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‘The effects of drugs in our communities’ – Dr. Pat Browning’s story

I am Pat Browning, a retired doctor, and I have lived in Pocahontas County for 31 years. I appreciate this opportunity to talk with you about the tragic drug epidemic that is killing our children.

I have lost two of my three children to this unimaginable nightmare.

I ask myself, “How could this have happened? Where did I fail my two beautiful daughters?”

I’ll take you back to 1985 when my husband and I moved to Pocahontas County with our three adorable, brown-eyed children. We moved to a charming white house on tree lined Second Avenue in Marlinton.

Life held much promise.

My oldest child, Ariana, attended first grade just a few blocks away. The town was small, but had all we needed. I truly thought, “This is Camelot.”

Then the flood of 1985 hit and although it was devastating to our house, the hospital, and the office, we survived, and life was still full of hope and promise.

Ariana was seven years old when her teacher noted she was bright, but inattentive. Another teacher reported there was something different about her, but couldn’t say what it was. She had trouble sleeping, anxiety, moodiness and defiance. Once when she was 13, a neighbor told me she smelled marijuana coming from our porch.

Ariana dated an older boy, but we thought we had it under control. To build her self-confidence we had her work in our office copying various forms. Unfortunately she was exposed to the sample medicine closet where some nerve pills were kept. She took several Xanax and ended up at Chestnut Ridge Psychiatric Hospital. She was prescribed an antidepressant, ADHD medicine and counseling.

She was eventually homebound schooled and then spent her senior year at a private school in Arizona. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She often complained her mind was racing. Looking back she may have found drugs helped quiet those thoughts better than her prescribed medicine.

The combination of bipolar disorder and drug abuse is often deadly. She died of a drug overdose at the age of 23.

Much of our focus was on Ariana during that time, and our other two children were living in turmoil and stress.

Billy was busy with school, basketball, guitar and snowboarding. He later told me that he was exposed to pills in high school, but didn’t mess with them.

Izzi, however, fell into the same pattern as Ariana. She had anxiety, trouble in school, and exposure to drugs and alcohol. We learned of her pain pill addiction at age 22.

She went to rehab in Columbus, Ohio.

I moved there for a year so she could attend out-patient treatment and medical assistant school.

She was placed on Suboxone to block her cravings. I believe it saved her life for a while, but it didn’t protect against other drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

She seemed to be doing well as a medical assistant, but no matter where she went, she apparently met drug abusers and tried other drugs.

She agreed to go to rehab in Naples, Florida, at the Hazelden-Betty Ford Center where she was clean for 100 days. She was so beautiful and serene when we visited in early October 2015.

Unfortunately she “slipped up” and overdosed on October 30, 2015 at the age of 31.

We are devastated.

Our daughters’ lives were so full of turmoil, sadness, lies and pain. Our son has lost his two sisters – people who should be there for him when we are gone. Billy’s eight-year-old son was inconsolable when he heard his Aunt Izzi died.

So, I stand before you today hoping my story will be helpful to you and your children. This epidemic, like the contagious diseases of the previous centuries, does not pick a particular type of social group. It can hit anyone. And once drug abuse moves to addiction and the train has left the tracks it is extremely difficult to get it back on the tracks.

Rehabilitation takes a long time and often fails. So the key is prevention.

Evidence-based research shows that there are definite risk factors that can contribute to drug experimentation, abuse and ultimately addiction. They include early aggressive behavior or difficult temperament, ineffective parental supervision and discipline, substance abuse in the family or peers, drug availability and poverty.

Protective factors include good self-control, parental monitoring with clear limits and enforcement of discipline and monitoring of early signs of experimentation, academic competence and success, and anti-drug use messages and policies in the family and community.

Studies show that some children are already abusing drugs at age 12 or 13. Early abuse often includes tobacco, alcohol, inhalants, marijuana and prescription drugs such as sleeping pills, anxiety pills, pain pills and ADHD medicines.

There is evidence that some kids progress to addiction due to a genetic cause.

It’s like Russian roulette since we don’t know who has the genetic vulnerability.

Looking back:

I can see many risk factors in our family. We have a family history of alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

I was uninformed about the drug abuse in the community and failed to educate my children about it. We talked about smoking a lot since my mother died of lung cancer. I went to medical school when my children were going through major transitions such as moving from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school. During these times adolescents face many social, emotional, and educational challenges.

Early signs of experimentation and abuse include bloodshot eyes, change in appetite or sleep patterns, sudden weight loss or gain, poor grooming, unusual smells on breath or clothing, tremors, slurred speech, impaired coordination and dropping grades.

From my own experience, these are some of the things I learned too late:

1. Listen to rumors about your child. They may be true.

2. Check your child’s room frequently.

3. Perform urine drugs screens if suspicious.

4. Properly discard old medicines.

5. Lock current medicines.

6. Have clear family rules written and clear consequences if broken. Reinforce rules at family meetings.

7. Know your child’s peers and only allow supervised parties with parents you trust.

8. Try to avoid major family changes. I went to medical school at a critical time in my children’s lives. I feel much guilt for that.

9. Have self-confidence in your own gut feeling that your child may be in trouble and immediately seek help. Children are good liars, so trust your instincts.

I believe medical science will find a cure for this terrible brain disease.

Until then, education and prevention efforts are valuable tools that can be used by everyone including parents, teachers and healthcare professionals.

We, in the medical field, need to acknowledge that we have to become more vigilant before prescribing highly abused and addictive medications.

Inform and educate your patients about the risks versus benefits of medications.

Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Dr. Pat Browning

Reference: Preventing Drug Abuse. U.S Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health. Bethesda, MD. 2003. This article was published in part by the Greenbrier County Care Coalition – The Effects of Drugs in our Community.

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