People with mental health disorders are more likely than others to experience an alcohol or substance use disorder. The term “co-occurring mental health and substance use disorder” is used to describe this. Research around co-occurring disorders in young people is limited, but it is estimated that 60 to 75 percent of adolescents who have mental health issues also have substance use issues. Early detection and treatment can improve outcomes and the quality of life for those who need these services and for their loved ones. If you’re concerned about your child and need to talk to someone, reach out for help.
This month, one mother shares her family’s story with mental health and substance use disorders and lessons learned from their journey.
My son was adopted at 2 months old. He would be our only child and we loved him so much. He bonded well with his Dad, me and the rest of the extended family. He was a great child, easy-going and loved everyone. We knew that his birth parents had behavioral health problems, but that didn’t deter us. We thought we could love him through whatever was to come and that’s exactly what we did, even though I couldn’t have imagined what that would come to be. He did have this free-spirit about him that was a little different than what we were used to and caused me much distress in trying to tame it. How awesome that I would eventually come to admire this the most about him.
School was always a challenge for him. There were tutors and extra reading classes, and, oh, the homework. An unbelievable amount of time was spent arguing, sitting at the kitchen table trying to force him to get it done. When it was done, it went into the abyss that was his backpack probably never to be found again.
Every year I went to his teachers to try to explain he would need extra help and was often told, “He is an interesting child.” That meant that he wasn’t really a problem, but he wasn’t a good student either. The school recommended we talk to his pediatrician, so we did some Connor scales [Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scales for assessing ADHD], he was diagnosed and, voilà, he was medicated. This was a choice I felt good about at the time, but would later come to question.
He made the high school soccer team. I was so proud that he committed to getting up at 5:00 am to go to practice before school and you could tell that he was proud too. He was becoming a really good player. But you know how high school can be. He just couldn’t keep up with the grades any longer and by mid-term his GPA dropped below the 2.0 he needed to continue on the team. I begged the school to keep him on the team, to no avail. He wasn’t even allowed to attend the games because it was an extracurricular school activity. This totally ostracized and embarrassed him and he no longer felt worthy of hanging with those kids he’d been around since he was 6 years old. That’s when his teammate’s Mom (who was a teacher) told me, you need to get him a 504. I said, “a 5-0-what?” Why was this the first time I had ever heard of these supports? So began my education in behavioral health.
And still, my son spiraled out-of-control. He experienced depression, drugs, cutting, insomnia, defiant behaviors, missed curfews and involvement with the juvenile justice system. My sweet little boy was now a high school dropout.
I was Googling any information I could find, looking desperately for someone to just tell me what was wrong so we could fix it. That’s when I found Maryland Coalition of Families. I wasn’t sure how anybody was going to help us get out of this, but was willing to try. My MCF Family Peer Support Specialist helped me to at least understand the behavioral health system which, at that time, was still fragmented—mental health treatment over here and substance use treatment over there. I took advantage of educational opportunities so I could learn how to deal with all that was happening to my family and began to advocate to help others.
Over the next eight years we would come to know the devastation of the opioid crisis personally. Addicted to heroin, no high school diploma and a criminal record all were making his future look very bleak. There have been times when I thought he wouldn’t survive the weekend if I didn’t get him into treatment. I made countless phone calls to find a bed that would take his insurance or offer a scholarship only to be told there was a wait list or it would cost $30,000 for 30 days. This is a story I have heard countless times from other parents.
During this time, I had to learn acceptance—that I couldn’t control his need to use drugs or get him off of them. Sounds easy – right? It wasn’t. I educated myself about addiction, brain development, the systems we were interacting with and how to improve our family’s communication skills. I relied on the kinds of supports and educational opportunities that my MCF Family Peer Specialist offered. Once I let go of that control, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off me. Don’t get me wrong, I still worried and sometimes cried myself to sleep, but I’d dust myself off and refuse to give up. I learned to talk to him differently and provide guidance instead of control. I stopped trying to force treatment and let him make the decisions. Sometimes when he would have those periods of sobriety, I would think, “Ok, you’re doing well, let’s start to rebuild your life” and wanted to make all these plans. I had to learn that sobriety is literally minute by minute, which is what they teach in NA [Narcotics Anonymous]. There was that control thing popping up again. It’s a process.
Then about three years ago, I realized that he didn’t want to live this way any longer but he was powerless to get off the roller coaster of addiction. I’m sure people on the outside still looked at the situation as dire, but because I was his mother and the constant in his life, I could see improvement even if it was just a little at a time. Even though he went through treatment programs like they were revolving doors, he was learning and making those connections and getting stronger. Strength he would definitely need to fight this demon.
Today, he is doing well and, with God’s grace, just celebrated eight months of sobriety.
Unless you have loved someone with an addiction, you can’t possibly know the hell that comes with it—the emotional toll, the loss. But recovery is possible and there are lessons I can share.
- Take a parenting class, learn how to empower and discipline effectively and not be punitive – you think when your kids are little, “I got this!”
but there are things I wish I had known to do differently.
- Ask questions – don’t assume because you are working with professionals that they have all the answers or will share them with you. You know your
child or loved one best!
- Slow down! We don’t have to be the best at everything and neither do our kids.
- Get support from someone who has gone before you. Don’t let the stigma isolate you.
- Learn good communication skills. They work everywhere you go and can save you many an unnecessary argument.
- Focus on the positive, what is good about a person. It takes less energy than the negatives!