Yesterday my daughter celebrated her 17th birthday. She took – and passed! – her drivers test and is now a licensed driver (as if parenting wasn’t a gray hair creating, anxiety producing fiasco that constantly left me in a state of self-doubt already). She took a friend out to dinner last night – under her own power. This morning she drove herself to lacrosse practice (while I got to sleep in a little longer!). Mom is no longer needed for drop offs or pick-ups. So here I am somewhere between enjoying my own freedom, and missing her; being happy for her because I remember the new life that suddenly enveloped me as a driver; and yet being worried because I remember, too. We hope, as parents, that we have given our children all the tools and skills they need to survive in the wild alone, understanding that there comes a time when they are responsible for themselves and we can’t possibly protect them any more from the mistakes they will make. We hope – we pray – that those mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth, not pathways to tragedy.
My daughter’s new freedom came just a few days after she told me they had announced that another graduate of her high school lost his battle with heroin addiction. This young man, who just a short year ago walked the same halls as my daughter, was now a statistic in this tragic epidemic that has engulfed New Jersey. My heart broke for the boy’s parents. Having lived through the loss of both of my parents, other close friends and relatives, and even my husband, I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of despair that one could feel by the loss of a child.
This finally stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it hit closer to home – literally and in its timing. This is not the first tragedy like this to touch our small town. I have cried for other parents before. A local parent wrote a book in 2014 about her son’s death from a heroin overdose at his home not far from us. My friend is involved in supporting an organization, Michael’s Voice, whose mission is to educate, give hope and remove the shame and stigma from people affected by opiate addiction. She has shared their information on FaceBook; but until now, I never visited their website. Today, I can see so clearly the link between suicide – which touched my life personally – and addiction. And how we are missing the point as a community and letting our kids down.
On the Michael’s Voice website, Michael’s mother writes, “It was an accident. Lured, by a cunning drug that destroys impulse control and crushed, under the shame and stigma of being addicted…..He used alone and died.” She understands the “stigma of being an addict.” Addiction is a mental health issue, not a crime. We teach our kids in the 5th grade about drug and alcohol resistance, by telling them that drugs and alcohol are bad. By high school that “education” no longer matters and too many kids who don’t possess the skills to cope with the increased stress of acedemia or athletic performance, turn to drugs. What teenager cares about what a police officer told them in a 5th Grade DARE program at that point?
The “War on Drugs” has failed. There are countless statistics showing that treating drug addiction as a crime, isn’t working. Google it and you’ll find a plethora of articles backing up that statement. Here’s one that provides a good summary: Why the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working. And I could write an entire book on children as collateral damage in the “war on drugs” because of the results of having a parent in prison due to a drug offense. But those aren’t our kids, right? So let’s keep the discussion on “our kids.” The majority of heroin related deaths in New Jersey are now people under the age of 30; the number of heroin users seeking treatment in New Jersey who are white has increased 20% in recent years (Herointown, N.J.: The state’s heroin crisis in 9 startling statistics, NJ.com). While New Jersey is (thankfully?) ranked among the lowest states for suicides in the United States, suicide is a leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. We don’t have a drug abuse problem, or a suicide problem. What we have collectively is a mental health problem. In the article about the young man’s death this week, they quoted his last Tweet, “There has to be somewhere better than here.”
Our communities continue to pour money into an ineffective program and ‘crime prevention,” while a huge stigma still exists around mental heath; while our kids lack the tools to cope with life in an increasingly stressful world. I am not going to pretend that I have done anything right, or that my child doesn’t have the potential to be a statistic. We can’t judge other parents, or say “not my kid.” I know all too well, as a cancer survivor and suicide loss survivor, that yes, the unthinkable does happen – in our towns, and in our own homes. Fostering open and honest, non-judgmental, communications with our kids, is probably the most important method, but we can’t do it alone. And lessoning the stigma around mental health issues – including addiction – is a necessary component to healing and reducing these statistics. We must start talking about that in our communities.
Since one size doesn’t fit all, there has to be a whole bunch of programs and the schools and other community organizations need to get behind them. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am volunteering with the Let Me Run program for elementary and middle school boys (similar to Girls on the Run). Some of the objectives of the program include “being able to identify and express a wide range of emotions; learning to be a better friend and identifying true friends; defining success and competition in healthy ways, expanding knowledge on various topics so they can make better physical, emotional and mental health choices” – essentially giving these boys the tools they need to cope with life as it becomes increasingly challenging and stressful. If I hadn’t volunteered to be one of two necessary coaches for the Wednesday/Friday session or if the local Lutheran Church hadn’t agreed to lend some indoor space (for inclement weather), this program simply wouldn’t have happened. When the lead volunteer coach who founded our program approached the schools some months back, she was told that a classroom could be rented at $75 a day! The program doesn’t have that kind of a budget. I just don’t understand why the schools wouldn’t want to fully embrace a program like this.
When my daughter was in the 6th grade, having enjoyed the DARE program the year before, she wanted to participate in the “DARE Club.” She was told they couldn’t accept her unless I was willing to volunteer with the program. I couldn’t. I was working full-time in New York City. So she missed out. I don’t know that it ultimately made a difference, since that program has been deemed so ineffective, but we should not be denying our children opportunities to participate in programs that can potentially provide them the tools and skills they need. And most of all, we need to start letting our kids know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on in their heads, what to do when something doesn’t feel right – to us, to their teachers, to their friends. We need to create a culture where their voice will not be met with judgement. We need to demand from our government that financial issues aren’t an impediment to getting the help anyone needs.
The high school provides a driver’s education class as part of the health curriculum sophomore year. In order to get a learner’s permit at 16, the State of New Jersey requires six hours of behind the wheel education with an accredited driving school. There are countless hours of practice driving with an adult, and then the requirement of passing the road test before being issued a probationary license. They are very well prepared – equipped with the tools and skills they need – to be competent drivers when they pull out of the driveway for that first time alone. And just in case, we put them in the safest cars the auto industry has ever produced, with all-wheel drive, anti-lock breaks, and airbags, and we require them by law to wear a seatbelt. Yet, mental health issues – addiction and suicide – continue to be a leading cause of death for our children that we don’t even want to talk about. Let’s start talking!
My car. Without me. On the road beyond my driveway. Ramsey, New Jersey. April, 2017.