/ 25 April 2005

No quick fixes

There wasn’t a moment when Lisa Harding didn’t fear that her teenage son, Joshua, would be brought home in a body bag. Sometimes she even prayed that he would.

‘His sickness infected the whole family,” she says. ‘I didn’t understand what had caused it or how to stop it. I felt helpless and guilty and most of all, angry with him for subjecting us to the despair of watching him commit suicide.”

It’s a story with which so many families are agonisingly familiar: an average teenager from an ordinary home begins experimenting with drugs for no specific reason other than to be cool, escape problems or boost self-confidence. At first the signs are not obvious: maybe a slip in grades, a change of friends, a shift in appearance, mood swings — stuff that can easily be put down to hormonal changes associated with growing up.

In Joshua’s case, the more blatant symptoms were skilfully hidden by a decoy of extra-curricular activities and weekend school duties. It was only when his school notified his mother about his frequent absences that she became really alarmed. But by then Joshua was in way too deep. His addiction forced his mother into toilets, alleyways and informal settlements. She visited gangs and drug merchants in her search for her son. She was even assaulted by gang members and the lives of her family were threatened.

Today, at the age of 16, Joshua is in rehabilitation and appears to be on the road to recovery. But it’s one fragile step at a time for the entire Harding family. Lisa still berates herself for failing to detect the signs sooner.

But there are programmes to help the families of teenage drug addicts to learn how to identify and cope with this debilitating disease.

These programmes have long been in place in schools overseas, but their effectiveness is still in question. Drug awareness has

certainly increased among learners in Europe and the United States. But abuse has not decreased.

In recent years, South African schools have also attempted to assume a more proactive role in drug education. But counsellors stress that it is the family that will ultimately play the greatest role in dealing with drug abuse among children.

‘Addiction is a condition that we all want to fix,” says Sarah Fisher who runs Bridges — a drug prevention and intervention programme used by many schools. ‘We must recognise that addicts need more specialised help than their loved ones can possibly give. But there is still a fundamental role that families can play before the spiral of addiction takes over.”

One of them is to be sensitive to warning signs — some of them subtle — that might indicate drug abuse in teenagers (see below).

But even though some of these warning signs of drug abuse may be present, this does not mean the youngster is definitely abusing drugs. There are obviously other causes for some of this behaviour. However, if six of these signs are present for a period of time, parental intervention becomes imperative.

Intervention is a vital process the loved ones of an addict must initiate. It is basically a meeting held by family and close friends of the addict, facilitated by a professional. The purpose of an intervention is to create a sense of crisis by bringing together the meaningful people in the addict’s life to present, in a caring non-judgemental way, the desperate reality of the situation. It is not an opportunity to punish the addict.

Studies show that in 90% of cases where an intervention is created, the troubled teenager will agree to seek help. But even if

they still refuse, the intervention has not been a failure. Important seeds have been planted. Significantly, the family have acknowledged the problem and can now take steps to help themselves by implementing bottom lines and creating boundaries.

Family and professional intervention is not an ending; it is a beginning. It is a process of healing rather than hurting, of uniting rather than isolating. It is not an expression of anger or contempt, but a declaration of love.

Warning signs

* disrespect for family rules and general disinterest in family activities

* withdrawal from responsibilities

* verbally or physically abusive

* disappearance of valuable items or money

* constant excuses for behaviour

* lies about activities

* finding the following: cigarette rolling papers, pipes, roach clips, small glass vials, plastic baggies, remnants of drugs (seeds, etc)

* sudden drop in grades

* truancy

* reduced memory and attention span

* not informing you of teacher meetings or school events

* inexplicable mood swings and behaviour

* negative, argumentative, paranoid or confused, destructive, anxious

* a drastic weight loss or gain

* drastic alterations in appearance

Where to get help

Bridges (021) 852-6065

Drug Counselling Centre (021) 447 8026

Drug Education Agency (021) 531 9545

Houghton House (011) 728 0850

Durban Alcohol and Drug Centres (031) 202 2241/202 2274

Narcotics Anonymous

Cape Town: 0881 300-327

Gauteng: (011) 485 5248


Gauteng (011) 482 1070

Durban: (031) 303 2202

Cape Town: (021) 945 4080

Helpline: 082 788-3959

Lifeline 0800 0123 22