Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Son's Unfinished Life - And Mine

Boz Scaggs
Peter R. Coleman, M.D.
Recently, a fellow practitioner sent an emaiI containing an article from Newsweek magazine, which was published back in February, 1999. 

Now, 15 years later, the message is still very timely given the alarming trends in opiate addiction, heroin use, and increasing overdose statistics.  It is worth the time to read again.

My Son's Unfinished Life - And Mine

Newsweek Magazine - February 22, 1999

Author: Boz Scaggs

On December 31st, 1998, I lost my son Oscar to an accidental heroin overdose. And my world is blown to smithereens. My son - this fine, beautiful, sweet young man - my Oscar is gone from this world. Twenty-one years old. Hooked on the high, the release, that place of no worry about pressures from family or school, or jobs not yet found. And I am trying to put together the pieces of my own life and of his. There are so many unanswered questions when one so young dies suddenly. So many parts of his life were in transition and unresolved. I hardly know how to begin. I have a dilemma about the role of drugs in our lives, and specifically about the role of heroin in the lives of my son's generation. 

A lot of the same drugs were around when I was his age. The challenge to drop out, tear down the walls and live as never before was there in the music, the fashion and fabric of the time. Every generation hears its own call to change the existing order. For many, that includes experimenting with drugs. But the nature of experimentation has changed - then it was primarily a counter-cultural expression; today it's that and a consumer activity as well.

Recreational drugs far more potent than the pot we smoked in college are marketed like designer underwear, cigarettes, soft drinks, CD's - like equally benign consumer goods, that is. But even among those substances with sure potential to be lethal, heroin belongs in a class of its own. It does not allow casual use for long. Kids believe that if they "only" smoke it or snort it, they won't get addicted. It's no wonder that an epidemic of "amateur" use is underway. No surprise either is the large number of accidental deaths being reported: the purity of the drug is so unpredictable.

Heroin used to be an unthinkable choice for all but the hard-core user. It no longer is. If your son or daughter or friend is experimenting with or using heroin in any form, don't wait to get information and help. Forget your preconceptions about people who "really" use heroin.

From the time my two sons were teenagers, I talked openly with them about drugs. It was a daunting position to be in as a parent, but I told them what I knew from experience. I didn't blacklist every drug, but described as objectively as I could their effects and consequences. I think we shared more than most parents and children on the subject.

My son Oscar suffered from addiction - given his genetic or psychological makeup, given the world around him, it was perhaps inevitable that he would come to abuse drugs. Countless people suffer from addiction. Many get treatment and learn ways to manage it; they cope with the pain and uncertainty that is part of life, and they live. Oscar experimented with drugs and alcohol throughout his adolescence. In retrospect they clearly interfered with his ability to develop and to function. Heroin brought his dysfunction into high relief - he became aware of the drug taking over and asked for help.

That was a beginning in his recovery. Oscar entered treatment last January. He worked hard in various programs, but the process wasn't linear or fast - two steps forward, one step back. It was in the last six months that his recovery program began to take on real meaning to Oscar. He was slowly coming to terms with his addiction and recovery. He worked hard. And slowly, Oscar's life began to fall into place. Given the progress he'd made and the new job he was clearly thriving in, given his new girlfriend and the holidays - well, it proved to be a sort of classic setup, in a clinical sense, for relapse. The confidence of having it all together may have made Oscar feel invulnerable to heroin. 

Then came payday; he was on his way to pick up tickets for a concert that night, he was dressed in his finest and he decided, I can only guess, to make a stop at his dealer's and celebrate it all.

Oscar's death was an accident, a miscalculation. I say this only to underscore the importance of the open discussions from earlier years, the work Oscar did in recovery, the work we, his family, did with him. None of it was for naught; communication never is. For Oscar, recovery work was a real chance at life; for his family it was an experience that changed our lives profoundly. I had always considered my relationship to my sons to be closer than that of any other father and sons I knew. 

But in these last six months we rediscovered our profound commitment to one another. I saw him without drugs in his system for the first time in years, clear-eyed and healthy, a true joy to be around himself. I began to see my role in Oscar's addiction and recovery. Oscar had yet to learn fundamentals of self-sustenance, and I had to learn to stand back while he caught up. 

I had to learn to give without giving, touch without touching, act without acting. 

I needed more time; the work was unfinished, his and mine.

Friday, July 24, 2015

I raised an addict - what could I have done differently?

It has been a very interesting month. Since my first post I have connected with old high school friends who have active or recovering addicts in their families. I have been contacted by people who are living the nightmare of Addiction as parents, spouses, children and friends of addicts as well as addicts themselves. Many have shared powerful stories of recovery.  I have written or spoken the words ‘I am sorry for your loss’ too many times to count, though we really do need to keep counting…  Every person we lose leaves a gaping hole in the world. That hole will swallow us all if the tide is not turned.
I did not intend to start a blog, and I am a bit unsure of where to take it from here. I am, after all,  just the Mom of a recovering addict who posted a bit of a hissy fit to her Facebook after learning of another senseless death. I don’t think I can keep tossing out hissy fits, it would get old pretty quickly. I have decided that I will post when something is swirling around in my head enough to make me sit down and write about it, since that’s what happened the first time. It may be a few things in a short amount of time, followed by a lull. We’ll just have to see where this blog leads me.
This is a new journey and I’m glad for the company of all who would like to walk this path with me. We have certainly walked it alone for far too long.
Today’s thought: What could I have done differently?
This question haunted me for many, many years. Should I have taken him back to school to get a forgotten book? When he left his report on the counter in fifth grade should I have left it there instead of bringing it to school? He had ADD so organizing was hard for him. Did I do too much? Did he never learn to be accountable for his own actions? Was I too worried about him failing a stupid sixth grade math test? Should I have let him fail and learn the result of not putting in the work instead of making him study against his will? Should have, would have, could have were constantly swirling in my head. Tiny voices blaming, blaming…
Yes, I should have let him fall on his face when he was little. The consequences of their errors grow as they do. I didn’t have to catch him when he fell —- I was holding on so tightly he never really fell.  And when he went away to college he fell hard. So yes, I should have let him fail more when he was young.
In all honesty, that is the one thing I feel I could have changed. I don’t know what else I could have done differently that would have gotten him to ‘just say no’ to drugs. Above is an old newspaper clipping of my son and his friends from the neighborhood with their ‘just say no’ signs. They marched around the neighborhood chanting. He wore his D.A.R.E. (Drug Addiction Resistance Education) T-shirt forever. We spoke about drugs and drinking and sex. Once, when my son was a freshman in high school he had some friends over. Two of the girls brought booze into my home in soda screw top bottles (OK, lesson one: no outside drinks allowed in my home). They also had some joints on them. My son and his friend came to me and told me what was going on. THEY CAME AND TOLD ME. Parents were called, girls cried, drama ensued. BUT HE TOLD ME. How, then, did this kid end up a freakin’ heroin addict? The one who told. The one who knew better. No matter how much we think ‘they’ve got this’, they don’t. Life is not black and white, and adolescence is the murkiest of grays. We cannot rest on our laurels, no matter how great our kids are – they are navigating a mine field.  Kids do dumb things, but many stupid choices don’t have the dire consequences too many families are facing today in eye of this epidemic.
Part of the problem is that we just didn’t know. We didn’t know to say, ‘stay away from Oxycontin kids, because it will lead to heroin’. We knew to say, ‘don’t drink – alcoholism runs in your family – but if you make poor decisions, don’t compound them by driving. Call us, stay where you are’. We knew to say, ‘Don’t have sex, you’re too young, but if you do, wear protection. If you get a girl pregnant, please come to us, we will work through this together’.  We knew to say, ‘don’t do drugs, they are dangerous, people get addicted’.  We didn’t know to say, and I wish with all my heart we had, ‘but if you get addicted, please come to us and we will help you. We will be here for you because we love you.’  Of course this Oxycontin thing wasn’t on our radar. Who could ever imagine their kid would go so far as to stick a needle in their vein?  I’ll tell you, my son didn’t think he’d ever do something so stupid either, even when he was addicted to Oxycontin, until he did.
I can’t re-think what we didn’t know. But I can warn parents of young children today. Because now we do know about OxyContin and the path it forges to heroin. There are many ‘not my kid’ campaigns out there. Parents today need to arm themselves with information about what drugs are popular with what age groups in their hometown and what the warning signs are.  They also need to have a plan about what they would do if they find out their child is making dangerous choices. Also, what’s their plan if they find out some other kid is making dangerous choices. Do they tell the other parent?  What will they do if their child came to them and told them they were addicted? What will they do to make it possible for their child to even feel capable of telling? Have a plan in place. Maybe even read a few books. Understand what enabling looks like. It can look a lot like love…
Co-dependence and enabling isn’t something that only occurs with addiction. I was an enabler-in-training for years. We need to learn to recognize when a child should do something for themselves, even if it’s hard to watch them not do it and pay the consequences.  If your Senior won’t fill out college applications then maybe he’s not ready for college.  Many of the things I learned in Al-Anon about detaching and not doing for someone what they can do for themselves would have come in handy during those teenage years. Would it have made a difference to my son? Would he have not become an addict? Who knows. But I do know that I would have been more equipped to deal with the addict who came to possess him.
Don’t just hope your children will never be exposed to drugs. Assume they will. Talk to your kids, speak to your friends, and  have a battle plan in place. If your school or town has informational meetings about this epidemic, show up, even if your kid is only 7 or 8. Be informed. Be ready. We need to fight this epidemic on all fronts. If your town does not have any form of parent education, Start the Conversation. All parents of young kids should listen to addicts in recovery speak. They are your neighbor’s children.  My son would tell you he had a nice childhood. He played baseball and soccer and took karate. We had a good relationship. He knew his parents loved him, and  – he did know better. What made him make bad choices in spite of knowing better? What changed from the age of 14 to the age of 16, when the drinking began? Murky gray. Minefield.
Recognize addiction can happen to your child. The epidemic is real. Be afraid. Be prepared to fight for your child’s life.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Arm yourselves.

Reprinted from:

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Press Pause

by Gabi Pinto-Coelho

America: the land of the free and the home of the stressed. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly proud and grateful to be an American, and stress is not a uniquely American experience. But let’s face it, our workplaces promote a culture of more-is-more, dog-eat-dog, do-it-all, and by the way, your request for vacation has been denied. This doesn’t even take into account our often equally over scheduled home lives with household chores and errands, care giving responsibilities, and the ever-growing “wish I could get to” list. It can easily feel as if we are living in the middle of a hurricane, and the only thing we can do to stay in the eye of the storm is to keep doing more, and faster, and more efficiently. Gotta be one step ahead.

As a Type A person, this is how I have lived the majority of my life. To-do lists are my bread and butter, and for me, there is nothing quite as rewarding as crossing off tasks. And while this can certainly be a virtuous quality, I have begun to notice how it is a shortcoming. The constant need to “do” and “get things done” can leave me with a feeling of hyper-vigilance - Have I done everything I need to today? Can I get ahead on anything for tomorrow? Did I forget something? What if I forgot something? Living in this state of heightened stress can lead to a host of problems, which is why I am grateful for the practices of yoga and meditation. If the idea of sitting still on a cushion for 20 minutes or bending and twisting in a 90-minute yoga class makes you cringe, fear not. There is a simple and quick way to practice that peaceful feeling that follows a meditation or yoga session.

Whether it feels like it or not, you have the opportunity to “press pause” on your life whenever you would like to do so. No, I am not talking about literally stopping the passage of time, a la Hiro Nakamura in the TV show Heroes. Instead, I am talking about taking a moment in the day to notice the swirl of activity, thoughts, and emotions, and choose to intentionally pay attention. Notice that this practice is about attention - not about judging, storytelling, wishing things were different, grasping onto something, or pushing something away. It is just about arriving where you are, exactly as you are. So how exactly do you “arrive,” especially when you feel like you are on a high-speed carousel that you cannot escape? 

Well, you have some options:
  • ·      Pause by noticing the physical sensations in your body. You can do this seated, standing, laying down, walking, doing whatever.
  • ·      Pause by noticing the movement of the breath in and out of the body.
  • ·      Pause by noticing the thoughts and emotions as they pass across the mind. This one is a little trickier, so I recommend working with the body and the breath first. Especially when working with the mind, imagine that you are cloud watching - sit on the sidelines and observe as the thoughts and emotions arise and dissipate on their own.

The key to pressing pause is to just observe and bring the mind back to your focus (body, breath, or mind) each time your mind wanders. The practice is not about having an empty mind or only positive experiences - the practice is about returning to this moment without judgment over and over again. If your mind wanders 100 times while you are watching the breath, bring the attention back 100 times. That’s it. This practice might last 2 minutes or 5 minutes... it’s entirely up to you. Simple, but definitely not easy. You might be surprised how it makes you feel.

You might be thinking: well, who is going to get all this stuff done when I am “pressing pause”? What if something urgent comes up? First of all, it is important to trust that world will not devolve into pure chaos if you take a few minutes to arrive in the present. Second, the act of pressing pause is equivalent to a mental “reset” button, and it allows you to return to your tasks more focused and more productive than before. 

We are so focused on getting things done that we convince ourselves that “just another hour of work will really make a difference.” In reality, your push to be productive slows you down and gradually smothers your intellectual and creative capacities. Third, pausing is important not only in those routine moments of stress, but perhaps even more important in times of crisis. 

Research has documented how stress affects our decision-making abilities, and, unsurprisingly, when we are stressed out, we don’t always take the best action. In crises, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and we tend to react rather than respond intelligently. Pressing pause actually helps us respond well in those high-stakes situations.

The next time you feel that “swirl” in your life - of activity, of thoughts, of emotions - take a moment and press pause. See what happens.