Do as I Do, Not as I Say

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Do as I Do, Not as I Say

By Jack Twilling and Chris Yip

“My childhood was awful. There was abuse of every kind. When you live through that you see that alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive diseases,” said an anonymous Tam parent, whom we’ll call Amy. After growing up in a household plagued by alcoholism, Amy decided that when she had children of her own, she would take a different parenting approach on alcohol and drug abuse.

“We had a European view [on alcohol consumption, where] at eighteen you can drink,” Amy said of raising her own children. However, Amy soon discovered that her philosophy was not effective, and her daughter’s drinking became dangerous. “[The European] model can’t be applied to California,” she said.

“Our society is very excessive,” explained Amy’s husband, whom we’ll call Steve, “What we discovered was that at this age, teens engage in binge drinking.”

“We were very [relaxed] at first,” said Amy. However, once they saw that their daughter could not drink in moderation, Steve and Amy shifted their philosophy to one in which [underage] drinking simply was not tolerated.

“When it comes to controlling substances, [we discovered that abstinence] is the only thing that works,” said Steve. “We’ve seen kids fall off the rail and have their lives torn apart, stop growing as a human being, and have to go to rehab.”

Steve and Amy’s experience with their daughter’s alcohol use served as a wake up call. They discovered that parental behavior and attitudes deeply impact, and can sometimes even foreshadow, drug and alcohol use among teens.

Local psychologist Jonathan Mahrer, Ph.D. runs practices both in San Francisco and Mill Valley, offering him a unique perspective on our community. “[Parental substance abuse] is underrepresented as an issue,” said Mahrer, “It’s also surprising how prevalent it is.”

The Obvious Case

When Tam student Claire, who asked that her last name be withheld, was born, her mother was high on methamphetamine. After birth, Claire was separated from her mother and was adopted by a young couple. Since then, Claire has had little contact with her biological mother, an abuser of methamphetamines and alcohol for the past 30 years. Her biological mother has been in and out of rehab for years, and is only allowed to talk to Claire when she is three months sober. Claire knows nothing of her father. Because her mother is still using, the court will not allow Claire to see her.

“She’s my mom and of course I love her, [but] I feel if she loved me the same way she would try harder to stop,” Claire said, “It’s hard being close to her on and off and off and knowing that she is killing herself.”

The Marijuana Myth

While obviously very dangerous, hard drugs are not the only source of damaging influence within families. Marijuana, often considered to be a more recreational drug, has an equally dangerous potential.

“He’s a cool person, just not the best father” said a junior girl, whom we’ll call Jen, “I’m not proud to have him as a dad. He didn’t think [his actions] through. He wasn’t responsible. He affected my life now.”

Nine years ago, Jen was a happy girl with a successful father and caring mother. One day, however, her mother found out that Jen’s father was smoking marijuana and could not stop. Soon after she moved out, taking Jen with her. “She didn’t trust him anymore,” Jen said.

Jen’s father now lives in Europe. Once a prestigious businessman, he has trouble maintaining careers. The impacts of his choices has hurt Jen not only emotionally, but also has put her family in a troubled financail situation. “Not many kids get how it can affect your life,” she said. “I just remember being shocked and so mad at my dad for [messing] up our lives [over] something as pointless as drugs.”

Mahrer explained, “Marijuana is, for some people, [but] not for everybody, a demotivator. It makes it hard for some people to sustain motivation to plan and sequence and follow through on longer term plans, and for those people, we can imagine the results. It’s harder to advance in careers, it’s harder to keep jobs, and it’s harder to sustain relationships,” he said.

The Less Obvious Case

While somewhat common in Marin, marijuana is by no means the only substance abused by parents. Alcohol, while legal, also has the potential to be one of the most damaging influences on parents and kids alike.

Tam parent Tammy, who asked that her last name be withheld, abuse in her childhood home. “My dad was a raging alcoholic,” she said. “He would chase my aunt and uncle out of the house with a rifle [and] try to drown my uncle in the kitchen sink because he was flipping out.” With this background, Tammy saw a dangerous side to alcohol.

Tammy was a recreational drinker and drug user throughout high school and early in her adult life. Throughout this time, she would drink with her friends and smoke marijuana on occasion. “I’ve gotten stoned a few times as an adult, and when I was 19, there were a few times when I did cocaine,” she said. However, since Tammy has become a mother, she has stopped her substance use. “[As a parent], if drugs are a part of your life, there is an issue that you’re not addressing. If you need drugs, there’s something going on in your world that you’re needing to check out [from], or needing to escape from. You’re disconnected at some point, somewhere,” she said.

“If substance abusing parents are not concerned about what drugs, alcohol and tobacco are doing to themselves, they should be concerned about the ill effects they have on their children,” said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman and president of Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, “This should serve as a powerful incentive for parents to seek the treatment they need.”

“In almost every couples conflict that I’m working with, alcohol plays a role,” said Mahrer. “In almost every fight, alcohol [acts as] a disinhibitor, allowing more destructive behavior to come out, and so it’s affecting kids directly in terms of what they’re getting and what they shouldn’t be getting, in terms of abusiveness and neglect. It’s also affecting kids indirectly in terms of the atmosphere in the household, and what’s happening between the parents. And that’s just alcohol.”

The Unexpected Influence

A study by CASA, determined that children of parents who abuse drugs and alcohol are “three times likelier to abuse their children and four times likelier to neglect them than parents who do not abuse these substances.”

“Children of alcohol and drug abusers are at increased risk of accidents, injuries and academic failure,” said a press release from CASA regarding their findings on the subject.

“Kids don’t read their parents’ lips, they watch their parents’ actions,” said Califano. “Too many parents set examples that increase the risk their children will smoke, use illegal drugs and abuse alcohol. Children of substance abusing parents are much likelier to become substance abusers themselves. The good news is that parents who behave responsibly – who don’t smoke, abuse alcohol or use illegal drugs – have a positive influence on their children, steering them away from substance abuse.”

“If drugs are a part of your life, there is an issue that you’re not addressing. If you need drugs, there’s something going on in your world that you’re needing to check out [from], or needing to escape from. You’re disconnected at some point, somewhere.”

Senior Jonah Elias grew up in a family that discouraged drug use. Growing up in Hawaii, living in a neighborhood where marijuana was commonly used, Elias’ parents took an early stand on the issue. “I was around drugs when I was a little kid, in the environment I was in. I didn’t smoke any of it and that was because my mom did talk to me [about drugs].” His choice not to smoke has come from the lessons his mother taught him as a child. “My parents have been strongly against them, not because they’re necessarily bad or scary, but just because when you’re growing up, your brain is still growing,” Elias explained. “Drugs can slow that down and stop it. That’s why I stayed away from [them.]”

Freshman Abby Bordin shares a similar point of view. “My parents were really scared about me going to Tam and getting high between every class,” she said. “They’re really against all that stuff because they knew a lot of people who ruined their lives [with drugs] and they don’t want to see me make the same mistakes.”

The question, remains, however, “What can or should be done to prevent this problem from affecting our community?” For those who are struggling with drug and alcohol problems, as parents or as students, the option to stop always does exist.

“Everybody wants to be one of those people who can say ‘I can control it, I can moderate it, I can find a middle ground that works for me,’ and the challenge is to have honest conversations about whether or not that’s true,” Mahrer said.

“Some people can [quit] on their own,” said Mahrer, but there are also multitude of organizations devoted to the express purpose of helping those who are not in control of their substance use. For those who find themselves in a situation and wanting help, the first organization that may come to mind is Alcoholics Anonymous, and for good reason. “[From what I have seen], the single most effective treatment strategy for alcoholism is 12 steps; AA. Some people are able to do it without AA, and it’s not for everybody…but for those who do [choose AA], it can be very helpful,” said Mahrer.

Additionally, for problems not related to alcohol, Narcotics Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous, NA and MA, respectively, also hold meetings in Marin County.

Two final organizations, often overlooked, are Al-Anon, and its subgroup, Alateen. Al-Anon is an organization very similar to AA, but is for the family and friends of those with drinking problems. Their purpose, as stated on their website, is: “[To allow] the friends and family members of problem drinkers [to] share their experiences and learn how to apply the principles of the Al Anon program to their individual situations.”

Alateen, as its name implies, is a subgroup of Al-Anon, which has been created specifically for teenage children whose parents have an alcohol problem.

The relationship between parents, drugs and alcohol affects us all.

“[Drugs and alcohol use among parents] could probably be talked about more. I also think that [its extensiveness] would be underestimated,” said Mahrer.

By Jack Twilling and Chris Yip. Additional Reporting by Jake Davis. This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.