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Drug addicts have developed certain stereotypes: unambitious high school students, strung-out partiers and unemployed junkies. However, not all drug users fit these descriptions – they can be carpooling parents, PTA mothers or company CEOs.

In both urban and suburban areas, parental drug and alcohol abuse is an overlooked but growing epidemic. Statistically, it is more common for adult parents or grandparents to be addicted to drugs than teenagers.

“We tend to talk more about teens on drugs. But per capita, more adults use drugs,” said Joe Harn, public information officer for the Garland police department and eight-year veteran of the narcotic department. “Prescription drugs are abused by everyone, but cocaine and meth are more popular among adults than teenagers.”

According to the American Journal of Public Health, one out of four people under the age of 18 is exposed to alcoholism or drug dependence in their families. That means that statistically, there could be drug addicts in your neighborhood.

The “Supermom” Who Killed Eight People

In 2009, Diane Schuler killed eight people, including herself, her daughter, her three nieces and three others, by driving her minivan the wrong direction on the Taconic State Parkway in New York. The toxicology report found that Schuler had consumed about 10 alcoholic drinks and smoked marijuana prior to driving the children.

Before the accident, no one would have guessed that Schuler was an alcoholic or drug user.  She was a “supermom” who kept her kids spotless. She earned six figures as a director at Cablevision. Then one Sunday afternoon, Schuler was driving her family back from a camping trip when she was spotted swerving on the road. Her 8-year-old niece called her parents saying, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.” These final words became the title of the HBO documentary about the Taconic Tragedy.

This horrific accident painted a new portrait of drug users and alcoholics: addicts can come in the form of mothers driving minivans.

A Deadly Coping Mechanism

Often, parents use drugs and alcohol to ease life pressures. An article on Salon that discusses Diane Schuler’s case explains, “Especially for women, alcohol has tremendous appeal as a way to calm our fears and blunt our miseries; it is private, portable, available and often very effective.”

Like Schuler, many mothers may not think they have an addiction, but they can’t imagine a play date without a joint.  They can’t fall asleep without three glasses of wine. It’s not a problem – it’s a coping mechanism. It’s cheap and available therapy. Or that’s what they tell themselves.

And like teenagers, some adults need to be the “cool” parents. They want to be accepted by their children. So they do drugs, sometimes with their teenagers. It doesn’t seem like an addiction to them or their children. Until it is.

When a parent exposes their children to drugs or alcohol addiction, they're putting their future at risk. A survey quoted on ABC News found that among patients at 70 drug treatment programs, “One in five drug abusers in some treatment programs in the United States received their first taste of these illegal substances from their parents.”

They don’t try drugs with their friends or a dealer – their parents are exposing them to addiction.

It’s Not Just Drug Abuse, It’s Also Child Abuse

The symptoms of drug abuse differ for each substance, but there are general signs of addiction. Harn says these include weight loss or weight gain, long periods of time without sleeping and, in the case of heroin and marijuana, lack of drive.

Signs of alcoholism, another common addiction among parents, include:

Drinking alone

Missing work because of alcohol

Trying to hide heavy drinking

Shaking when not able to have alcohol 

Memory lapses after drinking

As in Schuler’s case, parental addiction can go unnoticed. Harn explained, “It’s easier to spot when people have been normal in the past, but some people are able to mask it [drug and alcohol abuse] for years.”

Once addiction is recognized, it can’t be ignored. Texas considers parental substance abuse as a type of child abuse, meaning that if you’re an addict, Child Protection Services can take away your kids and you’re unlikely to win a custody battle.

If you wouldn’t ignore child abuse, can you brush off parental drug abuse?

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