others would start sharing theirs.”
It’s a story that is not easy nor comfortable for those close to it to tell. Finding a child unconscious, face down, seemingly dead on the floor is a moment no parent could forget or easily muster the courage to share publicly. But this family has done just that.
And as Johnathan takes his first steps out of rehab and into that of a full time college student, he and his family are sharing their experience in hopes of helping others.
The adjustment from middle school to high school was a difficult one for Johnathan. Whether or not he wanted it to be, high school was a blank slate. Johnathan began the remaining four years of his general education at a different high school than the friends he made in middle school.
“It was definitely scary,” Johnathan said.
Academics came easy to Johnathan. Despite the challenges he encountered with addiction, he seemed to breeze through high school with good grades. Yet, this was a double edge sword. His straight A report card and involvement in school clubs and sports led his parents to believe that Johnathan was doing well for a teenager.
“School is pretty simple, if you do what you’re supposed to do you’ll get A’s,” Johnathan said. “The friends I did make they talked about [smoking weed and drinking] at lunch and I wanted to try it.”
At age 14, Johnathan decided to try alcohol for the first time by himself so “nothing bad would happen… which it did.” He took hard liquor from his parent’s cabinet and drank alone in his room.
Johnathan’s mother, Alicia said there were some signs but she wasn’t fully aware there was a problem until she found him passed out in his room.
“I just drank way too much, got sick and blacked out,” Johnathan recalled.
“I thought he was dead when I found him,” Alicia said. “He was passed out cold. I could not revive him, I threw water on him and everything but I could not revive him.”
Alicia said the experience of finding her son without a pulse was traumatizing. Luckily, emergency services were at their home in a matter of minutes and were able to awaken Johnathan. However, the incident was also traumatizing to Alicia and her husband due to the realization that their son was going through substance abuse… right inside their own home.
“I would say one of the reasons I’m telling this story is if I were to tell other parents anything it would be don’t assume it’s okay to have alcohol in the house,” Alicia said. “My husband and I don’t even drink hard liquor but we had it in the cabinet for parties and when people come over… we just never thought anything of it.”
“These things happened at home which was doubly shocking because I always thought when you had drug problems, kids are reckless, they get into trouble outside the home but these things happened at home,” Alicia said.
Johnathan wasn’t drinking to impress his high school classmates, he was experimenting with alcohol and drugs, like ADHD medicine, Xanax and marijuana, because he says he enjoyed the feeling of being intoxicated.
“It just felt different, stress free, I just like the effects of alcohol,” Johnathan said. “Then it went to smoking weed, stealing my brother’s ADHD medicine.”
As the alcohol and drug use became more consistent, so did the aftermath.
“Towards the end I was doing it every day… drinking or smoking weed or something,” Johnathan said. “I don’t think my parents knew the extent of what I was doing.”
Johnathan underwent multiple trips to the emergency room where after one trip, a doctor took Johnathan’s parents aside to encourage them to seek help.
“We had a few more, let’s call them ‘episodes,’ where he got in trouble with alcohol and some other drugs, we ended up with a couple trips to the emergency room and it was the last trip to the ER when someone said to me, ‘You really need to get your son into rehab.’”
Alicia kept a journal of signs and Johnathan’s episodes. She said when reading through the entire thing, it was obvious they needed help. But it wasn’t so obvious as the occurrences trickled in over the years.
“My husband and I went to an intake session and they said, ‘Based on what you shared, we’d recommend you bring your son here’ and my husband looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure we should do this?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think we have a choice,’” Alicia said.
While his parents agreed it was time to look into rehab facilities, Johnathan didn’t. He said he did not admit he had a problem until a few months into his rehab treatment.
“I wasn’t okay with it (rehab) at first,” Johnathan said. “I didn’t believe I had a problem. I didn’t think I belonged there. It’s hard to accept you have a problem. I wasn’t physically addicted to anything so that made it harder to accept I had a problem but there was an obsession with drugs and alcohol.”
Johnathan entered treatment at the Dilworth Center for the majority of his senior year of high school. He was an outpatient, meaning he would continue to go to class while attending treatment in the afternoon. During treatment, he was placed with the adolescent group where all attendees are under 22 years old.
“In rehab they really talk to you about your feelings, which is something I’m not used to,” Johnathan said. “I feel like I never would have stopped if I didn’t go to rehab.”
“I remember we thought we were signing him up for this,” Alicia said. “But it’s really a family thing, they make it really clear the parents have to go to group sessions every week just like the child has to go to sessions. That was not easy, I’ve always been one of those kind of proud people who deals with their problems on my own and I remember thinking, ‘I am not going to a group session.’ And it actually ended up being incredibly helpful because you can’t do it alone.”
Today Johnathan is sober. He says he is generally happier and planning on transferring to a different college in the coming year. As for his advice for others his age that are struggling with addiction…
“Addiction, alcohol doesn’t discriminate,” Johnathan said. “It doesn’t matter who you are you can have a problem. If you feel like you can’t stop, definitely get help. If you know people that have gotten sober, ask them for help because they’ll know where to point you to.”
The Dilworth Center is a non-profit alcoholism and drug treatment program that has been operating in Charlotte for 27 years. Recently, the center is seeing a steady increase in demand for their treatments.
“We saw in last year alone a 56% increase in treatment demand over last year,” said Charles Odell the Chief Executive Officer of the Dilworth Center. “That’s 56% more admissions last year than the year before and this year is going to be even busier than that.”
While that number seems staggering, it’s in line with the increase of alcohol and drug abuse nationwide. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), young adults (ages 18 to 25) are the biggest abusers of prescription (Rx) opioid pain relievers, ADHD stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs.
“Rx abuse is dangerous,” the NIDA warns. “In 2014, more than 1,700 young adults died from prescription drug (mainly opioid) overdoses – more than died from overdoses of any other drug – including heroin and cocaine combined – and many more needed emergency treatment.”
“It’s always alarmed me that we’re seeing younger and younger people using, but we’re also seeing larger numbers of people using,” Odell said.
Odell says there’s been a lot of talk of an “opioid epidemic” but he and his peers call it an addiction epidemic. He says the use of substances, along with opioids, is up across the boards.
“We’re seeing more teens drinking, smoking pot and taking pills,” Odell said. “I think these drugs are more available than they’ve ever been, we have more people using them than ever before, and there’s a general view among many teens that marijuana and alcohol are not harmful and there’s nothing wrong with taking them.”
Along with the cost of personal suffering, drug and alcohol addiction is costly to the United States.
“Abuse of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is costly to our Nation, exacting more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care,” the NIDA said.
However, one of the biggest risks with younger people drinking and taking drugs is addiction.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 23.5 million persons aged 12 or older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2009. Of these, only 2.6 million – 11.2 percent of those who needed treatment – received it at a special facility.
The teenage population within that number is a smaller number than the adult population but it’s increasing in proportion with the adult population
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) the following symptoms are associated with alcohol use disorder:
- Temporary blackouts or memory loss
- Recurrent arguments or fights with family members or friends as well as irritability, depression, or mood swings
- Continuing use of alcohol to relax, to cheer up, to sleep, to deal with problems, or to feel “normal”
- Headache, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, or other unpleasant symptoms when one stops drinking
- Flushed skin and broken capillaries on the face; a husky voice; trembling hands; bloody or black/tarry stools or vomiting blood; chronic diarrhea
- Drinking alone, in the mornings, or in secret
Here are the NCADD’s signs of addiction:
- Loss of control: drinking or drugging more than a person wants to, for longer than they intended, or despite them telling themselves that they wouldn’t do it this time
- Neglecting other activities: spending less time on activities that used to be important (hanging out with family, friends, exercising, pursuing hobbies or other interests) because of the use of alcohol or drugs; drop in attendance and performance at work or school
- Risk taking: more likely to take serious risks in order to obtain one’s drug of choice
- Relationship issues: people struggling with addiction are known to act out against those closest to them, particularly if someone is attempting to address their substance problems; complaints from co-workers, supervisors, teachers or classmates.
- Secrecy: going out of one’s way to hide the amount of drugs or alcohol consumed or one’s activities when drinking or drugging; unexplained injuries or accidents
- Changing appearance: serious changes in deterioration in hygiene or physical appearance – lack of showering, slovenly appearance, unclean clothes
- Family history: A family history of addiction can dramatically increase one’s predisposition to substance abuse
- Tolerance: over time, a person’s body adapts to a substance to the point that they need more and more of it in order to have the same reaction
- Withdrawal: As the effect of alcohol or drugs wear off the person may experience symptoms such as anxiety or jumpiness, shakiness or trembling, sweating, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, depression, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches
- Continued use of negative consequences: even though it’s causing problems (on the job, in relationships, for one’s health), a person continues drinking and drugging
“I would tend to want to start talking to my children before they enter middle school,” Odell said. “By the time they get to high school the genie is already out of the bottle… you need to have the talk with them long before then.”
“The good news about treatment is that it works for both adults and adolescents,” Odell said. “The success rates associated with completed treatment hover around 70%, meaning that 70% of the people who successfully complete treatment are clean and sober one year post discharge.”
In short, if it’s properly treated, more people recover from treatment than don’t.
Click here for the NIAA guide on finding and getting help for addiction. Click here for information on the Dilworth Center.