A boy, once lost to drugs, is reclaiming his life

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

When he was 3 years old, in 1999, while visiting his grandparents in Downey, Idaho, Josh wandered away as his parents were unloading the car. He'd been there plenty and sometimes explored with his cousins. So he ambled down the long driveway, then headed out the wrong way. For more than a day, volunteers searched before one decided to ignore reason and canvass a steep nearby hillside they all figured such a little boy could not possibly climb. There he was, only his tiny shoe visible at first, badly dehydrated and near death.

Recently, on this new journey to be found again, Josh sat at the dining room table with his mom and dad and one of his little brothers, Adam, 14, worrying about the approach of fall. Should he change schools?

He worried about his reputation, which he's dinged badly. Mostly, he has been worrying about old patterns and friends and temptations.

Now in residential treatment for drug addiction at a program called Lifeline, he has earned the right to go home for a few hours at a time. Sometime soon he'll move back full-time.

He's longing for that but knows he cannot pick up his old life. The Stauffers have to craft a blend of old and new that supports sobriety.

"Finding new friends is the biggest challenge," said counselor David Simonsen of Creative Solutions Counseling in Seattle. "Teens are usually all about being social. Finding new friends is not something they're interested in doing most of the time. They believe they can keep the same friends and stay sober. They are usually wrong."

Another daunting issue — and one over which a recovering addict has the least influence — is change, specifically someone else's. Simonsen said people in recovery are trying to change, but they return to lives with others who are unchanged.

"They have gone through a program and been taught how to change. They come back to a living situation in which no one else has changed and they don't understand what the teen has just experienced. Staying strong in an environment like that is often just too difficult," Simonsen said.

For some kids, home is an issue, especially if parents drink or use drugs. Numbers aren't readily available on how many teens who abuse substances have parents who do the same, but NIDA said 23.5 million Americans age 12 and older needed treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse problem in 2009. And the national organization Adult Children of Alcoholics reported that there are 26.8 million children of alcoholics in the United States, not to mention an unknown number of drug-abusing folks. The national child abuse prevention organization Child Help said as many as two-thirds of addicts in treatment may have been abused or neglected. Those are not Josh's challenges, but many youths coming from treatment face them, experts told the Deseret News.

Melonie and Rod Stauffer understand he cannot change alone. They chose Josh's program because it included them in therapy and education. Not every program does; not every parent wants to take part.

Kids in a controlled treatment environment usually do well, said Corey Markisich, outpatient director at Utah-based New Roads Treatment Center. Kids work on their own issues in rehab, but eventually they return to their families and schools and neighborhoods.

Those unchanged environments may also be unforgiving, the stigma attached to needing treatment another barrier to acceptance in the community.

"Stigma is a huge problem," Markisich said, which happens when adults are unwilling to trust a kid who has been in rehab or who has known drug issues. Teen peers may also attach that stigma — or a different one. "For a lot of adolescents, life is friends and having fun and hanging out." A "party" society of teens may view a peer who can't drink or use drugs as uncool. He noted that a lot of kids don't drink or smoke pot, but they abuse prescription drugs.

College-bound kids who have gone through treatment often ask Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, how to navigate socializing that so often means drinking or drugs. "There's a lot of pressure to use, to drink. One of the biggest problems (leading to relapse) is environment."

"They must reestablish themselves into another peer group that isn't using; that can be very, very hard to find," said Narasimhan. It can also be hard to win acceptance, given past history.

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