Is My Child Addicted to Cocaine?
This story ends happily. My son now runs a rehab.
But it wasn’t happy for me and my wife when he was a teenager. We were worried witless when we thought he might be taking cocaine and other drugs.
The first thing we did was to find out as much as we could about cocaine and all other recreational drugs. As a medical student I’d been taught nothing about them. Or about any aspect of addiction other than dealing with overdoses. My wife and I had never used drugs. We didn’t even know what they looked like. Our innocence died when our fears turned out to be justified.
So we then learned all we could – about unhelpful things. We learned that, high up in the Andes, people chewed coca leaves to help them to do strenuous physical work in a thin atmosphere when they were hungry. We learned that the leaves could be pulverised and purified into a paste called basuco, which gave a more potent effect. We learned that further purification would produce crystalline cocaine. This could be rubbed into the gums, snorted up the nose or mixed with saline and injected. Or mixing the powder with water and baking soda would make little rocks of crack. These could be smoked in special pipes to give a quicker and more powerful hit.
This knowledge – and a lot more we learned on identifying the appearance and effects of other drugs – was no help to us at all in finding out what to do for our son.
But it’s the information we wanted at that time so here it is:
‘Coke’ is a white powder that people spread out – often on a mirror so they don’t lose sight of any of it – and then shaped with a razor blade into ‘lines’. Using a drinking straw or a rolled up banknote, these lines can be sniffed up one nostril while closing the other.
‘Freebase’ is a crystal-like powder refined from coke to make it stronger.
‘Wraps’ – little envelopes – of cocaine can be ‘stretched’ (mixed) with sugar or starch or benzocaine (a local anaesthetic that numbs the gums in the way cocaine does but has no mood-altering effect). The dream of a regular user of expensive cocaine is to buy some, use part of it, adulterate the rest with something cheap, and then sell on for the same as the purchase price. Much cocaine that is used ‘on the street’ is little more than 20% pure.
A rock of ‘Crack’ is off-white and about the size of a raisin. Its effects – and its potential for addiction – are rapid.
There is no safe form of cocaine. In people who have an addictive nature, they all lead in time to physical, emotional and mental destruction. But none of that is seen at first. The ‘high’ gives increased energy. This leads to excitable conversation – with confused ramblings imagined to be deep and meaningful – and a disregard of timetable, wittering away or dancing all hours.
Cocaine is commonly a ‘party’ drug, used with other people who become the closest friends ever met. This sense of intense – however false – companionship makes it very difficult to give up being a member of that clique.
Combining taking cocaine with drinking alcohol increases the flamboyance but decreases coherence. It is also medically dangerous, giving the worst effects of both drugs at the same time as reducing inhibitions.
Some people are able to take or leave cocaine. They can do the same with alcohol or nicotine. Others are not so fortunate even though they may be determined to prove they are.
An addictive nature – which may be genetically inherited – can be diagnosed in childhood long before there is any use of mood-altering substances or processes. There are 12 characteristic features that apply:
- Coming from an addictive family.
- Feeling separate from other people.
- Having wild mood swings for no obvious external reason.
- Trying to control everything with reasons and excuses.
- Being easily upset.
- Being easily bored and frustrated.
- Having a poor attention span (commonly diagnosed nowadays as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, whereas I see it merely as a precursor of overt addiction).
- Feeling lonely, angry, sad, misunderstood, picked on and resentful.
- Not doing as well at school as previously.
- Stopping activities that were previously enjoyed.
- Getting into repeated trouble.
- Picking new friends who also get into trouble.
(All these characteristics are illustrated on YouTube in my animated cartoon entitled Preventing Addiction for Beginners.)
The behaviour of addicts of any kind can be described accurately as ‘adolescence writ large’. This makes it very difficult for parents and other carers to know the dividing line.
Most children grow up. Addicts do not. Like adolescents, they are determined to change the world rather than change themselves. They don’t want to face reality. They want to bend it to their will.
Addictive substances and processes provide good feelings on the cheap. Bad feelings can be avoided. Good feelings don’t have to be earned. That artificial emotional world suits adolescents and addicts very well.
Every parent’s or carer’s nightmare is the fear that our own lovely child might develop an addiction. My own belief today, after personally treating over 5,000 addicts of one kind or another, is that an addictive nature may well be genetically inherited.
In learning about my son’s addictive behaviour, I had to recognise and deal with my own.
Professionally and personally I had to learn that addiction goes with the individual person as well as with the substance and environment. For people who are addicts by nature, it is insufficient to tell them to ‘just say no’. A compulsion is a great deal more than a habit.
An addictive nature can be provisionally diagnosed when someone has any four of the following specifically addictive characteristics:
- Preoccupation with use or non-use.
- Contentment with use on one’s own.
- Use primarily for mood-altering effect.
- Use as a medicine, as a tranquilliser, antidepressant, sleeping tablet or pain-killer.
- The need to protect the supply.
- The inability to predict what will happen after the first use in any day.
- Initially having a higher capacity than other people.
- Continuing to use despite damage.
- Continuing to use despite the repeated serious concern of other people.
- ‘Drug’-seeking behaviour.
- ‘Drug’-dependent behaviour.
- The tendency to cross-addict, coming out of one addictive behaviour and picking up another.
I believe – from considerable experience in helping addicts not only to stop but to stay stopped and live happy, creative and productive lives – that we have an in-born defect in the mood centres of our brains. We have an innate sense of being ‘minus 1’ in our feelings. We therefore seek out anything – a substance, a behaviour or a relationship – to give us a ‘plus 1’. Once found never forgotten.
Although we are not responsible for being addicts, any more than we would be for being born with a tendency to short sight, we remain totally accountable for our behaviour. Acknowledging our addictive nature gives us a sense of responsibility for dealing with it on a day-to-day basis so that we do not relapse to our former idiocy.
Nowadays we know much more about the brain than when I was a medical student. We know that repeated drug use changes the structure and function of the brain. Addiction changes personal and social values and changes behaviour. It leads to lying and manipulation and to the profound denial that anything is amiss. These characteristics have to be seen as symptoms of the underlying illness of addiction, not a stupidity or depravity or something that will simply be grown out of.
It takes courage to ask for help. I know that for myself. After all, I worked for 20 years as a doctor before I had to accept my own addictive nature. It also took a lot of courage for my wife and me to accept that our son has an addictive nature. And then to give him every personal support – coupled with loving confrontation – while he found the courage to deal with it on a continuing basis. As I said, this story ends happily with him running a rehab, helping others to gain the continuing freedom that he and I have found.
Nowadays I use all my previous experience when I see patients in my out-patient office in South Kensington. Please call me on 07540281820 to talk to me personally if you feel I could help you or a member of your family. Hopefully I should know what I’m talking about by now.