- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

Fifteen-year-old Emily Meyer attended church with her family, was a cheerleader and sang soprano in a school choir. She successfully managed her slight learning disabilities with help from her Fairfax County public school. Unlike many teen-agers, Emily also communicated well with her mother, Liz Meyer, often confiding in her.

So when the Fairfax teen-ager informed Mrs. Meyer that she had used marijuana, her mom says she chalked it up to teen-age experimentation. She and Emily's father, Bill, attributed Emily's increasingly contentious behavior to the moodiness and drama that always had characterized their daughter's personality. Teen hormones were kicking those traits into high gear, they decided.

Actually, Emily had her parents snookered.

"I was sneaking out," she says. "I was angry about everything."

She would catch the bus to school in the morning and stay on campus just long enough to be counted during homeroom roll call. In fact, drugs and alcohol were playing a vital role in Emily's problems, but the Meyers, like many parents of substance-abusing children, didn't realize the extent of their daughter's involvement,.

Yet the best defense for parents in the war against substance abuse is to arm themselves with knowledge and be ready to act quickly to head off problems, says Patrick G. McConnell, director of youth services for the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, a countyagency that provides programs involving mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse.

Indeed, Mrs. Meyer views the past with regret.

"Like with a lot of parents, there was a lot of denial," Mrs. Meyer says. "I know that's how I was. Even though she was open with me, I had no idea that she had gone way off to the other end, gone to hard drugs, become a thief, was suicidal."

Reality hit the day Mrs. Meyer pulled into the driveway of their home to find Emily in police custody handcuffed following an altercation with her boyfriend. Emily was taken to a county mental health center, where counselors decided she needed help with substance abuse.

Emily was in good company.

Drug and alcohol intake among youths has increased nationally during the past six or seven years, Mr. McConnell says. "And they're doing just about everything now," he adds.

A January 2001 survey conducted by the Fairfax County government and public schools reveals that instances of substance abuse in Fairfax County run head-to-head with national averages among students in grades eight through 12.

Nationally, for example, 23.1 percent of high school seniors admit to using marijuana. In Fairfax, 22.4 percent say they indulge in the drug. Fairfax tops the national figures in alcohol use: 53.4 percent of county 12th-graders say they use alcohol; the national figure is 51 percent.

As the incidence of substance abuse multiplies, so does the good news for affected adolescents and families. For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funds 14 adolescent-focused programs, says Sandra Brown, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who specializes in adolescent substance abuse.

"These are big strides," she says. "Five to 10 years ago, the majority of treatment was scaled-down 12-step interventions. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is not a form of treatment that adolescents are initially comfortable engaging in, so the vast majority would resist."

Mr. McConnell calls the current treatment climate for adolescents "the best it has ever been." He says, "There has been a lot of research and literature developed about best practices, and there are lots of professionals who are appropriately trained to work with adolescents." Still, he says, the increase in available resources has not kept pace with the increased number of adolescents who need help.

"The supply of services is insufficient to meet the demand for prevention, early intervention and treatment programs."

Getting through the night

To stay on the winning end of the curve, parents need to learn what types of drug and alcohol opportunities are out there for their children and "do their homework before the first test," says Tom Hittinger, director of the Sunrise programs, public, nonprofit group homes for Fairfax County adolescents with substance-abuse issues.

"You don't want to get caught flatfooted," Mr. Hittinger says. "You're not going to have time to research it if the kid comes home drunk and falls through the front door."

In that event, safety is the most pressing issue, he says.

"First, you ought to know what is 'intoxicated,' " Mr. Hittinger says. "Do I need extra help? How about just letting the child sleep it off? Don't underestimate the combination your child has done. You might think they are sleeping it off, but they might be overdosing someone who is tipsy and can still walk and talk versus someone who is falling flat on their face."

Mr. Hittinger says that if a child has lost consciousness or is vomiting, parents should err on the side of safety by calling a drug or alcohol hot line or even 911.

"The operator will triage over the phone," he says. "At least you have someone who is knowledgeable about acute intoxication."

Although such an incident probably would qualify as what Mr. Hittinger calls "a major crisis for parents," he says they should resist arguing with a child who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"If the child is very drunk or high, it's not going to make much difference, and it's a riskier situation," he says. "Anyone acts defensively when confronted, but theirs will be a drug- or alcohol-fueled reaction, so just contain the situation and wait until the child sobers up."

The morning after

Indeed, a teen-ager stumbling in the door after a party can be a shock to parents, who then must send a clear message about what behavior they will accept, Mr. McConnell says.

"I always say the first time someone's been caught [under the influence of drugs or alcohol] usually isn't the first time they've done it," he says. "You need to take it seriously. First of all, transportation is an issue. Number two, it's against the law."

Mr. McConnell says parents need to ask the child, once sober, what happened and what events led up to the situation at hand.

"Find out what's been going on," he says. "They won't tell you everything, but they may tell you something. You need to ask the questions anyway."

After confronting the child, parents also may wish to request a visit to the child's bedroom to be sure no drug or alcohol paraphernalia lie within.

"You want to avoid doing stuff [like bedroom searches] behind people's backs," he says, "but although kids have a right to privacy, parents have the right to know what's going on in their own house."

He says parents should avoid engaging the child in an emotionally charged exchange "yelling and screaming. Tell them, 'When you're ready to talk, let me know.' Give them an opportunity for that every evening. Sooner or later, something will come out. If you follow through with your consequences, this will work. If you normally don't, this won't work."

Consequences must be leveled immediately, Mr. McConnell says. He favors restrictions as a punishment tool.

"It doesn't mean you have to take the world away from them, but there needs to be a consequence re-sponse," he says. "This gives you, the parent, a little power over the situation. Also, the kid will not have a whole lot of access to getting drunk."

Mr. McConnell also advises parents to take the car keys from a teen of driving age.

"You have to it becomes a safety issue, anyway. A lot of kids have driven under the influence, and that's really dangerous. Don't let it slide. It won't be the last time," he says.

Parents must look for the source when determining the problem, says Dr. Joseph Palombi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and member of the American Association of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

The important questions to ask children are whether problems are linked to peers, boyfriend or girlfriend issues or school problems, for example, he says.

"Start talking to other peers and other parents. You need to know who your kid is relating to," says Dr. Palombi, who practices in McLean and Manassas, frequently working with adolescents who have substance-abuse issues. "Don't be a snooper or a snitch, but try to evaluate what's going on. What is going on at school? Are they doing better or worse? Are any of the teachers tuned in to what's changed?"

Then seek professional assistance, he says.

"Get some help with a good substance-abuse counselor," Dr. Palombi says. "Sometimes they are within schools. You don't need to see a psychiatrist right away you've got to evaluate the problem and figure it out."

Part of this "figuring out" encompasses looking at the whole person, Mr. Hittinger says.

"A professional won't look only at the substance-abuse element of the situation, but other parts of the self as well, all with the outcome to see if the person needs treatment and, if so, what kind mental health versus substance abuse," he says.

"If you have private insurance, start there at least with the assessment. Then you'll know the recommendation," Mr. Hittinger says. "By doing that, you'll know what private [insurance] can or cannot do for you. If they won't do what you're interested in, find out what public services can do."

Choosing treatment options

Jefferson Warwick took a long and winding road to recovery. The Fairfax boy now 16 and the baby in a family of four children always had been a sweet, generous child, says his mother, Jane Warwick. Drugs and alcohol, however, gouged that.

He had been performing well in school, riding his bike almost everywhere, playing sports, Mrs. Warwick says. He would arrive home with red, watery eyes a telltale sign of marijuana use but easily explained that away by saying he had been cycling around in the wind.

"Then his grades plummeted and his personality changed," Mrs. Warwick says. "He became ex-tremely belligerent, which is so unlike him. Then he got into a fight in school, which had never happened. I knew then I had to do something."

That "something" proved to be a lengthy, costly system of treatment for Jefferson, who admitted to alcohol and heavy marijuana use. Outpatient treatment a few hours of counseling per week proved ineffective. A daily program failed as well. Then Jefferson was admitted to a residential treatment program where he lived and breathed sobriety for four months.

"What a difference," his mother says. Jefferson has been clean for a year and a half without relapse, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings two, three and sometimes four times a week.

"I'm really glad my parents stopped me and got me help when I needed it," he says. "I'd have ended up living on the streets doing nothing with myself and just having no life, hating myself and who I am, being miserable all the time."

"It's nice having him back to the Jeff we had before," Mrs. Warwick says.

Residential treatment was the best avenue for Emily Meyer as well.

Following her fateful brush with the law, Emily began to attend group-therapy sessions several days a week. However, once her drug tests began to show positive for drugs, counselors recommended that Emily enter a residential treatment program.

Evidently, that was the solution.

Four months and three weeks and a $21,000 bill later, Emily was discharged to outpatient treatment. She attends regular high school and, like Jefferson, considers Alcoholics Anonymous meetings crucial to her recovery. Emily says she realizes what turn her life could have taken if her parents hadn't stepped in to help.

"I'd either be dead or still doing the same things I was doing," she says. "Now, instead of going to a friend, my mom knows what is going on with me."

Also, instead of a big question mark for the future, Emily is making real plans.

"I want to be an interior decorator or a wedding coordinator," she says. "I want to go to [George Mason University] and take decorating classes. I want to get married and have four kids, two dogs, and I have to have a least three cats."

"She's been on a real terrible journey," Emily's mother says. "It was bad for me, but it was worse for her. They become so evil on drugs. I can't tell you how evil they get. You don't recognize them. It's like I have my Emily back now."


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