“Dreamland”: Parenting Lessons From a Drug Epidemic

When we moved to the Shenandoah, I heard neighbors complaining about heroin, how they were disgusted about finding needles around the playground, and watching drug deals take place in parking lots.  I’d heard that heroin was popular again, but I greatly underestimated the extent of the epidemic, especially in Appalachia.  My own kids found a few needles in places that were supposed to preserved for their innocence and for community, and I couldn’t get my head around how this had become such a problem. When I was growing up, I was terrified by heroin.  Mostly it was the needles, ‘Trainspotting’ and that scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’ that made me never want to go near it; even in my teenage arrogance I respected its deadly power.  My stupidity about trying different substances always stopped at heroin because people said it would kill me, and I actually believed them.  I couldn’t understand how the generation following me could not see through its thin veneer of bliss to understand these same things, especially to the point where heroin use has become an epidemic.

The book Dreamland:The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones helps people who didn’t personally witness opiate use escalate around our country understand how it happened.  What sets this book apart is that in addition to the facts and stories that fed into the epidemic, he also theorizes about the cultural trends that made us susceptible.  It’s a pretty depressing read for parents, but these theories offer important insight about what we teach our kids. We may not be able to help directly with helping people fight their addiction, but parents are on the frontline of making cultural changes to prevent it. What has happened makes it’s clear that our part is more than just warning about the dangers of drug use. We have great influence in teaching and modeling to our kids what is valuable and what is not, and maybe in this way we can help reverse the trend.

Definite Lessons

Be aware of what’s in a pill bottle.   Do your research on what a doctor prescribes your child,  especially if something is possibly habit forming. Even if big pharma or your doctor tells you an opioid, benzo or amphetamine is not addictive, that it has a special time release formula or some other mechanism to keep people from abusing it, take it with caution and lots of education.  Assume that it is still is addictive, because that’s the nature of these drugs.  

Shame intensifies the problem. In Portsmouth Ohio, the city that Quinones identifies as ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic, parents didn’t speak out about what was happening because they were embarrassed. They were trying to navigate things they knew nothing about: rehabs, prison systems, probation, but silently, without help.  They were too ashamed to ask for it, which was silly, because their friends and neighbors were going through the exact same things, but also silently and no one knew.  It took 10 years before a parent in town was able to speak up about it, and form a support group.  If one good thing comes from the opiate epidemic, it’s that there’s a light shining into the hidden worlds of middle and upper class addiction. Because it’s heroin, you can’t just send a kid to rehab silently and expect when they return, life will go back to normal.  Heroin is not just bad behavior at parties and DUI’s, it’s cops, multiple stints in jail, and ambulances in front of your house. You have to have help to support a person through recovery; knowledge and honesty from a community are essential. And since addicts are overdosing more often than people are dying in car crashes, there is no longer time for any parent to shame or be ashamed.

Possible Influences

Kids had their own rooms. Because of our increased affluence and the real estate boom, many kids had their own rooms, which was less common in previous generations.  Kids said that their room was the perfect sanctuary to get high in, away from the cops, nosy neighbors, tattling siblings and any other person who could tell their parents what they were doing.  

And their own cars.  Having a car gave suburban teens easy access to drugs.  You call a number, like you’re ordering pizza, you drive somewhere and meet another driver, and exchange money for drugs. Quinones mentions that the cars also had the added benefit of becoming a place to live when the parents wised up, and kicked their kids out of the house.  

Sports.  I hate to mess with something that has become sacred to so many people. I’m not denying that athletics can be beneficial for children, but that it can be overdone. Quinones noticed that in the middle and upper class communities he was studying youth athletics had been elevated to the point where the problems began outweighing the benefits.  After interviewing an addict in one upper-middle class town he said,  

“It was a place of gleaming mansions, but he felt no sense that education was of value in providing choices for life, much less a love of learning. These kids’ futures were assured. So sports were what mattered. Dads would brag to friends about their sons’ athletic exploits, then berate their boys for poor play, urging greater sacrifice. From the athletic director down to parents and teachers they heard, ‘you need good grades so you can play…’”(291)

Quinones saw that sports were becoming a gateway to opiate abuse because of the pressure and the injuries.  Because of how important sports had become, kids were playing year round starting in early elementary school, and were then more likely to have chronic injuries by the time they reached high school.  And because of the pressure to succeed, they were encouraged to play through their injuries and ignore their pain. They were often prescribed painkillers just so they could finish a season and Quinones noticed that the local football star was quietly becoming the face of teenage opioid abuse. Medicating injuries has always been done, but with oxycodone being prescribed for chronic pain, many sports teams, (and football especially since the players are prone to injury) were developing their own addictions.

Philosophical Questions

What are the consequences  of isolation?  The book is named for the community pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, where generations of kids would hang out all day every day over the summer, surrounded by their neighbors and elders.  It closed in the early 90’s because people began installing their own pools, tucked away neatly in their backyards. People stopped meeting their neighbors and letting their kids roam the streets until dinnertime.  The lack of neighborhood made it easier to hide a drug addiction, away from the watchful eyes and accountability of the community.  Quinones sees this as a metaphor, because it wasn’t just Dreamland that closed, people everywhere started staying in their homes and becoming more isolated. Closed doors made it easier for people to pretend they were perfect, which fueled secrecy and shame about all of their hidden defects.

What happens when we have too much stuff? Maybe not so coincidentally, the peak business years of pill mills coincided with the boom and bust of the housing market.  Quinones theorized that our increasing consumerism created a culture that was fertile for an opiate epidemic.  Unfortunately, parenting has not been immune to this, and the increase in teenage heroin addiction shows the consequence. In an interview with a man running a rehab clinic, the man explained,

“‘Spoiled rich kid syndrome’ seeped into America’s middle classes. Parents shielded their kids from complications and hardships, and praised them for minor accomplishments-all as they had less time for their kids….’You have a lot of kids who have everything and look good, but they don’t have any self-esteem. And you put an opiate addiction in the middle of that?’” (p.293)

Is it possible that minimalism could be an antidote to rampant drug use?  If we wanted less and were satisfied more would we still crave chemicals to fill the gap? Thanks to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ we can see that spoiling children is detrimental to their behavior, but maybe we don’t understand that the gravity of the consequence goes far beyond the warnings given by the Oompa Loompas.

What do we lose when we stop accepting pain as part of life? Our culture has also become less tolerant of pain, not just chronic pain, but any pain.  People started getting oxy prescriptions for things Tylenol would normally take care of.  Quinones said,

“In heroin addicts I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.” (p.37)

This idea has also trickled into parenting, because we can’t handle watching our children feel pain, physical or emotional. The man Quinones interviewed from the rehab clinic thought that parents today are making recovery even more difficult than usual.  He believed there was a simultaneous epidemic of parents addicted to rescuing their children, and that their kids maturity was stunted because of it.  He had seen too many parents enable addictions by rushing to their kids aid with money, food and shelter when they should’ve been capable of providing it for themselves. People do this because its been their habit since birth, every time a child cries from a scraped knee or because someone was mean to them, we jump to their aid.  He warned, “I tell parents it’s real important to say no, but say no way back when they’re young.” (p.293)

I think most people have heard this before, but have not thought about it in this context.  Whose pain are we really medicating when we come to our children’s rescue, and could the consequences not only lead to irresponsibility, but also to early death? Is it possible to walk the line of being compassionate toward our children without enabling them, starting when they’re still young?

I wish I could offer you a parenting guide, and not just a book review. My kids are still in elementary school and unaware that heroin is even a thing.  I have no credentials other than being able to keep four boys from destroying a house, but I know there’s no sure way to keep kids from trying drugs.  I also know enough about addiction to know that the blame never lies in one place, or on one parent’s shoulders.  The book also reflects that the epidemic has many influences that are far beyond parental control.  There are many kids who had their own rooms, drove their own cars, played sports year round, had lots of stuff, and grew up to be healthy adults. Just as there are kids who grew up with none of these privileges that are still battling addiction.  The influences above are not ways to place blame on the last generation of parents, only cultural observations that the book brings to light with the hope that history might stop repeating itself.

Although you could never place the blame all on one influence, I do think the epidemic shows that it’s important to have conversations about the long term consequences of parenting trends. What do you think of his warnings? Have you seen these things enable addiction? Will you debate the consequences with your friends? I know it’s not a great conversation starter, but we owe it to the parents who have suffered already- to respect the education they earned, and the pain they have endured.

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