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FAMILY LIFE

Communication Vital Before and After Drug Abuse

August 26, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

I have a friend who began a slide into heavy drug and alcohol abuse at the age of 10. At one point in his early teens, he fell into such paranoia that he spent much of his time in the closet with the door closed and the light off.

"I tell you there's something wrong with that child," he overheard his mother tell his father one evening. "It's not normal to be sitting in the closet all the time."

"Oh, leave him alone," replied the father. "He's just a kid, and all kids act a little strange sometimes. He's just going through a phase. Don't worry about it."

Well, the phase lasted another dozen years--12 years of horror and near-death before he got some help. And he was one of the lucky ones. He survived.

Why didn't the parents do something? Because they were normal parents. They simply didn't want to know.

They were also what a therapist friend of mine calls "frozen in time"--too wrapped up in their own lives and goals and careers and social whirls and unwilling to be distracted.

It's called denial, and it is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in our near-hysterical struggle to overcome substance abuse.

We want the quick fix. Send troops to Colombia. Execute dealers. Give users (but not my child, please) mandatory prison sentences. Have mandatory drug testing in the schools.

But any satisfactory, lasting solution may be a lot closer to home than Bogota. It is the home, according to two experts.

And they say it's not in drug-testing kits or checkoff lists of symptoms, either.

"Only a professional can tell the difference between some normal adolescent behavior and indications of drug use," says Jack Platt, coordinator of the chemical dependency program at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital.

And Theresa Thomson, a family therapist in Newport Beach, agrees. Those checkoff lists you see tell you to watch for mood changes, changes in friends, lower grades, irrational outbursts, things like that--"many of the very things many teen-agers go through in their normal development," she says.

Platt provides some examples: "Your son is staying out late and getting up with bloodshot eyes. Is he drinking or using? Or, has he become sexually active and is just plain tired?

"Your daughter becomes withdrawn and depressed. Is she coming down from a cocaine trip or did she just break up with her boyfriend?"

Platt also points out that people react differently to drugs. "Some people become very aggressive while withdrawing from cocaine, while others become very placid," he says.

The big question is, will your children tell you what's really the problem? And, if they do, will you believe them?

"You can't not talk to your kid for 12 years and suddenly expect to have instant rapport," Platt says.

"It's an old and tired line, I know, but prevention is the best treatment--and communication is the key to prevention." It is also the key, he says, to handling the problem, should it arise.

"Drug abuse is not an individual problem; it is a family problem and has to be treated as such," he says.

"If you suspect there's a problem, go to your child and tell him your concerns. And make sure you don't make him the problem. If you find you can't communicate, don't send him into treatment or therapy alone; grab the whole family and get everyone involved."

Thomson says that too often the parents have a "here's-the-money-now-fix-him" attitude, like hiring a plumber to repair a leak somewhere. When the treatment fails, they blame the therapist.

"Many kids use drugs to deal with family problems," Thomson says. "Or with their own problems. And how can parents be there for their children if they don't even know what their problems are?

"Parents must look at themselves and ask: 'What kind of a role model am I?' It's awfully hard for a kid to accept advice on drinking or drugs from a parent who's sitting there smoking and sipping martinis."

As far as home drug-testing kits, "I shudder at the thought of parents shining a flashlight into their kids' eyes," she says.

"If you want to isolate your children and create total distrust, test them for drugs."

Platt says mandatory school or home testing "depend on how much of a police state you want."

"Oppression works--for a short time anyway," he says. "If, for example, you really wanted to keep people from going over 55 on the freeways, you could shoot everyone who violated the law. Just shoot 'em and dump the bodies on the freeway shoulder and leave them there.

"I guarantee the speeding would stop. Of course, the revolution would start.

"The point is you have to balance punitive actions with the ideals of our society. It's the same with a family.

"You must balance your actions as a parent with the ideals of the family. You don't want to be destroying the family in some misguided effort to eliminate one problem--like drugs--that might not even exist."

Neither Thomson nor Platt underestimates the seriousness of alcohol and drugs. After all, they deal with the destructiveness of abuse on a daily basis.

It's just that they both know there's no simple solution--no pill, no magic wand.

And they're both convinced that so many of the problems could be headed off early by getting the family on the right course with values, openness and trust.

"Kids are growing both physically and emotionally," Platt says. "And if the parents are growing emotionally, too, they're both on the same track and they will have access to each other.

"If there's trust, straightforwardness, honesty and understanding on the part of the parents, the kids will respond in a like manner. "In the long run, it's the easiest way out."

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