Don’t Wait

Recently, Kelly Johnson, an 18 year old Senior at Recovery High School in Beverly and a Reading resident, passed away from her battle with substance abuse.  Diana LaVancher, a parent of a student at Recovery High School, and a Reading resident, wrote this emotional and powerful set of thoughts and has given us permission to share it with the greater Reading Community.Our thoughts go out to the Johnson family on the loss of her daughter.

By:  Diana LaVancher

Last Saturday I attended 18 year old Kelly Johnson’s funeral at St. Augustine Chapel in Andover, MA.    Bless her parents for speaking openly in her obituary of her battle with substance abuse.  Bless the priest Reverend Gori for commending them and going further saying in a voice reverberating through the church and in me still, “If you think that you or your family and friends are immune to the disease of substance abuse- you are sadly mistaken.”

Bless all the children and their families who are at this moment struggling with any and all the issues relating to substance abuse.

Anyone who’s been around the recovery block knows kids don’t start off shooting heroin.   It would be one thing if we had an MCAS test to discern which kids were going to dabble in pot and alcohol and go down the slippery path towards heroin and opiate abuse.  Nor can we predict with impunity which kids will struggle with depression, anxiety, be diagnosed as bi polar, or what type of medication and/or therapy might be effective with which kid.

But here are a few thoughts I’ve had this new year.

First of all- to parents and kids- we are NOT alone.   Walk down any street in any town/city and if you are willing to engage someone in a conversation about substance abuse you will find almost everyone knows somebody who knows somebody…..if they haven’t already experienced its consequences firsthand.

What we DO know is that rehab and treatment are no guarantee for recovery, nor is counseling, nor are medications, nor of course is anyone’s denial.  It’s clear there is some type of downward trajectory that seems to happen over a period of time.  And that we are no longer talking high school age,  we’re talking junior high and sometimes elementary school-  These are kids who haven’t yet dealt straight up with the “normal” issues facing adolescents –   They never  got to navigate their way through to the other side of those issues sans drugs- So if your son or daughter becomes sober and is trying to maintain sobriety- remember – they are having to learn to negotiate their way through an entire emotional landscape without the usual “tools”…. they relied on.  Don’t be deceived by numerical age.

On the other hand these kids have lived through more of the suffering of life than we can imagine- or at times even bear to consider.   When they do battle with this disease it is a full fledged war against demons without and within.

Maybe you’ve had tastes of what I’m referring to- or even whole entire meals….
Your kid is more withdrawn, school attendance and grades drop off, there’s less accountability for time, not enough checking in, “disappearing”,  angry outbursts, lots of lying.   There’s pot/alcohol use- not just a weekend here and there, but every weekend, and then weekdays-There’s the standard intractable denial on all sides- it’s really not a “problem”,  you’re aware of it, it’s just a phase,  maybe you don’t want to intrude on “privacy” and check their room, check their texts, call other parents and verify where they are……

And then begins the stealing at which point there’s more going on than we ever imagined.

Of course  there’s the trajectory of parents’ responses-eventually leading to trying every kind of treatment you can afford (and those you “cant”, but do anyway)-There’s of course the MGH Arms Program and Children’s Hospital’s ASAP Program, there’s McLean’s 2 week in patient- if you can get a bed there,  wilderness programs,  residential treatment programs if you are lucky enough to have insurance that will cover them–  and with money you can even hire someone to the tune of $5,000-10,000 to help you choose which treatment program might work for your kid.   There’s also the chance you will find a decent adolescent psychiatrist- not private pay, and even a counselor or social worker that connects with your kid (which is worth more than can be measured).

There’s also Alanon, COPE, Smart Recovery- all of which can provide needed support  and resources  but maybe even more significantly- places where parents can see tangibly how many others are affected by this also–that they and their kids aren’t “the only ones” in this boat.

Maintaining sobriety is so damn difficult at any age, but think about what it must be like for a teen to first acknowledge problem, consider a lifetime of sobriety- it’s too huge to wrap your head around.   Not to mention- there must be things that make sobriety worth battling for.    If we aren’t encouraging other interests and activities- meaning literally FUNDING them, how can we truly be fostering sobriety?

There are so many angles to the disease of substance abuse and just as many varied approaches to addressing it.  It’s easy to get completely lost in any one aspect- anywhere along the continuum-  There is so much to think about and often we are too busy treading water to really step back and have a bigger perspective, it’s too personal and for so long we seem to be right in the thick of it.

My final point here is to illuminate one fairly underutilized option right under our noses which deserves recognition AND assistance.  Recovery High Schools-There are 3 in this state-Amen for those of us living in Massachusetts, because many states don’t have the funding for this option.   Recovery High Schools aren’t panaceas, but they are often a hope, a last hope, a first hope- that a kid can get help in the community- or nearby.   They are a sorely neglected option in the recovery repertoire.  They are in need of our help.

I say this having  a teenager who has attended the North Shore Recovery High School for the past 2 years-  I say this despite all my previous fears of lower academic standards,  of- oh no he’ll be surrounded by other kids using who knows what.  I say this because anyone who has been desperately searching for something to help their kids have a chance, is willing to try almost anything.

Good news-There are a group of people working there committed heart and soul to helping our kids- specifically with dealing with substance abuse.    One doesn’t see this kind of thing every day of the week- and when kids are getting lost in the shuffle in huge mega high schools this is a place where everyone from the school janitor to teachers, support staff, counselors, and principal- all know your kid and are trying to have his/her back.

All this is no guarantee for sobriety- but it is comforting and has a shot at helping.   Providing daily structure, compassion, support, small individualized classes,  fostering kid’s interests in the arts while also addressing the substance abuse and mental health issues does have an impact-  not to mention being in a school where you can’t quite disappear-  or if you do-  people go looking.

When Reverend Gori spoke about love of neighbor- that’s what North Shore Recovery High doesn’t just espouse.  It lives it- in sickness and in health, in life and death.  These are people who will be there to rejoice at your kid’s graduation and yes- be there to tell their story- to be their witness if that is what is required.   They cannot do it alone- They need our support and funding.

One can’t help but be inspired by the brave struggle of so many of these kids and those around them. Kelly Johnson and all our kids deserve our love, compassion, and help-If not now, when.

Diana LaVancher

Reading, MA

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