How kids hide drug habit, and how parents can tell

  • Heroin use is on the rise in the suburbs.

    Heroin use is on the rise in the suburbs. Daily Herald file photo

Erin Holmes
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Updated 4/4/2014 5:42 PM
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Dec. 5, 2001 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

For a year and a half, Matthew Albano was so addicted to heroin he woke up to a bag of dope in the mornings and stole cash from family members to feed his habit.

But his mother had no idea.


He still spent time with her, watching television and just hanging out; when he felt himself nodding off from the narcotic, he'd innocently say he needed a nap.

"I acted normal," he said.

Chicago area addictions counselors can tell many stories like Albano's, about addicts they've seen who are using heroin or club drugs, right under the noses of their parents, for years at a time.

"A lot of times you're not able to distinguish when someone is using," said Paul S. Board, medical director at Hazelden Chicago, a residential recovery program. "It is possible to not know."

Drug use does leave some physical tracks: drugs in general can create confusion and impaired motor skills. Some club drugs can cause difficulty sleeping, long-term fatigue, jaw-clenching and nausea. And heroin addicts, if they don't get enough of the drug, can suffer magnified flu symptoms.

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Parents also may be able to find signs of drug use in their child's room: drugs, or drug paraphernalia, such as heroin needles, spoons for melting heroin or pacifiers used to sooth clenched teeth while on Ecstasy.

But symptoms may be easily hidden - if users don't use around family and friends - and it's likely proof of drug use also will be hard to find, even with a thorough combing of a bedroom or closet.

The bottom line: addiction can be hard to discover, even for the most in-tune friends and family.

Heroin and club drugs don't target certain "types." While there are theories about addictive personalities, the drugs "hit all slices of the population," Board said. Don't rule out the straight-A kid, the rich kid, the athlete or the principal's son.

Once someone becomes addicted, they're experts at being sneaky. They aren't high when they're around family or friends who don't use. They can taint drug tests so they come out negative; they can insist they're not using.


At the same time, some parents may be in denial, not wanting to acknowledge that their child could be hooked on drugs. For such parents, the whole idea can shatter a self-esteem that's centered in part on how well their children do in life; they may fear that they'll be seen as failures if their children use drugs.

Those factors make identifying heroin or club drug addicts daunting and difficult, but not impossible. And in a time when club drugs and heroin have become increasingly available, detection is most certainly very necessary.

The best thing to do, experts say, is look for changes in behavior.

As Albano became more hooked on heroin, his attitude changed. He became depressed. He had new friends come to his house to do drugs with him. He was sneaky.

Other recovering addicts admit their habit brought on worse grades in school, poor attendance in classes and arguments with family. Counselors say they've seen addicts withdraw from their family, avoid family functions or become more rebellious.

Because those things on their own also could be signs of adolescence, it's important to look for multiple "symptoms" and make sure they represent a change from the teen's normal behavior.

If a teen normally returns in time for curfew, for instance, and suddenly stops returning home at night, you could have a problem.

"You do hear stories now and then again when (parents) didn't see any of these changes," said Bob Leece, a substance abuse program coordinator at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. "But if you really sit down and start backtracking with them, there were signs and symptoms all over the place."

Because signs usually are there, be aware. Check out what kids are saying. If they say they're spending the night with a friend, check it out.

They may be young adults, but they're still someone's children.

"Parents need to feel absolutely OK about checking out their son or daughter's story," said Peter Palanca, regional vice president of Hazelden Chicago.

And, he says, trust intuition.

"If you suspect (someone) is using drugs, he or she probably is," Palanca said. "If you don't suspect, at least you should consider the fact that they might be."

Many experts advise against at-home drug test kits because they are easy to manipulate. An addict easily could use someone else's urine for the test, or buy products to cleanse their own.

Palanca said he knows of one 18-year-old boy whose urine tested negative for drugs but positive for pregnancy: he'd used his girlfriend's urine for the test.

An addict's relationship with heroin or club drugs usually is the most precious one they have. They don't want to risk losing it.

"These kids spend hours thinking about how they can con and how they can sneak," Palanca said. "These kids are so good at hiding."

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