Part of the Hiding in Plain Sight blog series
Written by Cathy Cassata, Health & Wellness Writer
Sep. 14, 2022 / Forbes
More than 40 million people were living with a substance use disorder in 2020, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While the disease takes lives, 3 out of 4 people who experience addiction eventually recover, as reported in a 2020 study.
So was the case for Stevie, a fun-loving kid and youngest of 5 children, who always found ways to make his siblings laugh. When alcohol entered his life at 14, the Stevie his family knew disappeared. “His reliance on alcohol was ferocious, and we ended up grounding him 6 months out of a year for 9th, 10th, and 11th grade,” said his dad Steve D’Antonio.
By the time Stevie was 16, he was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning three times. “He’d vow he wouldn’t do it again, but he couldn’t stop,” says D’Antonio. He also suffered from alcohol-induced depression, which prompted his admittance to an outpatient addiction program. “It was a very dark 11-month period. We started to learn about the disease we were dealing with and so did he.”
After another relapse, Stevie spent time at a residential treatment center and lived in a transitional community for 3 months. “He didn’t come back to all the celebrations of senior year, which would have been a hard environment to stay healthy in,” D’Antonio said.
When Stevie came home, he felt healthy enough to go away to college, but after two weeks, he started drinking. “That was a defining moment because he made the decision that this is who he didn’t want to be. He decided to get help again and has been sober ever since for 7 years.”
Stevie finished college while receiving treatment, which included Alcohol Anonymous meetings, addiction medicine therapy, and regular drug screenings. At 25, he now helps kids find a path to recovery. “Now he’s the same beautiful kid he was all those years ago. He’s funny and awesome to be around,” said D’Antonio.
A Brain Disorder; Not a Moral Failure
As the executive vice president of family education at Shatterproof, D’Antonio helps families navigate situations like his family once did. He aims to destigmatize addiction and the notion that it’s a moral failure.
“Someone who has an addiction has likely had their brain restructured in such a way that their needing or wanting to use drugs or alcohol becomes an obsession that is driven by their brain,” he said.
To explain the science of addiction, the stigma associated with it, and hope for recovery, he helped create the Presence of Mind interactive training video “Understanding Addiction,” in which gaming influencers and esports athletes share their addiction care journey in short video testimonials.
“As a community, we can remove unhealthy stigma about addiction by talking about it and by getting people the help they need,” Erin Ashley Simon, an esports and gaming influencer, said in the video.
Choosing destigmatizing language that is empathetic can also encourage people to get help. For instance, rather than using abuse, drug problem, or habit, choose words such as substance use disorder, misuse, or risky use.
“If you continue to use stigmatizing language about a treatable disease like addiction, would your children or the children in your community feel comfortable coming to you for support and medical care? Or would they hear the message of shame and blaming that is so normalized in our culture?” said Thekla Brumder-Ross, PsyD, principal consultant at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Addiction and Mental Health Research.
Hope for Recovery
Stigma is often a reason why people don’t seek care, said Brumder-Ross. “Youth are especially vulnerable here.”
She also said that genetic, developmental, and environmental factors cause susceptibility to drug experimentation and to the brain changes underlying addiction. A Kaiser Permanente study found the following childhood-based health issues to be risk factors for substance use:
- Oppositional defiance disorder
- Trauma- or stress-related disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
“Addiction has been referred to by many people as an adolescent disease because about 96% of people who end up with a substance use disorder started their use in adolescence,” said D’Antonio.
The reason for this is that the human brain is not fully developed until 25 years of age. “When heavy drug or alcohol use interferes with development then vulnerability for misuse is significantly higher,” he said.
To assess whether your child is at risk for drug and alcohol use that could lead to substance use disorder, you can take this free quiz.
“If your child is diagnosed with a substance use disorder, there’s hope for recovery. It includes evidence -based counseling, family treatment, recovering peer groups, medication or pharmacotherapy and sober social plus educational activities. In addition, there are outside recovery supports like AA or SMART recovery with compassionate people who have similar lived experiences,” said Brumder-Ross.
Stevie is proof that healing is possible. “The other side of addiction is often an unbelievably uplifting beautiful place because people who have gone through this disease end up with a lot of empathy for others who are dealing with the problem and are grateful for people who helped them along the way,” said D’Antonio.
About the Author
I have more than 15 years of experience writing about health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people. I write with empathy and accuracy and have a knack for connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. I have interviewed hundreds of experts from a wide range of backgrounds, including physicians, psychologists, sociologists, researchers, and scientists, as well as everyday people about their personal health journeys. I contribute regularly to Healthline, Health.com, Verywell, and Psych Central, and have been published in Everyday Health and HuffPost. Read more of my work here, and connect with me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
The “Hiding in Plain Sight” blog is a series leading to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, produced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, executive produced by Ken Burns, and presented by WETA, the PBS flagship station in our nation’s capital.
If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.