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Our Parents Are Addicted to Opioids

When parents misuse painkillers, the effects on their kids can be devastating. Three teens share how these drugs shattered their families— and inspired them to create a better future.

If you've ever broken a bone or torn a muscle, you know how debilitating the pain can be. Maybe you took pills to help you feel better. But what if, after you healed, you still needed the pills? What if that need was so intense it made you neglect everything else—even your family?

This terrifying scenario is a reality for the more than 2 million Americans who are dependent on opioids, the painkilling substances in many prescription drugs and also illegal drugs like heroin. And often, the children of people with opioid dependencies suffer just as much as their parents.

It may be hard to understand how someone could let a little pill destroy their family, but no one sets out to get addicted to painkillers. Most people develop a dependency on opioids after being prescribed pills to treat pain from an injury or chronic condition. While the drugs can be safe for short-term use, for many years pharmaceutical companies downplayed their addictive nature. In fact, opioids are dangerously habit-forming. (See “Opioids and the Brain.”) Prescription drugs are expensive, so users may turn to cheaper, illegal opioids like heroin to support their habit.

The effects of opioid dependency on families can be devastating. Kids may wind up caring for siblings or their parents, or may be removed from their parents’ custody. Choices spoke with four teens (and one mom) who want to raise awareness about these drugs. Here’s how they cope—and how they hope to help others.

“I want to help other kids like me.”

—Amarah, 17, Colorado

I lived with my mother until I was 9, and even though I was a kid, I was often the adult in our relationship. There were times I had to tuck her in at night or take care of my younger sister.

There were pill bottles around our house, and even though my brain didn’t process that they were drugs, I knew my mother’s behavior was not normal. She would sell my toys to get money for drugs, and she would disappear for days. When she was at home, a lot of the time she’d be knocked out on her bed. Sometimes I’d look down at her and try to feel warmth. Those moments were the only times I had a real mother-child experience with her.

Another thing making life hard was that my mother moved us around a lot: By fourth grade, I’d attended 16 schools. I felt like my eyes were always telling people, “Help me.” Adults saw me eating out of trash cans; they saw that my mom didn’t pick me up on time, but they didn’t report anything.

 

Amarah and Miska share a peaceful moment.

Then, in 2012, my mother was arrested, and I started living with my grandmother. Life got better, and I wanted to help other kids like me. I launched a food, clothing, and toy drive, and I started writing a column called “Kids Like Me” for a local newspaper. Last year, I was honored by our city council for my work for the community, which makes me feel good. I also cope by writing fictional stories based on things that have happened to me. With my stories, I feel like I’ve been able to turn the bad things into something good.

Another way I’d like to make a difference is by talking to lawmakers about getting more rights for children of drug users. A lot of times parents get help, but the kids often don’t. For now, I want kids like me to know that what you do with your life is all up to you.

“I didn’t cause their addiction, and I can’t control it.”

—Nathan, 15, Florida

I’ve been living with my grandmother since I was 3 years old because my mom and dad went to jail for drugs. For a long time, I didn’t know where they were. Then, when they got out of jail, my parents started living in our house. It was really hard because of their substance use. I was holding in all my emotions and not talking about what was going on at home, and I didn’t know how to cope. I started going to counseling, and that helped a lot.

Another thing that helped was a weekend program called Camp Mariposa. It’s for kids who have family members struggling with addiction, and I’ve been going since I was 9. A lot of us have had to grow up too fast. All of the counselors have been through their own tough experiences too, and they’ve been a big help to me in learning how to talk about my feelings.

Now I understand that I can’t do anything about my parents’ struggles. I didn’t cause their addiction, and I can’t control it. Once I stopped holding everything in, I felt a lot of stress come off my shoulders. After a weekend away, I would sleep so much better.

 

Nathan finds strength in sharing his experiences with other kids.

I’m now a junior counselor at the camp. It’s been tough doing virtual camp because of the coronavirus, but kids still have parents with addictions, and many of the kids are stuck at home with their parents now. The counselors had a big impact on me, so I like that I can support others.

It feels good knowing I’m helping other kids and also knowing that if I’m worked up about something, I can talk about it with my grandmother. I try not to keep all that stuff inside me anymore because I understand that stress is not good for you, physically or emotionally.

I was accepted into a special program that lets you take college-level courses while you’re in high school, and I’m going to start studying psychology. I definitely want to be a psychologist—probably a child psychologist—when I get older. I love to help other people. Some people don’t have anyone.

“I’ve seen what drugs can do to people.”

—Kaycee, 15, West Virginia

When I was younger, I felt like I had nobody I could look up to or trust. I knew my biological parents were using drugs because they did them while my older brother, younger sister, and I were around. I remember times when we would go without food because my parents had spent all their money on drugs instead of groceries. Once, one of my mother’s friends took us kids on a walk up and down a street, stopping people to ask them for money so we could eat.

My parents weren’t together as a couple. When my father had us, he would drop us off at different people’s houses. He made us feel like a burden. I remember waiting days or even weeks for him to come back and get me. Then, when we were living with my mother and her girlfriend, Child Protective Services (an agency that responds to reports of child abuse or neglect) came. My mother and her girlfriend told the caseworker their needles and pills were medicine. But I told the caseworker that I didn’t believe my mother. It was the best thing I could have said.

 

Kaycee is looking forward to a bright future helping other kids make a difference.

Soon after that, my siblings and I were put into foster care. Our first foster parents were abusive, so we were moved to other homes. At one point, I was sent to a children’s shelter. Finally, my sister and I were brought to a new foster home. Two years ago, we were adopted by those parents, and we changed our names to have a fresh beginning.

Things are much better now, but they’re not always perfect. In high school, my friend group started doing stuff that I didn’t want to be involved in, like vaping in the bathroom or doing drugs at parties, so I had to find new friends. I’ve seen what drugs can do to people, and I understand that they can ruin lives. People think they can stop, but once you’re addicted, it’s hard.

Because of my experiences, I’ve thought about becoming a foster mom when I’m older. No matter what, I will try to help kids in need. I’ll tell them to be the ones who change the world.

“My kids deserved so much better.”

Melissa, a mom of two, was originally prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain. She spent six years misusing the drugs before quitting for good four years ago. She and her older child, Katherine, 13, who uses the pronoun they, open up about what their family went through.

MELISSA: I used to tell my kids I was sick. And I was. I was either sick from actual physical health issues, or I was sick from being high, or I was sick from not being high.

KATHERINE: I was really sad knowing something was wrong with my mother and I wasn’t able to help. I remember knocking on her door, trying to get her out of her room.

M: Katherine did as much as they could—trying to make me eat or putting a cool rag on my head when I was sleeping. They loved me, but I know they had a lot of anger inside. I would send them to birthday parties without a present because we didn’t have money, and looking like a mess because they never had clean clothes. I still have guilt about a lot of things that I put my kids through.

K: I knew that my mom was doing drugs, I just didn’t know what kind of drugs. Most of the time, I was worried about her.

Finally, Melissa got help. She spent a week at a hospital and then a year at a different program overcoming her dependency on drugs.

M: I remember when Katherine asked why I’d been in a hospital. They wanted an answer for everything. I didn’t realize all the things they’d seen. We did a lot of counseling.

K: A lot of counseling. Life today is better in every way. There are still issues, but at least we’re not switching schools, jumping from house to house, staying with our grandparents. I feel happier and calmer.

M: Recently I took us all out to eat at a really nice restaurant. People might think, “Big deal, you went to a restaurant.” But for us, it was a huge deal, because we didn’t usually have money to do stuff like that.

K: It feels good knowing we can do that kind of stuff now.

Melissa and Katherine try to support families affected by the disease of addiction.

M: My biggest motivator has been remembering when I didn’t believe it was possible to get better. I felt like my kids deserved so much better.

K: I usually don’t say this to her, but she’s made huge progress. She’s now the person I want to be.

Read an example of Amarah’s creative writing in The Missing Ponies.

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