Everything Going For You

Many addicts describe a persistent history of not feeling right, not feeling like they belong in any group and believing that others dislike them. They generally trace these feelings to an age prior to adolescence or considerable time before they began experimenting with drugs or drinking alcohol.  In one documentary about addiction, a mother was completely taken aback when her daughter, now addicted to heroin, confessed to having these feelings of inadequacy her whole life.  Describing her daughter as well liked by her peers, an excellent student, captain of the cheerleading squad, involved in many activities and very pretty, her mother cannot understand how her daughter could possibly suffer from feelings of inadequacy.  The mother tells her daughter, “you had everything going for you.”  But the fact is, the daughter did have those feelings and they were persistent and painful. What the daughter discovered when she started using drugs was that the unpleasant and consuming feelings of inadequacy went away.  The drugs did what no verbal or social reinforcement could do; they made her feel that she was OK.

What I have observed is that families employ the ‘everything going for you’ test as evidence that their children are not drinking or using drugs. I have heard parents say: “I’m not worried about my son using drugs because he is a dedicated athlete.”  “My daughter would never drink alcohol, she is very conscientious about what she puts in her body.” “My child is involved in so many activities and has lots of friends so I know he isn’t using.” “My child is an excellent student and too smart to use drugs.”  In other words, parents assure themselves that their children are not experimenting with drugs or alcohol by the ‘everything going for them’ standard. But what they don’t realize is that many addicts have a history of ‘everything going for them.’

By definition, the ‘everything going for you’ standard is based on external and observable indicators such as a grade point average, participating in a sport, getting accepted at a good university, etc.  The standard is not based on how a person feels or doesn’t feel.  Being active, athletic, popular or attractive doesn’t correlate with sobriety or, for that matter, cause sobriety. Taking it a step further, keeping your child busy and insisting they do sports or make good grades will not prevent them from experimenting with drugs. In my opinion, the ‘everything going for you’ observations offer a false sense of security for parents and may, in fact, prevent them from recognizing other signs of early drug use.

Let’s return to the daughter who never felt like she was OK.  Where does that feeling come from?  When did it start? How intense were the feelings? What percentage of addicts experienced these types of feelings early on in their lives?  Can these secret feelings of unworthiness be reinforced or minimized by the environment? One thing is clear, external observations of ‘everything going for you’ does little to alter one’s feelings.  Telling your child they are a great athlete or clever or attractive or talented won’t change their inner voice.  And if we equate ‘everything going for you’ with a list of achievements including social success, what is the message?  When we ask someone how their child is doing we are really asking what their child is doing. We are not asking how their child feels. So the question itself reinforces the ‘everything going for you’ world we live in and, unfortunately, that is the message.

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