by Ingrid Howard
At the Harmless vs. Hazardous: Promoting Teen Health Workshop held on March 12, keynote speaker Lauren Sisler told the story about a phone call that would change her life.
Sisler was a freshman gymnast at Rutgers University. It was late, and she had just gone to sleep. She thought, “Oh, this can’t be good. Who’s calling me in the middle of the night?”
Her dad was on the other end. He said he needed to talk to Sisler’s brother, and she could tell he was distressed by the tone of his voice.
She kept asking, “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” Finally, he replied, “Lauren, I’m sorry, but your mom died.”
She got on the first flight to her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Her dad told her he would meet her at the airport.
“It was as if it was a race against time,” she said. “I wanted to get home. I wanted to see my dad. I wanted to know everything was going to be OK.”
As soon as her plane landed, she sprinted through the terminal, searching for her dad. But he wasn’t there. Instead, her uncle Mike and her cousin Justin were there.
She got in the car with them, and as they were exiting the airport, she finally worked up the courage to ask her uncle what was wrong with her dad.
“I can still feel the gravel underneath the car as he pulled that car over, slammed on the brakes and put it in park, turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Lauren, I’m sorry, but your dad’s passed away, too,’” Sisler said. “And those words just cut me.”
How in the world did this happen within hours of each other? she asked herself. What happened to my parents?
It would be months before she got the answers to these questions. Prescription drug overdoses killed her parents.
As she told her story at the Harmless vs. Hazardous workshop, a projector showed photos of Sisler, her brother and her two parents, the four of them smiling in each photo.
“Do these look like people who were addicted to drugs?” she asked the room.
Her mom died at 45, and her dad was 52. Her mom was diagnosed with a degenerative disease and had multiple surgeries over the course of her life. Her father had chronic back pain and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the military. They were both prescribed multiple drugs to help manage their pain, including oxycontin and fentanyl.
“The truth of it is my parents were suffering in silence from their addiction,” she said. “They were suffering in silence because of the stigma that surrounds addiction. They didn’t want people to know they were suffering, so they kept it to themselves. And I think the hardest part is knowing my parents got out of bed every single morning with a smile on their faces.”
Sisler graduated with a degree in communications and found her purpose in sports broadcasting. She landed in Birmingham in 2011, and she works with ESPN, SEC Network, SEC Nation and AL.com. She also recently became engaged.
“I’m getting set to get married here in a year, and I think to myself that I want nothing more than my father to be there to walk me down the aisle,” she said. “I think that and planning the wedding and knowing that he won’t be there, my parents won’t be there to share that first dance, my kids will never know their grandparents. And I will never, ever pick up that phone again and hear my parents on the other end, telling me they love me.
“But this is my new life, and this is my new reality. So now, I’ve got to learn how to live life without my parents.”
All In Mountain Brook, Help the Hills Coalition and Safe and Healthy Homewood each were part of the Harmless vs. Hazardous event, which was held at Samford.
Also during the workshop, Susan Walley, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a pediatric hospitalist at Children’s of Alabama, led a talk on vaping and e-cigarettes.
“Kids don’t start with things like heroin or fentanyl,” she said. “This is one of what we think of as a gateway to those things.”
Walley passed JUUL products around the audience, an e-cigarette device that is popular among teens. She said many children tell their parents that their JUUL doesn’t have any nicotine in it, when, in fact, JUUL does not sell any nicotine-free products.
“There is new data that is emerging that looks at cross-sectional populations of adolescents,” she said. “It finds that those adolescents (who use e-cigarettes) are more likely to be using marijuana, more likely to go on to other drugs of abuse.”
Stephen Taylor spoke next. He is board-certified in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine.
One of Taylor’s take-home points is what he calls the Parents Prevention Rule: jump on it early, be aggressive and never let your guard down.
“You don’t have to be your kid’s friend,” he said. “You can be that unpopular parent. That ridiculous, overprotective, extremist parent that doesn’t let your kid do the stuff that all the other kids are allowed to do.”
Taylor spoke about his freshman year at Harvard University. Before the semester began, there was “Freshman Week,” and Taylor was staying up late hanging out with a group of six other incoming freshmen, he said.
During their conversation, one of the students said he was that kid who had a strict curfew and overprotective parents.
“And lo and behold, like every other kid who was there with us were, like, ‘You too? I was that kid, too!’” Taylor said. “And then one of us actually said, ‘Well maybe that has something to do with why we’re here.’
“That doesn’t guarantee that by being a good parent that your kid’s necessarily going to end up at an elite Ivy League institution, but it does say that there’s something, there’s some commonality here about the young people whose parents … have rules that no other kids seem to have to follow.”
Rebekah Savage was next to speak. She is a doctor who provides primary care, eating disorder care and substance abuse care at Children’s of Alabama to people ages 11 to 21. She also is a physician at a local juvenile detention facility.
In addition to educating themselves and properly disposing of unused medication, Savage said parents should monitor the use of all of their children’s medication to prevent drug misuse.
“Tell your friends that, too,” she said. “Spread the word. When you hear that so-and-so’s daughter is in charge of her own medications, just be the advocate for your friend group in your community.”
Kevin Bridgmon, an adolescent counselor at Bradford Health Services, was the final speaker at the event. He has a personal connection to the young adults with whom he works; at age 15, he was arrested in his school’s cafeteria for possession and intent to sell drugs.
“My parents had no clue,” he said. “The only reason they knew is because a teacher at my school took charge and overheard a conversation I had in the hallway.”
Bridgmon discussed normal and unusual changes that adolescents go through. He said mood swings and spending less time with family are normal, but behaviors such as constant anxiety, depression and rapid changes in personality can be concerning.
“Like Dr. Taylor said, like Dr. Savage said and Dr. Walley before them, do not ignore (these symptoms),” he said. “Don’t think, ‘I’m being that helicopter parent and I’m being too strict on my kid. I’ve got to be their friend.’ I’ve got a lot of peers that, because of that parenting, wound up in addiction treatment or better yet they’re six feet under. Because their parents wanted to be cool.”
To learn more about Help the Hills, All In Mountain Brook and Safe and Healthy Homewood, visit their Facebook pages.