Feature: In Their Own Words (Part Three)

Guest Post by Linda Millar

“I am not defined by my illness.”  – Sabrina*, aged 15

As part of Drug Free Kids Canada’s efforts to reach out to Canadian parents who are struggling with the issue of teen drug use, we were given the opportunity to talk at length with young people who have gone through – or are presently going through, treatment for their substance use disorder and listen to their perspectives on drug use.

Their stories provide us with a window to explore the thoughts, feelings and actions that have impacted their choices in the prime of their lives – In Their Own Words.

Read PART ONE

Read PART TWO


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Part Three: In Recovery

The road to recovery is long, hard and has many twists and turns. Part of the process is to accept the past, acknowledge the present, and embrace the future. This is easier said than done.

Thanks to the efforts of a treatment centre in Ontario, we were able to reach out to some young people in recovery to hear – In Their Own Words – what brought them here, what made them want to get sober, and most importantly, what suggestions they have for parents who may be struggling with their child’s addiction.

Speaking first to the boys and then to the girls, it was evident that although there were gender differences in the way they addressed their drug addiction issues, there were also several common denominators.

Aged 14-20, these well spoken, polite and brave young people began their journeys at various ages, but the middle school years (grades 7-9) appear to be the most vulnerable years. They are from all walks of life – all family configurations, all seemingly ‘regular kids’, just trying to manage their lives.

Most started using tobacco, alcohol and Marijuana, and then escalated to everyday habits involving a variety of drugs from Ecstasy (laced with Fentanyl), Crystal Meth and Heroin, to prescription drugs that they generally stole from friends, family, and strangers.

One of the boys, Trevor*, aged 18 said, “Everyone was using in my group. We would go to school high, take pills to get us through the day, and then meet at night to get high. Actually, I think we never really sobered up for very long. It was too hard to come down.”

Why did they use? Audra*, aged 16, told us, “In my case, my girlfriend’s brother was a dealer. It was easy to escape my reality. I hated myself and everyone else.” Another 15 year old, Lily* chimed in, “I liked the feeling. I had been bullied all of my life and when I was high I didn’t care anymore.”

“Understand that I am not a bad person. My addiction causes me to act like this. Learn about the drugs I am using and their effects on my body. My parents had no idea what Molly was or Xanax, or Fentanyl.”

The mental health connection to addiction was referred to by almost every young person interviewed. In fact, Mark*, aged 16 said, “Please understand that mental illness is just as bad (or worse) than physical illness. It’s not just ‘a phase’ I am going through.”

Parents work hard to help their children feel loved, cared for, and respected, and yet  many young people experience low self esteem. Whether it is poor body image, lack of positive friendships, sibling rivalry, bullying, an inability to achieve expected goals, or a variety of other reasons, our young people often turn to drugs to self medicate, believing that if they can make the hurt go away inside for just a little while, they will be okay.

So, how do we recognize when our teen needs help?

In their own words, they told us, “Recognize the signs – If I suddenly have more money, if my marks have taken a dive, if I don’t want to hang out with my family, if I stay in my room or don’t come home often, if I am always tired, if you notice that I am cutting myself. Talk to me.”- Mark*, aged 16

Positive, ongoing communication is the key. Sharon*, aged 17 tells us, “Please listen to me but try not to judge. I will just turn off and try to not talk to you.” Trent*, also 17 suggests, “Understand that I am not a bad person. My addiction causes me to act like this. Learn about the drugs I am using and their effects on my body. My parents had no idea what Molly was or Xanax, or Fentanyl.” Sharon piped in, “Give me advice but please don’t exaggerate. My mom told me if I smoked Marijuana I would die. Now I don’t tell her anything.” Audra aged 16, makes her point, “Please recognize if I don’t feel good about myself and get me help. Don’t be embarrassed if I need to talk to a professional.”

Most of these young people were not living at home prior to their enrolment into treatment. In their words, “It wasn’t my parents’ fault. I broke all the rules. I turned my family into chaos. My drug use was impacting every member of my family. They had no choice,” shared Trevor, aged 18. “Living on the streets wasn’t easy” Sarah, aged 16 said. “We would do anything to get high and I am not proud of some of the things I did.”

When asked why they decided to choose treatment, many replied, “It was a simple choice – treatment or jail.” These young, vulnerable individuals had often turned to crime, (theft, assault) as well as possession and sales of drugs to feed their habit.

All of these teens in treatment were not afraid to share their individual stories. As they recounted their lives over the past few years, other heads were nodding agreement in the background.

Perhaps the most important part of the discussions with these polite and sincere youth was the advice they gave for parents. They reminded us that, “Every person is different and every story is different. Unless you have been in our shoes, you really can’t imagine how we feel.”-Trevor, 18

As Dean*, aged 17, so poignantly reminds us, “I am not hopeless. I have life.”

There were some additional suggestions for parents that may resonate as well:

“Never give up, no matter how hard it is.” – Sharon, 17

“Keep me busy and involved with friends you know and like.” – Lily, 15

“Set rules and stick to them but try to avoid being so strict that I want to act out to ‘get back at you’” – Noah, 16

“I can mess up and still be loved. I can do things that aren’t okay and still be forgiven.” – Sabrina, 15

When asked where they see themselves in a year or even five years, most said, “In college or university.” “I want to major in psychology or early childhood education. I want to help kids not to turn out like me.”


Author’s Note:

When I was asked to take on this project, I considered it a challenge. After all, talking to young people about their addiction while they were undergoing treatment had the potential to be a little unsettling at best!

Having completed this exercise, I feel privileged and hopeful. These bright, vulnerable teens opened my eyes to the challenges that young people face on a daily basis – low self-esteem, bullying, negative peer pressure and more.

What amazed me was their understanding of their problem, their willingness to recover and their hopes and plans for the future. Additionally, I realized that our roles as parents and caregivers is critical. “Never give up” has a whole new meaning for me now.

As I walked out the door and turned back to look at the beautiful, brave faces sitting at the table, one young girl, Lily, smiled and said, “Guess what? I get to go home next week. I haven’t been home for so long. I can’t wait to see my family again. I am sober and I am staying that way!”

That was all I needed to hear.

* Not their real names.

Special thanks goes to the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre for allowing us to hear the stories of these brave individuals. 

Linda Millar is a contributor to Drug Free Kids Canada, and an education consultant with over 40 years of experience. She has authored several teacher resources in the fields of substance use prevention, media literacy, childhood obesity, and mental health.