By: Kathryn Eve
When I was a teen, I developed a real problem with alcohol and drugs right out of the gate. My experience with addiction was fast and furious. It quickly went from being fun to just problems. Of course, I didn’t see my substance use that way. I saw it as a normal rite of passage despite all evidence to the contrary. Denial runs tragically deep with this disease.
Fortunately, I had a father who clearly understood the ins and outs of addiction with years of sobriety already under his belt. His own lived experience with alcoholism and PTSD made him adept at spotting the serious trouble I was in despite my young age. Back then, Canadian law was different of course. Common sense prevailed. Parents had the right to decide what was in the best interests of their sons and daughters, including involuntary treatment as a way to protect them from continued self-harm.
Thank God such laws existed back then. If left to my own adolescent devices, chances are I wouldn’t even be here to write this story. I give my parents credit for their determination to get me into a recovery program early on. But that was then. This is now. Canada’s current legislation obstructs the involuntary treatment of minors. The result? Many teens like my own 15-year-old son who recently ran away from a treatment centre after 9 agonizing months on the waitlist, have free reign to do what they want regardless of the risks to their safety and mental well-being.
The direct impact such laws have on families like mine is visceral. Often, I feel like I am sleepwalking through life, tossed into dark, unfamiliar territory. And it doesn’t help when bureaucratic entities like child welfare get involved as they did when my son got picked up by the police that night for leaving treatment hundreds of miles from home. I received a terse call at 10:30 pm from a worker who was clearly at the end of her shift and just wanted to get off the phone. In no uncertain terms, I was told that because my son refused to return to treatment, if I didn’t pick him up right away, I would be charged with legal abandonment and he would be placed in emergency foster care. Click. End of conversation.
Speaking of conversations, I am aware of the ongoing public debate around involuntary treatment. Some critics cite lack of research evidence to support a change in current legislation while others spout recovery can only work if a person wants it. Still others advise one needs to "hit bottom" before any change can occur. With young people though, we need to take a preventative tact. We simply can’t afford to let them play "Russian roulette" with their precious lives. The way I see it, both voluntary and involuntary treatment can help plant a seed of hope which in turn can motivate a teen to get help and heal.
My own recovery journey combined with years of frontline social work experience only confirms what I have witnessed to be true. Giving youth who struggle with a chronic relapsing brain disorder the sole power to refuse or consent to mental health treatment, is simply mad. Such upside-down government sanctioned logic only fuels the problem of immaturity in adolescence. What follows is a syncopated death march down the rabbit-hole played to the confusing mixed message: We love you, but we can’t protect you. The law makes it so. This imbalance between what a youth wants and protecting him or her in unsafe situations makes falling down the hole more likely.
But there is a kind of falling upward that can transform our thinking too. In the story Alice in Wonderland, readers are reminded that not only do adults need rules to live by, but so do the vulnerable adolescents we raise to ensure they also grow up. Otherwise, as Alice famously puts it, our society becomes "nothing but a pack of cards." A world where everyone is going mad and can’t cope with delirious Wonderland rules.
I believe we can do better than the rules we’ve been given in Canada to safeguard our youth. So long as we continue to engage in the not-so-easy process of being a voice to influence government policy, educate community groups, healthcare providers and law enforcement about addiction, health laws and drug policies, we will collectively wake up from our sleepwalking. Remember, even though sleepwalkers’ eyes are open, they don’t see the same way they do when they’re awake.