Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Flashpoints: Teens, Mental Health and Drinking

Image from Wikipedia
For the past two months, one branch of my extended family tree has been dealing with the fallout of many years of addiction and mental health problems that seem to have started in adolescence. It culminated in a crisis at the beginning of January. 

The people involved are not close to my children, but they are close to my heart. I had a choice to make when all of this blew up a few weeks ago. I could let my kids think that I was being moody and emotional for no good reason. I could make up a story resembling the truth to explain what was going on with me and why I was spending so much time on the phone and in tears. Or I could just tell them the truth.

I decided there was really only one course of action, because keeping deep, dark secrets from them feels anathema to me. Especially when there is a lot to learn from the situation. 

There are so many reasons why kids, teenagers and alcohol don't mix. We could talk about how they metabolize alcohol differently than adults. We could talk about how cognitively kids and teens are already hardwired to be impulsive and how intoxication leads to dangerous choices at worst and embarrassing ones at best. But it goes way beyond all of that when the kid who is drinking has depression or anxiety, or perhaps something more serious that hasn't yet fully materialized (bipolar, schizophrenia, a predisposition to addiction, etc.). That decision can be life altering. 

Being a teenager is already so hard. But being a teenager who struggles with a mental health issue is exponentially more difficult. Adding a layer of addiction or self-medication to that mix can lead to heartbreaking results. That heartbreak does not happen in a vacuum. It's a powerful shockwave, profoundly affecting everyone who cares about you. 

My teachable moment came from a pretty weird place. My family has been watching the TV show The Flash a lot recently (we were all sick and we binge watched 2 seasons in a week). That show offered me an opportunity to talk about this in a way that seemed natural. We're a pretty nerdy, sci-fi bunch - so please bear with me. 

There's a concept on the show called "flashpoint" - where if you go back in time, an alternate timeline is created. Your life (and the lives of everyone you know) essentially diverge along two different trajectories. If you follow timeline #1, you could end up a world famous scientist and marry the girl next-door. If you follow timeline #2, you could be a dog catcher or a serial killer, and the girl next door could wind up in Australia. 

That spot on the timeline, that moment where something changes and they diverge - that's the flashpoint. You could call it a “sliding doors” moment or you could refer to the explanations given in “Back to the Future”, but it’s a concept most of us already understand. 

I tried to explain to my kids that there are flashpoints in real life, but they don't involve time travel. Our flashpoints are the moments when we make a decision that changes the trajectory of our lives. For one person, it might be the decision to get in a car and drive after you've been drinking. Or lighting up that first cigarette, that leads to the cancer that takes you from your family far too young. Or it might be the decision to self-medicate with alcohol, knowing it may impact your mental health in ways that you can't fully anticipate, in the present or the future.

We talked about it all and they understood. 

I’m encouraged by the degree to which we collectively seem more aware and accepting of the number of people (especially young people) who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. We have a long way to go and a lot more hard conversations to have, however. For me, part of this process has to include discussing with my kids how multifaceted these things really are, including the consequences of drinking (or using drugs) when mental health issues are present or suspected. 

I want every kid to be able to think critically about the social norms around teenage partying and drinking, and about the things they take in on TV, the internet and in the music they love. I want them to be self-aware and accepting of both who they are and who their friends are, so they can protect themselves (and their friends) from making choices that could change their timelines.

This post is sponsored by Responsibility.org as part of their Ask.Listen.Learn. campaign, encouraging families to talk early, talk often, and be healthy. All the opinions are my own because no one is the boss of me. I'm very proud to be part of their team this year. 

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2013-2017

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