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article of the month
We will feature a new article here each month written by one of our group members. These articles are offered free for your information and are not meant to provide individual advice or psychotherapy.

Click here for previous Articles, Psych Bytes, News, and Book Reviews by topic.


January 2010

BEAUTIFUL BOY: A FAMILY’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE TRIALS OF ADDICTION

By Alan Solomon, Ph.D.

 

This powerful book, written by David Sheff, tells a compelling story of a father’s persistent, loving, and sometimes desperate efforts to help his son with drug addiction. In a very readable narrative, this family’s challenges begin with their son experimenting with marijuana in middle school, a not unusual scenario in today’s culture of adolescent behavior. Although the family lives in affluent Marin County in Northern California, their comfortable life style provides no protection at all, as the boy’s experimentation gradually escalates into regular use of marijuana, experimentation and then regular use of other drugs – including amphetamines. His school performance and attendance deteriorate. He begins to steal from his family and others to support his habit and eventually goes to live on the streets.

Repeated efforts at treatment begin with counseling in the local community early in the process, also intensifying into residential treatment programs by the time he is in high school and college. Any success in these efforts proves to be temporary, however, as the father struggles with his own understandable desires to rescue his son in ways that only enable more drug abuse. Through his own failures and painful learning experiences, the father allows natural and logical consequences to play themselves out, until the book concludes with what appears to be a successful attempt at treatment, and a more sustained period of sobriety for his son when he reaches his early 20’s. Guardedly optimistic, this ten year roller coaster ride seems to be at a more level path. However, it remains clear that there will be lifelong challenges for this boy and his family.

Several other aspects of this tale are important:

  • The toll this addiction takes on family members:
    - A stepmother who admirably remains caring and committed
    - A younger half sister whose trust in her older brother is severely tested and damaged
    - The father, himself, who experiences unremitting fears, worries, and then his own life threatening health problems that arise out of the turmoil.
  • The unknown risks and possibility of permanent neurological damage to the son due to his use of amphetamines.
  • Acknowledgement of precipitant factors.

One precipitant in this family, involves a marital divorce between the boy’s biological parents early in his elementary school years, with a geographical separation between mother in Southern California and father in Northern California. This arrangement complicates and limits the boy’s visits with his mother, since his primary residence is with his father. An apparently “good adjustment” to this disruption by the boy leaves the family without additional outside help during this transition and its aftermath. Also, in the course of the narrative, the author reveals his own history of extensive experimentation with a variety of drugs during his college years and afterwards, which did wind down as he matured further.

One chapter devoted to neurological research about addiction, as part of the author’s search to more deeply understand his son’s struggles, is also of interest. Fascinating, at least to this reader, the devastating impact of amphetamine use on the human brain is powerfully elucidated. Fortunately for this boy, his drug use does not reach the point of irreversible brain damage, at least at the conclusion of this tale when he is in his early 20’s.

The value of this powerful story extends beyond drug abuse issues. In fact, it was recommended to me by a client who is the father of a daughter who struggled with an eating disorder. A high school student at the time, this girl’s family had been through a similar cycle of repeated efforts at therapy, including residential programs, before she seemed to stabilize and make genuine, consistent progress in her junior year of high school. The father felt the book spoke so powerfully to him and could be of profound help to other families confronting similar situations, that he gave me a new copy to read and keep, in the hopes that I would share it with other clients and professionals. I have done so in the past few years, and am extending this sharing further with this article. A special thank you to this man, not only for his unstinting, dedicated efforts to help his own daughter and family, but for his generosity in giving me an opportunity to expand my own knowledge to share with others. One of the deeply gratifying aspects of this work is not only being of help to clients, but having repeated opportunities to continue learning myself.

Any family dealing with addiction issues will likely benefit greatly by reading Beautiful Boy, whether the challenge involves drugs, alcohol, food, or compulsive behavior in gambling, sexuality, seeking love, shopping/spending money, or self-destructive behavior such as cutting. The emotional essence of addiction is a desperate effort to find temporary relief from what feels like unbearable tension, to self-medicate with substances or behavior that numbs out some deep pain, and then repeat the addictive behavior with increasing frequency and intensity to ward off the inevitable tension/pain, despite the longer-term consequences, disruption, and chaos that ensues.

A few additional points deserve some emphasis:

  • Significant events, losses, and stressors greatly increase a child’s vulnerability to addiction. Severe illness or death of a family member, ongoing marital conflict/tension and divorce, instances of child abuse of any form, learning difficulties that create failure and frustration for a child, social and/or emotional difficulties for a child – these are but a few, easily identified factors that can eventually lead to addiction. Anxiety, tension, depression, pain of some sort caused by such stressors demand some relief, making a child vulnerable to addictive choices.
  • Any family history of addictive behaviors is a risk factor. An honest self-evaluation, perhaps with the help of a trained professional, is needed by parents, which is challenging sometimes since we all have a tendency to ignore/minimize our own worrisome histories. This risk extends to grandparents and aunts/uncles of the child, all of whom provide evidence of some genetic vulnerability.
  • Efforts at therapy may have to be extensive and intensive to be successful. While there is growing research about and understanding of addiction, our therapy programs are admittedly no guarantee of success at this time. The “science” is just not that well-developed, yet. Some successes may well be followed by setbacks and ongoing challenges, and continuing support for the child may well be an absolute necessity to maintain sobriety, prevent or respond immediately to relapses, and sustain growth and development. A collaborative effort with the treating professionals is essential.

What shines through in this wonderfully crafted book is an underlying and moving optimism. With commitment, caring, firmness and nurturing, a child’s life can be saved from the horrors of addiction and a family’s wounds can be healed. A Beautiful Boy is a must-read.

 

 


 





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