“What drives a person to stick a needle in their arm?”
This was a question posed by a professor in one of my university classes. The question came after a fellow student told the story of her brother who grew up in a three-sibling, functional, middle-class family. All three children were exposed to the same parents, genetics and environment. Two kids turned out fine, both were doing well in university, while the other went on to become a heroin addict. Which drives the million dollar question: Why?
Rabbi Eckstein, the founder and director of Retorno says:
“A row of town houses is built by the same builder. An earthquake comes and only one house falls. Why? We know it’s the same construction company, with all the same materials. But…maybe the fault line runs under one particular house. Maybe it rained on the day that foundation was laid. Maybe the foreman hired a substitute bricklayer one day. Who can really know?”
When it comes to addiction, we know what the risk factors are. We know that genetics play a role. Children of substance-using parents are more likely to become addicted themselves for several reasons. They carry a genetic vulnerability and they are also exposed to permissive parental attitudes regarding substance use. If parents are using drugs, children usually have easier access to drugs and alcohol.
There are other risk factors to consider, such as socioeconomic status, mental health issues and exposure to peers who are using substances.
But what if your child has none of these risk factors? You know their family history, you’ve met their friends, they’ve never shown signs of having problems with anxiety or depression. They’re making good grades in school and have a bright future ahead of themselves. They’re a good kid, and they know better. Are they still at risk?
At Retorno, the largest Jewish organization in the world for the prevention and treatment of addictions, we see addicted teens and young adults who come from “good” families, with caring and successful parents. Based on an analysis of the risk factors, these kids should be clean. But they are struggling.
Studies investigating risk of mental health problems and addiction are never able to tell us the whole story. Research investigating the history of individuals in drug and alcohol treatment programs speak in terms of increased risk and greater likelihoods, of probable outcomes and averages. But there are people who use substances that do not have a history of past trauma, abuse or substance-using parents — and not all children born and raised in a risky environment grow up to imitate their parents.
On a human level, the picture is vastly more complicated than probabilities and risk factors. In real life, each person is faced with new choices every day. As our children grow, they are bombarded with cultural messages about what is expected of them and how they should look, feel and act. These messages — and how our children respond to them — are outside of a parent’s control.
The family environment is somewhat permeable; there are no concrete boundaries capable of separating children from the world outside. Our children are exposed physically, psychologically and culturally to a barrage of healthy and unhealthy messages every day.
Do not assume that because your child is a good kid making good grades she or he will never be tempted or exposed to drugs and/or excessive drinking. The numbers of kids trying drugs and binge drinking are surprisingly high. A child who tries a substance is not guaranteed to become addicted. However, initial experimentation is the first step. In the US, college campus drinking is a huge public health concern. A recent study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 2 out of 3 students had engaged in binge drinking during the month prior to the study.
In Israel, 300,000 people use drugs (3.5% of the population), including 70,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 18. In the Israel Defense Forces, the stats are much bleaker: no less than 54% of soldiers have smoked marijuana in the past year, according to an Epidemiological Survey conducted by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority.
The world outside is complex and pervasive. As good parents, we cannot control everything our child is exposed to. We cannot control how they choose to deal with the stresses, the pressures and the disappointments we all inevitably face at one time or another.
If you find out your child is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, help is available. Although addiction is complex and seemingly out of a parent’s control, with the proper treatment, your child can recover.