Teen Addiction and Recovery: What’s in Store

September 19, 2016
To hear Maggie tell her recovery story, check out her Far From Finished podcast episode. Far From Finished is a podcast series that shares the unfiltered, real-life stories of people in recovery. Please join us every Monday as we introduce a brand new episode of Far From Finished.

Entering Addiction at a Young Age

woman depressed and on drugsMaggie French was 12 when she started drinking. According to Maggie, “it was pretty standard where I grew up,” in Vermont. By 15, she was using heroin intravenously.
Little did Maggie know she was part of a trend – young Vermonters using drugs at an alarming rate. For the year 2007-2008, “Vermont ranked first among all states in several drug-use categories among persons age 12-17.”
When in his 2014 State of the State Message, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont announced the seriousness of the drug crisis in the state, particularly concerning drug overdose, he got the nation’s attention.
“’Every week, he said, more than $2 million worth of heroin and other opiates are trafficked into Vermont.”

“How could it be happening in this dairy capital, this Green Mountain state?” people were asking. Experimentation and risk taking have always been signature traits of adolescence. But the trend was being driven by new influences, such as self-medication. Young people use drugs to dull their emotions, to heighten their lows, to improve their performance, to increase productivity.
Trends like increased availability of adult medications, normalization of “performance enhancement,” and medicating children at a young age, such as prescribing Ritalin for ADHD, have contributed to a culture of self-medication – feeling “different”? Medicate. It has become as much a part of young substance abuse as developmentally related motivations like thrill seeking and risk taking.

In unexpected places like bucolic Vermont, these new motivations help drive addiction across all social boundaries.

Praying.One Harvard undergraduate, discussing the stresses of school, inadvertently brings up drug use via self-medication as if it were a normative option:

“Even if you didn’t feel like an overachiever, you still had to fake it because everyone expected you to be one. I learned that if you didn’t fit in, it was up to you to change to adapt to Harvard. Otherwise, the options available to you were to take a year off to think things through, to self-medicate your way through to graduation, or to have a shrink prescribe anti-depressants to numb your disgruntlement. I was shocked to see just how many students there had access to drugs and how many students were taking anti-depressants.”

By age 17, Maggie reports, she was chasing the dream of becoming an actress – “a hundred pound blackout drunk girl” alone in New York City.
One of the characteristics of teen alcoholism is that “teens are more likely to black out (be conscious but unable to remember).”
Maggie was on the young end of the curve when she began drinking at 12. But most people who will have substance issues are not very far behind her. Well over 90% of those struggling with addiction began their illicit use before age 25.

The Shape of Recovery for Those Who Start Young

Handsome young man on a lake in a sunny, peaceful dayIn her Far from Finished podcast, Maggie French reports always looking outside herself for solutions. She remembers her disappointment one childhood Christmas when the gifts under the tree failed to uplift her in the way she’d expected. Later in life, she turns to boyfriends for that boost. Most of the research points to the fact that her young age also made her extremely vulnerable to the worst possible outcomes.
Research shows that the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely he or she is to develop serious problems.8 This may reflect the harmful effect that drugs can have on the developing brain;”

“One of the brain areas still maturing during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that enables us to assess situations, make sound decisions, and keep our emotions and desires under control.11 The fact that this critical part of an adolescent’s brain is still a work in progress puts them at increased risk for making poor decisions (such as trying drugs or continuing to take them). Also, introducing drugs during this period of development may cause brain changes that have profound and long-lasting consequences.”

Maggie showed many of the vulnerabilities common among the very young:

  • Transitional time, life changes
  • Prone to taking risks
  • Decision-making part of the brain still in development
  • Skill at planning and processing consequences still in development
  • Peer awareness, pressure, looking outside oneself
  • Peers using drugs as a way of dealing with stress (MDMA, Alcohol)
  • Peers using drugs as a way of performance enhancement (Adderall to study, steroids for physical performance)

There’s a saying in the recovery community that you enter recovery at the emotional age you were when you started using the drug. Maggie French feels the adage certainly applied to her first days in recovery.
“It emotionally it felt like I was 13, with regards to relationships, and mostly in regards to my relationship with myself… I grappled for the first 9 months with how am I going to be with myself now… while I shaped myself.”

Recovery: No Matter How Young You Start, You Can Put It Behind You

French says that in early recovery she still engaged in a lot of attention-seeking behaviors; she became a workaholic “because when I was at work I didn’t have to deal with myself.” And she had a couple of false starts (relapse) before she learned, partially through mentoring and partially through trial and error, to surround herself with women who were steady (and “ahead of her”) in their recovery.

But French doesn’t regret her relapses. “As traumatic as my last relapse was, it was such an unbelievably useful tool in dealing with the kids out there.” She feels it gives her more relevance and a more complete understanding of all facets of the disease.

Going through treatment is a great accomplishment. But it’s important for those leaving treatment to realize that their new life is not handed out with the completion certificate. Rather, leaving treatment offers a fresh opportunity to shape that life.

Now that she’s coming on a decade sober, Maggie French would say that she’s maturing in her sobriety. She can cite no single corner turned that assured her she’d arrived safely; nor does she feel she can say how she might face future challenges when they arrive.

“There’s been so many corners – I feel like recovery is a series of hills and plateaus.

There are periods when I’m cruising and there are moments of real growth. It looks different every time.

At this point it’s about emotional sobriety.”

Still, by anyone’s standards, Maggie is definitely moving forward. She has moved up within American Addiction Centers to become regional manager. To do that, she spends less time talking to parents and clients – a part of her former job that she misses – but she has learned to make the shift by taking on a new focus.

“Being a regional manager is unbelievably rewarding. Now I get to make that happen through the people on my team.”

Many on Maggie’s team at AAC are also in recovery, and she sees managing the team as an extension of (perhaps the maturing of) her work.

“I really love that I get to help them be the absolute best they can be, the most effective they can be in helping others get treatment.

As she matures in sobriety, Maggie French also takes a wider view of addiction treatment across the national landscape. She is excited about the AAC goal to raise the standards in the treatment field through uniform, well-researched practices and systemic documentation. Her hope is that as AAC provides optimum, standardized care in its facilities around the country, it will put upward pressure on the field of addiction care as a whole.

“I would like to see the industry move in a more professional direction and see the people working in every area of it to realize we’re working with a life and death disease and every thing we do should be with that in mind.”

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