My Struggle with Addiction

During the summer of 1996, when I was 11, I became drastically sick with lupus. I was admitted to Children’s Hospital Boston and put on high doses of steroids, which made my face puffy and round and made me gain 80 pounds. Despite frequent hospitalizations, the lupus got out of control and my kidneys were a step away from needing dialysis. With no other options, I went on chemotherapy for two and a half years.

I was losing sight of a normal adolescence: Because I looked and felt different than other kids my age, I began having really low self-esteem and crushing anxiety. Since I was never in school, I had a hard time connecting with people. Then, the summer after graduating from high school, I started dating someone who seemed to have the solution for all my problems. He encouraged me to take a pill—OxyContin—that didn’t just erase my physical discomfort, it also relieved my anxiety. Finally, I came out of my shell and stopped caring about what people thought of me. My anxiety was gone and I was happy when I was high.

Before I knew it, I was taking five pills a day. One time I didn’t take them and I thought I had the flu; it turned out it was withdrawals. That’s when I realized I was addicted. I wasn’t getting high anymore, but I needed the pills to keep from getting sick. It spun out of control so fast: I couldn’t function without them—if I didn’t have them first thing in the morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. The pills consumed my life and made me constantly angry. I wasn’t showing my face at home, and if I did see someone in my family, I’d just start a fight with them.

When I broke up with my boyfriend, who was supporting my habit, I had no idea how much these pills cost. At $80 each, I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford it, since every cent I earned was going to drugs. I needed a cheaper option that could still give me the fix I needed, and I soon found my answer in heroin, which cost only $20. I always said I’d never do heroin, but my habit was so bad I thought it was my last resort. The deeper my addiction got, the cheaper and easier it was to fill the void.

After about a year and a half, I decided that I’d had enough. I’d gotten arrested and my life wasn’t my own. I’d forgotten how to be happy and emotionally satisfied without drugs. So I told my parents and we searched for a detox program. I had to get clean. I went from detox to detox, where I had the shakes and lots of throwing up—all of the usual, horrible withdrawal symptoms. Then my parents found me a program that would guide me on my path to recovery: Children’s Adolescent Substance Abuse Program (ASAP).

ASAP doctors prescribed buprenorphine, a drug that helps reduce opioid dependence; my cravings went away and I stopped using drugs. However, for some reason I still wasn’t feeling right. That’s when I found out I was pregnant. I knew my decision to not go back to drugs wasn’t just about me and my future anymore; I had to think about the child I would soon bring into the world. I entered ASAP’s weekly group therapy program, where I met other kids struggling with addiction. Every week I drew strength from them as we learned to live without opioids.

I am now 23 and have been clean for three-and-a-half years thanks to ASAP. If I didn’t have this program, I don’t know where I would be today. I’m the oldest one in the program and have the chance to share my story with younger kids just coming off drugs. I want to find other ways to prevent kids from trying drugs. I don’t think they know it’s the worst thing they could ever do and that it’s something you live with for the rest of your life. Addiction is something you never get over: You always have to fight the cravings, keep yourself busy and go to meetings so you won’t relapse.

It used to be that when I had a bad day, I turned to drugs; the only way I coped with things was to get high. Now I turn to the program; when I have a bad day, I call someone in the program. I also turn to my daughter, Isabella, for inspiration. She turns 4 in November and loves going for walks, eating ice cream and when I read her books at night. Four years ago, the most important thing was when and how I was going to get my next fix. Today, the most important thing in my life is her.

article by By Jaclyn Calleva and courtesy DreamOnline

Her own words: Lessons from a Teen Mother.

Teen Mom
Carmen Aviles, who got pregnant with her son when she was 16, says, "My baby taught me many lessons, but perhaps the most important was perseverance."

Try riding the bus to high school while lugging a bag of heavy textbooks, plus a 3-month-old infant, complete with a day’s worth of baby gear. It will make you strong. While my peers were joking around and having fun on the morning commute, I was—at age 17—suffering from premature back pain. But I was determined not to end up another teen mother dropout. Under my baby’s watchful gaze, I would be the first in my family to graduate high school and go to college. My baby has taught me many lessons, but perhaps the most important was perseverance.

As a high school freshman, I was a poor student. I have a learning disability and don’t learn at the same pace as other students. Instead of asking for help when I got confused, I’d get frustrated. I ended up skipping a lot of school. That year, I began dating Joseph, who worked in the canteen truck parked in front of my high school. Four months later, I was pregnant. I was a baby having a baby—and deathly afraid. I was nervous to tell my mom, but I was most worried about how my grandfather would react. We were extremely close, and he had such high hopes for my future. I held off telling him as long as I could—I was four months pregnant when I finally broke the news. He looked me in the eye and told me he believed in me and that he knew I would succeed. My child would be an additional challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

My attitude changed. I used to be known for my hot temper. Pregnancy helped me channel that energy into fierce ambition. After watching my mother raise four children by herself, without even a high school diploma, I knew how hard it is to get a job that pays the bills if you’re not educated. This wasn’t the life I wanted for my child.

With this in mind, I met with my guidance counselor. She said I could still graduate on time if I took day and night classes, five days a week. I started immediately. During my pregnancy, I was at a desk studying furiously from when the sun rose until long after it set. After Joseph Junior was born, I continued the long hours hitting the books. Because my school had day care, I was able to bring him with me. It wasn’t easy—far from it—but my education and my future were too important for me to fail.

My doctor at Children’s Hospital Boston, Joanne Cox, MD, was an important influence. She was my doctor since I was a baby, and when she confirmed that I was pregnant, she introduced me to the hospital’s Young Parents Program (YPP), a special place at Children’s that provides medical care to teen parents and their children. The YPP was a great support system for me. The clinicians counseled me about housing, my health and the health of my child. They also gave me an opportunity to sit and talk about my fears, challenges and hopes.

Now, seven years later, I look back on YPP meetings as pivotal moments in my life. My son’s father and I are no longer together, but he plays a big and important role in Joseph Junior’s life. In 2007, I graduated from college. Although my grandfather passed away before my graduation, I felt that he was watching me.

I now work for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, where I help troubled girls. Many struggle at school or have had run-ins with the law. Some of them are pregnant. It’s hard for them to see the path to a life in which they’re not struggling. I was one of those girls; now I help them to get their lives back on track.

At 23, it feels like a lifetime since I was a teen. But I tell them about a scared girl, pregnant and failing school, who decided nothing was going to hold her back. I tell them about a girl who sometimes felt like giving up, but who found the strength to continue. I use my story to encourage them to go back to school, make amends with their families and persevere.

If I can do it, they can too.


article by Carmen Aviles and courtesy

Cutting: Why Teens Hurt Themselves

Every year millions of kids deliberately cut their own skin, desperately looking for relief from overwhelming stress, anxiety and insecurity. Learn what’s behind the self-injury problem and how parents can stop the pain.

Caia Pattynama hesitated the first time the scissors pierced her arm. “It really hurt,” she says, “but I figured if I could tough it out, it would prove I could get through the other things happening in my life.” In the seconds it took for drops of blood to appear, Caia, then 15, felt an odd sense of peace. “I knew it didn’t make sense, yet I felt better,” she says three years later. “For that moment, I was in charge.”

Life started slipping out of Caia’s control when her beloved stepfather, Daryl Simpson, passed away unexpectedly. She was just a few months shy of her 14th birthday. Though everyone in the Centennial, Colorado, family—mom Monica Simpson, older brother Jared Pattynama, then 16, and younger sister Kendall Pattynama, then 12—was reeling from the loss, Caia was having a particularly hard time. “She was angry and becoming increasingly withdrawn,” Monica recalls.

Caia started high school in the fall, and Monica hoped her daughter’s mood would improve once the stress of that transition passed. But Caia, a self-described introvert, struggled to fit in. When she did make friends, she was surprised to discover that several of them were into cutting. They said it was calming—which was all Caia needed to hear. In October she started scratching thin lines into her arms with scissors, safety pins and thumbtacks. Soon she was slashing the skin on her arms, belly and legs with whatever sharp instrument was handy. “Sometimes,” she says, “the only thing that got me through the day was thinking about being able to cut when I got home.”

Deflection Game

Caia’s story isn’t unusual—a third to half of kids ages 12 to 18 engage in self-injury at least once, according to a Psychiatry study. Actions include cutting, scratching, burning, repeatedly biting or picking at skin, or embedding small objects, such as paper clips or small rocks. Males also punch objects or themselves, or bang their heads against surfaces.

Destructive as this is, most kids—about 60%—aren’t trying to end their lives, which is why mental health experts call it non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. “Most want to kill their emotional angst,” says Janis Whitlock, PhD, director of Cornell University’s Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior. “It’s not that they actually want to die.”

Experts aren’t sure why the act of inflicting physical pain helps, but self-injurers claim they feel more relaxed afterward, apparently exchanging inner angst for the strong physical sensation. Others, emotionally frozen, may want to prove they’re capable of experiencing anything at all. Brain chemistry also plays a role—cutting releases endorphins, resulting in a pleasurable or numbing sensation. “Self-injury is a form of self-medication,” says Whitlock. Though professionals fall short of calling the behavior a true addiction, it can be compulsive: The more a person cuts, the more she’ll crave this relief when tension builds. Over time, the urge becomes impossible to resist.

As the fall progressed, Caia’s sadness deepened. “Not only had Daryl died,” says Monica, “but Kendall was less available, Jared was living with his father, and I started a full-time job. Everything in her life was pretty much turned upside down.” Monica didn’t know how upset Caia was, however, until she saw cuts on her daughter’s arms. Caia convinced her mother it was a one-time thing, but Monica soon caught glimpses of fresh wounds. Concealing sharp objects didn’t help. “She shaves her legs. She’s got thumbtacks holding up pictures. I couldn’t hide everything.” In December, Monica took her daughter to the family doctor, who diagnosed depression, prescribed medication and suggested a therapist.

Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs like serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly given to self-injurers. Unfortunately, in a small percentage of children, SSRIs may induce suicidal behavior (the FDA now requires a label warning). One night Caia told her mom: “If you leave me alone long enough, I’ll do whatever I can to kill myself.” Monica called 911 and Caia was taken to a psychiatric hospital. Her medication was changed, and she attended daily group counseling sessions. The therapy went nowhere, though. “I faked it,” she says. “I told them what they wanted to hear so I could get out of there.” Released after five days, she cut again. “I was flunking school and alienating my family,” she says. “I felt awful, but I just couldn’t find a way to care.”

Rock Bottom

Two months later, after an argument with her mom over a messy bedroom, Caia grabbed a razor blade and carved grid marks into her arm. The next day Monica pulled Caia out of school—figuring she’d get less of a fight that way—and took her back to the hospital. Within days Caia’s doctors insisted she needed the intensive assistance only a residential center could provide.

Monica launched into a major search for a facility. “I was on the computer all the time,” she says. “I hardly slept.” She finally hired an educational consultant who found Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, a program in Durango, Colorado, where Caia stayed for nine weeks while her mom continued looking for a year-round school. Open Sky wasn’t a boot camp, but it did have a rigorous program integrating hiking and camping with individual and group psychotherapy, meditation and yoga. “Caia loves being outdoors, and this place had a strong focus on introspection and relationship building,” Monica says. “Still, sending her away was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” Caia loved Open Sky. “It was a slap in the face to be removed from everything that gave me comfort,” she admits. “They take your clothes and issue you new ones. You do laundry with a plunger and bucket and carry a huge backpack. But it was what I needed.”

With Caia gone, Monica toured several year-round facilities and finally chose La Europa Academy, in Salt Lake City, for its focus on fine arts. In addition to therapy, kids at La Europa learn to express themselves through photography, dance and music rather than resort to self-destruction. (They receive school credit, and take academic courses too.)

Caia was away for a total of 13 months, and the reentry was bumpy. “It was hard to transition to my old life,” she says. A few weeks after she got home she cut, then immediately went to her mother to confess. “She was so sad and disappointed in herself,” Monica says. “But I told her one moment doesn’t undo all her hard work.” And, in fact, slipups are common. “Many recovering people test the behavior, and the majority find that it no longer provides relief,” says Wendy Lader, PhD, president of Self Abuse Finally Ends (SAFE). Caia, says her mom, is now part of that group.

With her daughter stable, Monica faced a different challenge: paying the $200,000 tab for Open Sky, travel and the La Europa stay. She emptied her retirement savings and borrowed the rest. Fortunately, most teens don’t require such extensive—or expensive—intervention. “Kids who’ve just started to cut do well with outpatient therapy,” says John Peterson, MD, director of child and adolescent psychiatric services at Denver Health Medical Center. Generally, this means 6 to 12 months of treatment at a cost of about $8,000, some of which may be covered by insurance. (Residential treatment runs about $10,000 to $45,000 monthly.)

Caia is still taking medication and gets overwhelmed and depressed at times, says Monica. “But now on a hard day she comes home and heads straight to the piano to play and blow off steam.” The scars on her arms and legs are forever, but Caia has decided that’s not always so bad. “A girl at school noticed the marks and showed me her fresh cuts,” she says. “I told her I know what it’s like to be sick of it all and just want the pain to stop. I was so thankful I could say there are better ways to deal with those feelings.”

Signs of CuttingSelf-injurers are good at hiding evidence. Look for:

  • Mysterious bruises, cuts or wounds.
  • Wearing long sleeves, jackets or pants year-round, or using other cover-ups, like wristbands. Disney star Demi Lovato, 18, who admitted last spring to being a cutter, resorted to scar makeup and big bracelets to fool those close to her.
  • Unwillingness to participate in activities like swimming that expose skin.
  • Spending long periods of time alone, particularly in the bathroom or bedroom.
  • Bloodstains on clothing or tissues.
  • Razors, knives or other sharp objects hidden among belongings.
  • Withdrawal from family or friends.

If You Discover Your Child Is Cutting

  • Avoid overreacting or judging. Expressions of shock or horror and statements like “How could you do this?” add stress and discourage your child from confiding in you.
  • Seek professional help immediately. The more ingrained the habit, the harder it is to overcome.
  • Show respectful curiosity. In a matter-of-fact tone, ask leading questions to help your child acknowledge her problem and recognize she needs help. Try, “How do you feel before and after you cut?” or “What kinds of things make you want to injure yourself?” or “How does cutting help you feel better?”
  • Monitor computer usage. There are message boards that encourage self-injury by providing tips for cutting and concealing marks.
  • Be observant. Many kids go through cycles of cutting when they’re feeling out of control, then stopping during periods of calm.
  • Don’t use punishments (like grounding) or rewards (letting him stay out late). They rarely work. Cutting is a medical issue, not a disciplinary one.

Treatment for Cutting

Not just any therapy will do. Kids who self-injure occasionally stop on their own, but parents shouldn’t count on it. “Cutting is only a symptom,” says Lader. “They won’t get better until they overcome their inability to handle emotions.” And that usually requires professional assistance. The most promising approach so far involves dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which teaches teens two things: how to deal with stress, and how to be more effective in relationships. “The focus is on mindfulness, recognizing and accepting whatever’s coming up at any particular moment,” says Dr. Peterson. “Patients learn to be at peace with negative thoughts and feelings as they arise, rather than do things to try to force them to go away.” Family therapy is also an integral part of recovery. “Teens who feel distant and disconnected at home are much more vulnerable,” says Dr. Peterson. “Kids who are able to decompress by talking to parents are far safer.”


July 2011. Article courtesy Family Circle magazine.

Homeless Teen Parents Struggle to Find Housing


Duane Sergeant and Easter Johnson feel trapped. For nearly a year-and-a-half, the young teen couple has shared a single room and a double bed with their two small children in the Jackson Avenue Family Residences, a homeless shelter in the South Bronx.

“We’re really just down about it because we need to get out of here,” said Sergeant, 21, a Brooklyn native with a wide grin. “We want to get something we can call our own. This one room just ain’t cutting it.”

Sergeant and Johnson, a creamy-skinned 19-year-old, have been actively looking for an apartment since October of 1999, when they became homeless. They have yet to find a suitable apartment they can afford. Landlords tend to distrust them because of their youth.

“As far as apartment searches go, it’s really hard with our ages,” Sergeant said. “It’s like wow. They’re really young. They hold that against us. They automatically think you’re gonna party and tear up the place.”

Shelter directors are seeing more and more youngsters having a harder time finding a permanent place to live. “Teen parents don’t know how to negotiate the system,” said Joseph Esheyigba, director of social services at the Jackson Avenue Family Residences. “They lack the basic social skills. They don’t know how to talk to a landlord.”

And the problem goes beyond the Bronx. More teenage parents turn up in the city’s shelter system, said Patrick Markee, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless. Squeezed by rising rents and fewer family-sustaining jobs, many of the city’s youngest couples are forced to start their adult lives in a homeless shelter.

“I think a big problem now is accessing affordable housing, in contrast with the 70s and 80s, when the homeless family crisis emerged,” Markee said.

Sergeant and Johnson are part of a burgeoning population of homeless families across the country. According to a recent study by the National Conference of Mayors, requests for shelter by homeless families alone increased by 17 percent since 1994. And in New York City, the shelter system has swelled to over 25,000 people for the first time since the 1980s.

Among the rising homeless populations, women and children are the fastest growing segments. According to a study by the Homes for the Homeless Institute for Children and Poverty, homelessness among young, single, female-headed households increased five-fold between 1986 and 1996 nationwide.

Sergeant and Johnson became homeless in the summer of 1999 when Johnson’s grandmother made them move out of her house when they couldn’t contribute enough money to pay the bills. Sergeant’s parents refused to take the young couple in. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they disapproved of the couple living together out of wedlock. So Duane and Easter had no other choice but to enter the homeless system, they said.

Money is a perpetual issue, of course. Right now, the family of four lives on Sergeant’s part-time $6 an hour job at Lerner’s Department Store in the Bronx. Welfare kicks in $118 a month in food stamps, and $70 cash for the babies. The food stamps last only two weeks. Scrounging up enough for diapers and clothes is a constant challenge, they said.

Still, Johnson and Sergeant are luckier than most. Both of their families provide financial support, approximately $250 per month combined, according to Sergeant. It’s the only way they can remain above total destitution. Most of the families in the shelter don’t have family to lean on, Johnson said. And that is how they usually end up homeless.

A family in need of shelter must first report to the Department of Homeless Services Emergency Assistance Unit at East 151st in the Bronx. Each family is assigned to a case manager, who investigates whether or not the family is truly homeless.

For many, rejection is common. “There was this one girl, she came back 17 times,” Johnson said.

When Johnson and Sergeant entered the system they were deemed eligible within 48 hours of visiting the EAU. They lived temporary shelter on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx until October of 1999, until their permanent room was available at Jackson, one of the city’s 76 family shelters, which houses 95 families.

As the months pass, life in Unit 109 becomes even more unbearable. One February afternoon inside their cramped space, Johnson and Sergeant’s 2-year-old daughter, Tiahni, pressed her face against the window above the bed. She stared out into the gray sky past the wire fence topped with barbwire to the Bruckner Boulevard, which looms ahead above the fence.

Sergeant unwrapped a burger and sat on the bed between Johnson and Duane Jr., their 2-month-old son, feeding Tiahni pieces of bun. A small cockroach scurried across the floor. Since there are four people living in 109, and only one chair at the table, Duane eats on the bed, the same bed where Duane, Easter, and Tiahni have slept for over a year. Duane Jr. sleeps in a playpen in the corner.

Unit 109 is hot and reeks of urine and sometimes excrement smells emanate from the overloaded plumbing system in the shelter. At Jackson, it is impossible to turn the heat down in the stifling units or to get rid of the stench that is always present.

Johnson said she rarely leaves the confines of 109 for fear of violence or other drug-using tenants. “There’s always a fight. Almost every night the cops come in here,” she said. And even inside 109, things can get tense. A green faded, tattered sign that reads “Listen First” is taped to the wall, a remnant from couples counseling they received in the shelter.

Sergeant has gotten better about listening, he said. But, things are still stressful. During a recent interview, Sergeant said he feels like he’s living his life as a 50-year-old man. Johnson immediately responded, “I don’t know why he feels that way, because as the mother, I does everything.”

“I’m a family man at the age of 20. I do feel that way,” Sergeant shot back.

“She’s boring,” he added. “She doesn’t do nothing. She don’t like going out or anything. I still miss out on teenage things.”

Johnson got up from the bed, started to walk away and said firmly, “It’s not that I don’t like going out. It’s just that I don’t mind NOT going out. Before I had kids, I used to go out. And you go out when you want to.”

Johnson and Sergeant have been close to getting two apartments, but each fell through because the landlord was not experienced with Section 8, the federal low-income housing subsidy that will pay for their rent. “The first apartment was so beautiful,” Sergeant said. “We thought it was so easy, we would live happily ever after and that was it. It’s been downhill ever since.”

Even though there is an incentive for landlords in New York City to rent to the homeless (They receive a $500 bonus for each homeless person living in an apartment they rent), Johnson and Sergeant still face the stigma of being homeless.

“They like it [renting to the homeless] better because they know they’re gonna get their money,” Sergeant said. “They feel good about that. But then again, they do look down at us too. ‘Oh they’re homeless, they don’t know how to act.’ When we go, we wear our best so they know we’re not the stereotypical homeless people.”

Time is running out. In the New York City shelter system, if a family has not found an apartment after 18 months, it must leave the shelter system temporarily and reapply to re-enter the system. Recently a family of three in the Jackson Avenue shelter was forced to leave after 18 months. “I just don’t want us to have to go through that,” Sergeant said, “I really don’t want that to happen. We have two kids and all they had was them and their son.”


article courtesy KATIE MELONE