Ask Mary Jo
You can step off family’s path of addiction
Q. When I’m in class with you, I feel like I can do things. I don’t feel like that a lot. Thank you for that. You always said we could write any question anonymously and put it in your curiosity bag. I like doing that. I used to have a lot I was curious about. Since sixth grade you’ve answered my questions. I’m a senior now. Thank you for answering all my questions during this time. But now I have a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. How do I keep from becoming addicted to something? My gramma is in AA now, but it’s kind of late for that since she’s been drinking as long as I’ve known her, and when I look at her “clean and sober” for 72 days I only see her drunk. My pap died. No one said it was from drinking, but I’m not stupid. My mom and dad and older brothers drink and drive. I’ve seen them use drugs more times than I can count. Same with my uncles and aunts. Do you know what it feels like to be a little kid in a car and know that the driver is drunk out of his mind and you can’t get out and walk? In school we’d talk about not drinking and driving, so as a little kid I knew it was wrong, but how does a kid stop an adult from doing what is wrong? I don’t drink, and I don’t do drugs. I’ve read about it and I know that this is an addiction. A sickness. I don’t hate my family. But how do I not become them?
Mary Jo’s response: When I opened your question, my heart hurt. As the young people at our Teen Center would say, I have so many “feels.” First and most important: I’m so very proud of you. Writing about your family was painful and courageous. You are a strong person.
I’m sad because I didn’t know you were facing challenges at home. I wish I could go back in time and support you as a sixth-grader. I’m so very glad you wrote now.
I cannot predict your future or offer you a perfect plan to avoid addiction, but I can help you select an addiction-free lifestyle. Your family’s choices are not your choices.
Your question is an incredible first step to avoiding addiction. Your proactive approach will not only help you but may also help others who read of your courage. Genetics is the science of heredity – the study of the parts of us we inherit from our families. Research does show that genetics plays a role in the development of addiction. Many other factors may be equally important in deciding how susceptible you may be. Taking care of your mental health, making wise choices and selecting friends who support those choices can make it easier to avoid addiction.
Education to raise awareness of the triggers linking you to addictive behavior is also important. I’d like you to see a counselor or therapist right away. Everyone’s body is different, but some research shows that children of addicted parents are four times more likely to have problems with substance/alcohol abuse than children from families without these problems.
Don’t be afraid. Even if you’ve inherited addiction-related genes, you can live an addiction-free life. A counselor can help you deal with your family history and sort out your feelings. Continue to reach out. Alateen is a support group for young people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. Pennsylvania information is available at http://pa-al-anon.org/. Let’s talk. If you’re not able to find an Alateen group near you, I’d be willing to start a group at our Teen Center.
Abstaining from alcohol and drugs is a difficult choice, but you’ve decided to avoid them. You’ve faced this challenge alone. You no longer are alone. I’d like to meet with you often – not as a counselor, but as a friend. Please hold onto my number and text if you’re feeling frightened or confused.
After researching the National Association for Children of Alcoholics website, I’d like to offer the following tips:
1. Remind yourself it’s not your fault. You are not responsible for adult choices.
2. You can make your own choices. Plan ahead.
3. It’s OK to spend time away from your family when they’re using.
4. Explore activities to bring you joy.
5. Avoid triggers linking you to drugs or alcohol.
6. Stay connected with supportive people.
Finally, please accept my gratitude. Today you are a teacher, and your words matter. I am blessed to be an adjunct professor in the Education Department at W&J College. Guiding aspiring teachers is one of the greatest joys of my life. I often share two of my core beliefs. Each person is a person of worth is the foundation of my work; you are a living example of worth. At 18, you have the maturity to examine your life and the lives of those around you. Such maturity is rare. My second core belief is vital to a teacher’s daily life with young people. Do you remember what Shrek said about ogres? He said ogres are onions. One can only see one layer at a time. People are onions, too. When a teacher sees a student, only the very top layers are visible. You held your outer layers close and did not share the reality of your life at home. I want new teachers to realize this simple fact: Children in trouble will not typically blurt out the truth about their lives. Love for their family, fear and normalization of their experiences keeps them silent. Children often believe their lives are the lives of other children. We all see life through our own eyes. For this reason, I encourage teachers to look beyond the superficial and seek the reality. By writing to me and allowing me to post your question you’ve taught new as well as experienced teachers. We are all grateful. Stay in touch. Good luck.