How to talk to someone you think may be using club drugs or heroin

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.

Jean Brown watched her oldest son turn to a life of heroin. She couldn't bear to watch it again.

Fuming with anger when she began to expect that her younger son, then 14, also was experimenting with drugs, she flat-out confronted him - and took the situation straight to the family doctor.


"Basically, I threw a fit," says Brown, a Schaumburg resident. "I confronted it very publicly. You cannot run away from the problem. You have to hit the problem directly head-on. Don't be ashamed. Get it fixed."

Her plan worked: together and with doctors' help, Brown and her son worked through the problem. Now a freshman in high school, he earns good grades, is involved in activities and, Brown says, he always has a "real good attitude."

Experts say Brown's response to her son was a good one because it proves an integral point: if a gut feeling tells you there's a drug problem, it's best to look into it.

Don't walk away.

"If you suspected your teen had diabetes, you'd get it checked out," said Peter Palanca, regional vice president of Hazelden Chicago, a residential drug rehabilitation center. "Parents are wise to get (drug use) checked out."

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Many experts suggest a substance abuse evaluation - available at a collection of area hospitals and drug treatment centers - rather than a simple drug test, because the latter can be tainted and often doesn't tell the entire truth.

Full evaluations distinguish normal adolescent problems from drug addictions, determine degree of drug use and suggest appropriate treatment for the problem.

To get to that point of evaluation, however, you have to talk to the suspected addict, and it may be a challenge. They may have changed friendship circles, hanging out in groups where heroin or club drug use is both acceptable and encouraged, and may not want to be confronted about their problem.

Heroin and club drugs help their users escape into an alter-reality, and it's hard for addicts to imagine giving up something that does such wonderful things.


Palanca suggests this situation as a comparison: You love strawberry sundaes. Every time you eat one, you get horribly sick with stomach pains, vomiting and headaches, but the illness will wear off, and the sundaes just taste too good to skip.

So you keep eating them. If someone were to suggest you cut the strawberry sundae from your diet, you'd balk at the notion.

It's the same with some addicts.

Recovering addicts acknowledge they weren't always willing to listen when friends or family offered help, and school counselors say it's extremely challenging to get teens drug help when they don't want it.

But all agree talking is the most important first step to recovery.

So go with your instincts and make sure emotions don't get tangled up in the challenge. It's easy to believe someone who insists they're not using, but stick to the evidence and the gut feelings.

There's not necessarily a right way, or right time, to talk about a drug problem. The harsh tone that worked for Brown and her son won't work for everyone, experts warn. It may work better to be extremely loving, or matter-of-fact.

But no matter how you do it, "Just do it," said Jennifer Schild, an addictions counselor with a Chicago-area branch of Gateway Foundation Inc., a national drug abuse treatment center. "Don't sweep it under the rug. Don't back down. Don't apologize."

Be logical, keep it simple and stick it out even when it's tough.

"You say the truth as you see it," Schild said. "There's no magic tricks. Don't ever think, 'I failed.' "

Melita Lendway, a substance abuse prevention coordinator at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, keeps a list of tips for talking to teens who are using drugs.

- Approach them in peace times, not in the midst of an argument.

- When it comes to parents, present a unified front: get both Mom and Dad involved if possible.

- In a loving way, let them know that you love and care about them no matter what and just want them to be OK.

- Set an appointment for a test or evaluation and go along with them.

If the appointment goes well and a drug screen comes up negative, fine. At least you checked it out.

"If they're not in trouble, then this should be a piece of cake," Lendway says. But "if they need help, of course you want to get them help."

You may try a dozen times unsuccessfully to get the addict into rehab before being successful.

But keep pushing.

Whether you're a parent, friend or family member, experts agree the best thing is to get the addict to a counseling center where people are used to dealing with scared and frustrated families and addicts who aren't eager to cooperate.

You may be surprised.

Some recovering addicts, looking back, say they wish their parents would have talked to them.

"They don't want to discuss it with their kids," said Kirk Minasian, a 30-year-old Mundelein resident who dabbled in a variety of drugs as a teenager in Park Ridge, including heroin. "Well, you have to."

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