420 and HFAs

Posted on Sunday 11 December 2011

Recently, I posted a photo of that Ellie had been using as her profile photo on one of the social networking websites. The photo, seen below, is of her standing near a wall with the number 420 painted on it. The location is clearly Fenway Park, a Boston landmark that is located near her college. In the photo, she appears to be either toking or doing a very good imitation of someone taking a hit on a joint.

Ellie's profile photo where she appears to be toking at Fenway Park

Ellie's profile photo where she appears to be toking at Fenway Park

When I first posted the photo, in an earlier post, I did not realize the significance of the 420 in the photo, as I am not part of the stoner or weed-smoking subculture and never have been. The reference comes from a small group of weed users at San Rafael High School, back in the early 1970s. They used to meet at the statue of Louis Pasteur on the San Rafael High School grounds at 4:20 pm to smoke weed. In the stoner culture, it has become a generic reference to smoking marijuana. Saying a house or apartment is “420 friendly” often means that the residents smoke weed.

Obviously, the fact that Ellie was using this photo as a profile photo for herself on a social networking website means that she deeply identifies with the stoner culture. If this isn’t another clear indication that Ellie has substance abuse/addiction problems, I really don’t know what is.

It also appears that Ellie has been going to the tanning salon and spa as well as the gym. According to Sarah Allen Benton’s book, Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic, this can be an attempt by a college-aged HFA to hide the effects of drinking and drug use behind a facade of health and in an attempt to keep up or maintain a healthy appearance outwardly. I believe this is what Ellie has been doing since she returned to school.

One female HFA who reported drinking alcoholically four times a week through college stated, “I was on the honor roll again, had long-term boyfriends, never slept around, worked out regularly, never got arrested and made it to class.” She demonstrated that although her drinking was out of control, she was able to control other areas of her life. Another HFA stated that she was drinking daily, showing up to class half of the time, working a part-time job, and maintaining a 3.4 grade point average (GPA) at a well-respected college. She admits, “I told myself that I couldn’t be an alcoholic, because I was in college, came from a good family, was very young and was a woman.” She went on to state that she would go to tanning beds excessively to compensate for the grayish and weathered physical effects of drinking. This was a true attempt to create an outside image of health, while internally, she was deteriorating. By achieving a high GPA, being involved in extracurricular activities, maintaining relationships and appearing “put together” on the outside, HFAs feed their denial that they do not fit the image of an alcoholic. Other HFAs use drinking as a reward for their hard academic work, and one reported that she believed her accomplishments in high school gave her a “blank check to party hard” in college. Alcoholics can always find justifications for their drinking.

Of course, the two young women who were quoted are very similar to Ellie in many ways. Ellie is currently keeping a 3.634 GPA average, though that may not be the case after this semester, where her increased alcohol and drug use seems to be affecting her academically. She is working out and going to the tanning salon and appears to be in fantastic shape. She’s always been a beautiful young woman, but my opinion is biased because of my feelings for her. Like one of the women quoted in Benton’s book, she has been skipping classes fairly frequently as the past semester has progressed. During the week of Thanksgiving, she recently tweeted that she had been getting high, drunk or both for seven out of nine days by her own admission on a social networking site. She is from a good family, one that I have known almost 30 years and up until this summer considered part of my own family, as they considered me part of theirs.

Of course, Benton’s book doesn’t fully cover Ellie’s condition, as I believe she is both a drug addict and an alcoholic. During a recent outing to the Cask and Flagon bar, she posted a photo of what she had lined up to drink.

Ellie's Drinks at the Cask and Flagon on 25 Nov 2011

Ellie's Drinks at the Cask and Flagon on 25 Nov 2011

They appear to be a vodka and tonic, a martini and a bottle of Corona beer.

I seriously doubt that this was the only drinking she did that evening, as she had posted about “her favorite hour, the smoky pregame to happy hour” around 4:20 pm and posted that photo of drinks at 10:30 pm later that night. It is clear from her own words that she had gotten high prior to going out to drink. Given when she left to go out drinking, it is unlikely that these were the first drinks of the evening, and pretty certainly were not the last drinks of her night. Her last post of the night was at just past 0300 in the morning, which probably means she was either doing drugs or drinking for the better part of 11 hours. It is also very likely that she drove into Boston, as public transportation isn’t very convenient to her family’s house and the college dormitories were still closed for the Thanksgiving holiday break. This means that she was very likely driving drunk or high or both that night.

I don’t see how her family can continue to insist that Ellie is fine and doesn’t have a problem, unless they are completely in denial of what the reality is, as is Ellie. I doubt any of her friends will realize she has a problem, since most of the ones she’s currently hanging out with are drinking or doing drugs just as heavily, if not more so, as she is.

Her father and brother are both alcoholics who are pretty clearly in denial of their own drinking problems, much less Ellie’s. Her brother is a drug addict as well, and had been self-medicating with both drugs and alcohol prior to his getting treatment for his chronic depression, which I believe was the underlying cause for both his drug and alcohol problems. Her mother is terrified of her father and I doubt she will do anything to help Ellie, unless Ellie ends up in the hospital or jail, which is what prompted Ellie’s mother to ask me to help Ellie’s elder brother two years ago. Her little sister is only 15, and no one is telling her what is really going on, so it is unlikely that she could help, and given her age, it isn’t likely she would be able to do much even if she did know what was going on.

Alcoholism is probably a strong genetic factor for Ellie. It is a very common problem in her father’s family according to some family members I have spoken with. It is less common on her mother’s side, but still an issue from what I’ve been told.

Each HFA has a unique story and family. However, addiction experts who treat HFAs have observed some common family patterns. Most experts and HFAs agree that alcoholism has a genetic component. The Surgeon General’s report states that more than three decades of research have established that genes account for over half of the risk for alcoholism. However, it is the environment that appears to influence the initiation of alcohol use. Scorzelli believes that alcoholism is 60% genetic and 40% environmental. Renaud has observed that about 90% of the alcoholism cases with which she is familiar have a family history of the disease. Over 80% of HFAs interviewed reported a family history of alcoholism.

Ellie’s parents have always had very high expectations of her and her siblings. She did quite well in high school and that is one reason she has a fairly large scholarship paying for a part of her tuition at the college she is currently attending. The scholarship is merit-based.

Experts have observed some trends within the families of HFAs. Renaud notes that some parents have high expectations of their children, and the children are constantly trying to gain their parents’ approval. In contrast, she has also observed families in which there is little parental supervision or involvement…

…About two-thirds of the HFAs who drank in high school came from intact families. Most reported that they were not able to open up emotionally with their parents, especially regarding their drinking. One HFA stated that she “hid a lot to maintain the image of the good daughter,” and another HFA reported that “lying was pretty standard and I was proud of what I could get away with.”…

Most reported there was family pressure to do well academically and athletically and to succeed in general….

Unfortunately, Ellie, from what I know, has not really been close to her parents for many years now. Her parents basically checked out of her and her brother’s life when she was about 14. I know this because I was the person they asked to help deal with Ellie and her older brother when they decided to check out. I was the person they asked to teach them both how to drive. I was the person who advised Ellie on nutrition when she became a vegetarian six years ago, and counseled her against becoming a vegan a couple years later. I was asked to speak to her brother about his drug and alcohol issues as well as his problems with chronic depression when he was hospitalized two years ago.

The fact that her parents have checked out of her life was confirmed by a local police officer, who is an acquaintance of the family. I had met this officer two years ago while helping Ellie’s brother with his car problems. I spoke with this past summer when concerns about Ellie’s drug and alcohol addictions first came to light. She was not surprised to hear about Ellie’s problems or that Ellie’s parents were not there for her.

The Columbia study indicates that closeness, particularly with mothers, was found to be one of the strongest links with lower levels of alcohol and drug usage–emphasizing the need for family bonding time. Parents’ demanding careers were also found to have a negative effect in that those adolescents who were unsupervised by adults after school had an increase in alcohol and drug usage.

Of course, Benton discusses how denial of the HFA’s drinking problem is a common and simple solution for the family. It prevents them from having to deal with the difficult issues of how did the HFA become an alcoholic, or who is responsible for allowing this to happen.

The most common theme within the families of HFAs appears to be denial by the family members. Denial is powerful and impenetrable at times. Toren Volkmann and his mother, Chris Volkmann, coauthored the book From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking (2006), in which they describe the role of denial in their family. Toren graduated from high school with a 3.63 grade point average. He did receive some minor possession charges, but after such incidents, his parents “thought Toren had finally wised up. And he was still a joy–a respectful kid who talked about social injustice, world causes, sonnets.”

HFAs project a facade of normalcy through their accomplishments, appearance, and secrecy. Some parents may suspect that their child is drinking, but they tend to ignore the issue. One female HFA observed that “in my family, if you don’t acknowledge something, then it isn’t real.”

Family denial can serve several purposes, including preventing parents from feeling guilt about the way they raised their child. IN many ways, it is easier for parents to have a positive view of their child. One HFA described her parents’ beliefs, stating, “Look at our daughter, she’s responsible, we didn’t mess up as parents.” Another HFA stated that his parents believed that because he was getting As in school but getting into trouble from his drinking that “it wasn’t my drinking, but the friends I was hanging around with” For many families, recognizing their child’s alcoholism may lead them to feel that they failed in some way. However, through interviews with HFAs and addiction experts, it is clear that there is not just one cause. Although there are some family patterns, HFAs come from all types of families and backgrounds.

I ran into how strong the denial can be in a family this past summer. I think that much of the denial over Ellie’s illness is driven by her father’s denial of his own illness. I believe that if Ellie were to be hospitalized or end up in jail, her mother would finally have the courage and motivation to act, just as she did two years ago when Ellie’s older brother ended up in the hospital.

Without such an event, Ellie’s mother is too terrified of her husband to act on Ellie’s behalf, especially if the information regarding Ellie’s illness comes from the person her husband is most afraid of–me. I am hoping that Ellie can hit “rock bottom” without ending up in the hospital, jail or living on the street. That may not be the case, but I pray for Ellie every day that she will realize she has an illness before it does permanent damage to her, others or her future.

I think that having problems academically or doing poorly enough to lose her scholarship is the least harmful and fastest way for Ellie to possibly realize her drug use and drinking is affecting her life and is truly a problem. It is difficult for me to be wanting her to fail when I love her and only want the best for her, but I think in her failing, she will have the quickest and least traumatic road to recovery, and best chance of becoming the amazing woman that loves me once again.

Note: The previous quotes are from Benton’s book and I have chosen them to help illustrate my points about Ellie and her drug/alcohol problems.

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