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Update: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Substance Abuse
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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2/4/10

You see a small plastic bottle of Visine or other brand of eye drops in your teen son’s or daughter’s room. He/she seems to have lingering colds and reddish eyes. You must have misplaced some cash in the house – several times in fact, over the past few months. Your adolescent son or daughter begs off family weddings or other life-cycle events, and his/her last report card was a disaster. Obviously, any one or two of these factors could be completely harmless. But in the aggregate, they are often signs of impending substance abuse issues. Parents of adolescents need to become more knowledgeable about these symptoms.

Your parents didn’t know any of this? You are offended at the notion that you need to think in these terms? Deal with it, as the kids would say. Becoming a knowledgeable and hands-on parent is by far your best shot at guiding your at-risk child through this stormy phase in his/her life. Your involvement in your child’s life is perhaps the greatest predetermining factor to help your child ride out the storm and get back on the track to a productive future.

What are some of the behaviors of kids who are addicted to drugs? I asked my dear friend Dr. Benzion Twerski, an outstanding mental health professional who specializes in substance abuse treatment, to prepare a list for our readers. Here are the symptoms he suggested parents look out for:


While other factors may cause many of these symptoms, these are behaviors and activities typical of individuals who are substance abusers:

** Sudden changes in mood, attitudes, or vocabulary. Impulsive behavior.
** Sudden and continuing decline in attendance or performance at work or in school.
** Sudden and continuing resistance to discipline at home or in school.
** Impaired relationships with family members or friends.
** Unusual flares of temper.
** Increased amount and frequency of borrowing money from family and friends.
**Stealing from the home, at school, or in the workplace.
** Denies having a drug problem.
** Heightened secrecy about actions and possessions.
** Associating with a new group of friends, especially with those who use drugs or exhibit similar lifestyles.
** Has physical symptoms of drug abuse, such as red eyes, dilated pupils, constricted pupils, sleepiness, chronic runny nose, scars or needle marks.
** Keeping long hours away from home, especially at night and on weekends.
** Neglectful of personal health and unexplained medical symptoms such as weight loss and pallor.
** Sudden and continuing change in appearance and manner of dress, especially when contrasting to family patterns.
** Trouble handling responsibilities.

WHAT NOW?

If you are starting to connect the dots, and feel that you may see signs of potential substance abuse in your teenager, it is important for you to proceed slowly and with much reflection. Please don’t overreact or impulsively attempt to ‘get your child back on track," The circumstances that created this situation did not occur overnight, nor will they magically disappear. Seek professional guidance as to the steps that you should take, and the pace in which you should take them.

I would suggest that you not take the convenient “it’s-all-the-bad-friends-that-caused-this” route but instead look at a broader view of your child’s life and explore circumstances that may have caused him/her to turn to drugs. After all, much or most (not all) drug use is an attempt to seek relief from searing pain. As I wrote in The Monster Inside, the #1 cause of drug use and suicides in our community is by far abuse/molestation. I have rarely met a frum hard-drug user who was not abused.

I would say that the second cause of drug use is the boredom and horrible feeling of leading a meaningless life that happens when parents refrain from doing what is wise and productive for young adults who are clearly not cut out for full-time Yeshiva study because they are worried about what the neighbors will say or because of shidduch considerations.

I plead with parents whose kids are drifting to read Getting Your Teenager Back on Track and Running Out of Time carefully and consider following my recommendations. I would also suggest that you print The Plan for your mainstream sons to read as I feel that “having a plan” is a great antidote for the drifting that often leads to smoking, drinking and overall substance abuse.

In my opinion, any teenager who is addicted to drugs is a choleh sheyesh bo sakanah, one who has a potentially life-threatening illness. A child like this needs a professional drug rehabilitation center, not a yeshiva. (I mention this because I have received more than a few phone calls over the years from distraught parents whose children had major drug overdoses – and they asked me for school placements or recommendations to programs for at-risk kids.)

I beg all parents whose child has a drug/alcohol overdose to call Hatzalah or 911 immediately and not their rabbi or someone-who-deals-with-at-risk-kids. Additionally, it is important to note that therapists, such as those listed below, cannot do much when someone has overdosed. An overdose is a medical emergency and the addict needs to be viewed like a victim of a car crash. Only after the emergency calls have been made is it appropriate to reach out to the addiction experts who can then contribute their expertise to the situation.

You would not consider removing a stage-four-cancer patient (G-d forbid) from a hospital in order to send him to a yeshiva. To quote Dr. Benzion Twerski, “Alcohol and drug abuse is a disease. It is a fatal illness that begins with casual or experimental use of a chemical for its mind-altering effects. It rapidly becomes an addiction, which involves loss of control over the substance or behavior, and eventually leads to self- destructiveness.”

It is important to understand that drug use also follows a continuum, from experimentation to regular use to dependency and addiction. Not everyone who smokes marijuana is a hard-core addict. But if your child is using drugs at any level, please seek professional help immediately. And seek the help of people who are trained specifically in the field of substance abuse addiction. A Rabbi has a crucial and significant role in assisting an addicted child or adult. He can offer moral support, spiritual guidance, and answer any halachic questions that will inevitably arise as a result of the treatment of the addiction. Rabbis (this writer included) however, and yeshivos are not equipped to deal with or heal people who are addicts. If you are not sure if your child falls into the category of a “user,” please go to a trained professional for his or her advice.

EVER HEAR OF A BASKETBALL?

With Purim rapidly approaching, I implore parents and educators to proactively prevent our younger kids from their first exposure to the poisons of smoking and hard drinking. (An excellent column on this subject is A Sober Look at Alcohol Use written by Dr. Moshe Werzberger.)

Just read these statistics from the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse quoted in the most recent of the dozens of columns I’ve written on Purim Drinking over the past 12 years:

“A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.”

“Teens who smoke cigarettes are 12 times likelier to use marijuana and more than 19 times likelier to use cocaine.”

The message is crystal clear – stop your kids from experimenting with smoking and drinking and they are almost certain to remain drug free all their lives.

Perhaps the best thing parents of mainstream children can do to keep their kids free from substance abuse – aside from speaking to them regularly, which research shows to be extraordinarily effective – is to see that they have healthy exercise habits. I think that the fact that children are not playing enough sports nowadays in many kehilos is a direct reason why today’s mainstream children are drinking far more that the most rebellious ones growing up in my generation did. (Read Exit Interviews for more on this.)

My feelings on this are pretty much summed up in the closing words of Purim Drinking;

“For years now, I have been writing columns bemoaning the fact that we are paying a steep price for reducing or entirely discouraging recreational/sports activities for normal, healthy teenagers who need exercise so badly. One of the things that simply drive me batty is when parents and/or educators excuse away drinking and smoking by explaining that, “The boys have a brutal schedule and need to blow a little steam.”

My response usually is, “HELLO! Did you ever hear of a basketball?”

REACH OUT FOR HELP

In closing; at the risk of sounding melodramatic, if your child is addicted to drugs, this is a life-or-death matter. Too many of our precious children have died of drug overdoses, for you to worry about what the neighbors will think or to just hope that things will improve. If you even suspect that your child has a substance abuse problem, please reach out for help immediately … before it’s too late.

Here are some resources that may be helpful to you. Should you need more information, you can call our Project Y.E.S. office at 718-256-5360, or email our managing director at naomi.lewis@pyes.org. I also respectfully ask that you forward this email to anyone you know who may need this information.

May Hashem grant us all the courage to deal with the challenges our beloved children face, courageously and effectively, and may our sons and daughters be a source of endless nachas to our families and to klal Yisroel.

Residential Drug Programs*

• Chabad Residential Treatment program in Los Angeles, CA (323) 965-1372

• Torah and the 12 Steps Florida, Rabbi Israel Burns, Director (305) 776-3953

• Behavioral Health of The Palm Beaches, Florida (800) 251-9445; ask for the Admissions Jewish Unit (Adults)

• Caron Foundation, Wernersville PA, (800) 678-2332 and ask for Rabbi Lipsker who assists frum patients there

• Marworth Treatment Center Waverly, PA and ask for Rabbi Dovid Saks who assists frum patients there.

*These are either Jewish programs or are experienced in dealing with the needs of frum patients.

Frum Mental Health Professionals**

**Both are specialists in substance abuse and have vast experience in treating frum addicts. I am also personally grateful to them as they have graciously shared their time and wisdom with me over the years whenever I have reached out to them.

© 2010, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved



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