Denial is a painful mask that a growing number of people are wearing. It unfortunately blocks them from seeing the truth. That truth is taking a growing number of young people s lives.
JK is a sophomore in college. He comes from an intact family and is the oldest of four children. He was born into reasonable opportunity and comfort. His parents live in a middle/upper-middle class community. The school system is adequate; the neighborhood is peaceful and serene. JK would describe his relationship with his parents and siblings as close.
In middle school, he was an above-average student and a competitive athlete. According to his parents, he had a wonderful circle of friends. When he moved up to the high school, life started to change. There were new friends, new opportunities and new challenges. He continued to be an above-average student but started to challenge some of his social boundaries. He continued to play sports but was much less competitive. He still started because he had exceptional talent, but it was clear that his heart was not there.
Freshmen and sophomore year were pretty uneventful. His greatest infraction was breaking curfew, and occasionally coming home late for dinner without a good excuse. Junior year was much more challenging. His parents noticed a change in his attitude. He seemed to be bucking authority at every intersection. Ultimately, he was compliant, but not without an argument. That was the behavioral pattern until the end of senior year in high school.
His senior summer was a nightmare. His drinking was more overt. He was staying out to all hours of the morning on a regular basis. When his parents confronted him, he just disregarded their concerns. They also noticed that his friends had radically changed. He seemed to be hanging out with a much more radical crowd and with kids that were much older.
By late August, JK was out of control. His drinking was out of control. His blatant defiance was out of control. His parents were frightened. They did not recognize their son. They conferred with a respected social worker from their community, who recommended that they have a family meeting. The social worker offered to facilitate that meeting. JK agreed. All participants gathered on a Friday night in late August. Everyone was nervous. The social worker asked if everyone knew why they were there. Everyone acknowledged that they knew. JK was asked to express why he thought the meeting was convened.
There was a long silence, then with his head bowed down JK indicated that his social behavior was the reason for this meeting. He went on to acknowledge his out-of-control behavior, especially around drinking and staying out all night. He then proceeded to apologize to his parents for his lack of respect and for the stress that he had caused in the past.
The social worker asked if he could explain why his behavior had gotten so out of control. He said some of it was due to peer pressure and wanting to feel accepted. He also indicated that his parents were too strict and overbearing. He and his parents had a back-and-forth conversation. A lot was shared by both parents and son. At the end of the meeting, everyone expressed a deep sense of relief and a renewed sense of connectedness to each other.
JK assured his parents that he was going away to school with the right attitude, would stay on track and do the right things. He assured them that his only social missteps had to do with alcohol, and they believed him.
His parents left that meeting, with the feeling that much was accomplished. They felt like their old son was back, a feeling they had not had in a long time. They felt much more confident about him going away to school; that he was equipped to succeed both academically and socially.
Freshmen year was reasonably uneventful. JK made the transition, and at least externally, seemed to be managing all of life s new challenges appropriately. The summer of his freshman year, some of his old behaviors returned. He seemed to be drinking a lot and staying out to all hours. . However, he was not belligerent or nasty. When he did stay out all night, he was very apologetic when he came home.
His parents felt like they were in a tough spot. He had definitely matured since high school. He was their first born. He constantly complained that they were too overprotective and intrusive. Since he was a college student and was doing well academically, they felt compelled to be less restrictive and controlling. They justified that thinking by expressing the fact that although drinking, JK never drove under the influence, and always stayed someplace safe.
However, they did express concern about some of his social choices and urged him to be careful. Those conversations continued throughout the summer. He assured them that all he was doing was drinking, and nothing more. They believed him.
In October of his sophomore year, his roommate called JK s parents and said JK was out of control. He said JK had been using heroin for more than six months. JK s parents were shocked. They had no idea that he was doing anything other than drinking. They called him immediately, and he denied doing anything. He gave them a good story, and they believed him. He overdosed a few weeks later. When his parents were notified, they again were shocked. They drove upstate immediately. This time, he admitted to doing heroin a few times. Again, they believed him. They checked with the Dean of Students, regarding his grades and class attendance. In both areas, he was doing well.
Shortly after JK was discharged from the hospital, JK called his parents and said he was in trouble. He told them he was a heroin addict, and that he d been using heroin for more than a year. He said he needed help. His parents had no idea how bad it was. They thought he d be fine after the counseling. They were in total denial of the severity of his addiction. He said he wanted to drop out of school and go into rehab. Initially, they said, Could you go to an outpatient program? They could not believe that their son was so sick.
Finally, after he broke down and showed them the needle tracks on his arms, they began to realize how really bad things were. JK left school and is presently in a long-term residential treatment program. His parents are still struggling with the fact that their son was abusing heroin right under their noses, and they didn t see it. Their denial was their mask!
Too many parents are doing the same! We must remove our masks, and see the truth. Our kids desperately need us to.