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10 things I wish I’d known before my daughter became addicted to heroin

I’ve learned that the way back is a gargantuan struggle and that many recover, but some never do.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

I didn’t know where my daughter was. At 23, she claimed to have moved in with some people I’d never met. But I hadn’t heard from her in days. No one answered the door when I went to her apartment, so I drove through the dark streets of her run-down neighborhood, hoping to see her. Finally, I spotted her car parked along a curb. A dim streetlight showed a back seat piled high with possessions: blankets, clothes, a plastic makeup case, a tattered stuffed bunny she’d received for her fifth birthday.

Panic swelled in my chest as I returned to the apartment. This time, lights were on and a young woman reluctantly invited me inside. She stared at the floor as I asked about my daughter. After a long pause, she admitted that she had kicked her out. Then she looked at me curiously. “Do you know your daughter’s a heroin addict?”

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My knees buckled. The floor heaved. More than 15 years later, I can still feel the life-altering shock of that moment.

Yet, looking back, it’s hard to understand why my daughter’s addiction came as such a surprise. All the signs had been there for quite some time. Only ignorance and denial had prevented me from seeing what was so painfully obvious — just as ignorance and denial had blinded me to her experimentation with substances as far back as elementary school.

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I’ve learned a lot about addiction since then. I’ve learned about detox and overdose and rehab and relapse. I’ve learned how addiction can take hold of someone and not let go. I’ve learned that the way back is a gargantuan struggle, and that many recover, but some never do.

Most of all, as my daughter works to recover, I’ve learned that knowledge is our best defense against the scourge of addiction. In particular, these are the things I wish I’d known before she became addicted:

1. Addiction can happen in any family. It seems incredibly naive — if not downright smug — but there was a time when I believed my kids were immune to addiction. They were too smart. They had a good upbringing. They were good people. But I didn’t know that none of that matters. Some people are susceptible to addiction the way some are susceptible to heart disease or depression. Researchers believe that genes account for about 50 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction.

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2. Addiction has a mental health component. People with mood, anxiety, or conduct disorders are about twice as likely as the general population to develop substance-use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For those individuals, substances offer relief from emotional pain in a way that’s profoundly compelling. Many addicts — including my daughter — describe an “inner emptiness” that existed long before they began using mind-altering substances.

3. Environment plays a role. Pop culture exposes our kids to countless images of drug and alcohol use. Many kids have been offered alcohol or other drugs by age 13. And kids who have seen their parents drunk are more than twice as likely as other kids to get drunk in a typical month and three times likelier to use marijuana and smoke cigarettes, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

4. Early substance use correlates with future addiction. The organization Shatterproof found that approximately 80 percent of people who are currently addicted began abusing substances before age 18. One reason for kids’ vulnerability is that the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain that governs judgment, problem solving, and self-control — doesn’t fully develop until around age 25.

5. Addiction damages the developing brain. Substance abuse hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex, creating long-lasting problems with decision making and impulse control. It also short-circuits the brain’s reward system. Using alcohol and other drugs becomes the only way to experience pleasure and avoid pain.

6. Addiction erodes morality. As dependence deepens, dishonesty flourishes. Lying becomes second nature. If confronted about their problem, addicts will deny (“I don’t use drugs”), diminish (“It’s not a big deal”), and deflect (“You’re an awful mother”). To support their habit, many turn to stealing and other crimes.

7. Preventing addiction begins at home. Parents can’t control every choice their kids make. But they can reduce the risk of substance abuse by teaching kids about the damaging impact of addictive chemicals on their health, relationships, intellect, and goals. Parents can clearly express their expectations and define consequences for breaking those rules.

8. “Typical” teen behaviors can mask chemical dependence. Some of the symptoms of budding dependence are also seen in “normal” teens: moodiness, rebelliousness, and a pronounced need for privacy. But some things warrant a closer look, including bloodshot eyes or enlarged or pinpoint pupils; changes in appetite or sleep patterns; unexplained agitation or lethargy; impaired speech or coordination; loss of interest in school and activities; sudden change in friends; use of incense or room fresheners to mask unusual odors.

9. Substance abuse requires swift action. Physical changes in the brain make it almost impossible for kids to stop using substances on their own once dependence sets in. Parents who suspect that their child is abusing should seek professional help with the same sense of urgency with which they would seek help for any other life-threatening condition.

10. Shame is the enemy of prevention and recovery. Addiction has long been viewed as a sign of weakness or immorality. Yet science has clearly shown that addiction is unrelated to character. And even the most attentive, conscientious parents can raise kids who end up addicted.

Shame makes it harder for kids to admit their problem and for parents to confront it. But blame and shame have no place when it comes to addressing addiction. Instead, it should be recognized for what it is: a serious mental health condition. Prevention is the best strategy. But when prevention fails, swift, effective treatment can limit the damage and set addicted kids on the road to a healthy life.

Beverly Conyers is a Massachusetts author whose books include “Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery.” She writes about addiction under a pseudonym in keeping with the 12-step tradition of anonymity. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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