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From Philip Seymour Hoffman to Peaches Geldof, heartbreaking stories of public figures dealing with addiction have dominated headlines in the last few months. But, this week has given us a completely new image of what addiction really means — and who's most at risk. Chiara de Blasio, the 19-year-old daughter of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote a poignant, personal account of her battles with addiction and depression. The article ran on Tuesday on xoJane.
Chiara's essay, which is extraordinarily well-written and moving, describes her life as a young woman in recovery: "Every morning I awaken a nervous and depressed wreck, before slowly putting myself back together again." Chiara speaks with refreshing honesty about how she deals with the daily struggle. "I have learned healthy ways to make myself feel better. I meditate. I exercise," she writes. "I make myself get out of bed even when I really, really don’t want to, and it always pays off. I cry when I need to cry. When someone asks me how I’m doing, even as a rhetorical and superficial greeting, I tell them the truth."
Of course, as De Blasio points out, her story is just her own. She acknowledges her privileged background: "I had an amazing, unconditionally loving, and unbroken family. I went to good schools. I lived in a beautiful neighborhood." She recognizes the fact that not everyone will relate to her unique experiences. But, her struggle is better understood as part of a growing number of young people who are suffering from a one-two punch of depression and addiction.
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, an NYC-based therapist, points out that for many teens, substance abuse is "an ineffective coping strategy they use to self-medicate their depression and other uncomfortable emotions... [Adolescents] experience feelings and bodily sensations in new and intense ways, and so they reach for something outside themselves to soothe away the intensity of their feelings."
Of course, a big part of the problem for many teens is that alcohol and drugs seem inescapable. As Joe Schrank (addiction expert and founder of Rebound Brooklyn, a sober-living facility for teens) points out, "There is very little in the way of intoxicant-free lifestyle for teens and young adults. When they come to treatment they complain they have no place to go that doesn't revolve around intoxication — and they aren't wrong."
Making matters worse, an increasing amount of research has shown that teens process drugs and alcohol differently than adults, putting them at a greater risk for dependence. "As brain imagery technology improves," explains Schrank, "we know more and more about the teen brain, which is largely still in development and cannot tolerate intoxication: no marijuana, no alcohol. There is no safe level."
And, treatment options for teens are hard to come by. Says Schrank, "Systems like AA can often be passively hostile to teens, with negative messages like 'you're too young' or 'you didn't drink enough' [to need treatment]." And, of course, this feeds into teens' tendency to deny they have a problem in the first place. "Teens themselves often make the claim of being 'too young' to have a drinking problem," Schrank adds.
Whatever your thoughts on Chiara and her story, her eloquence and bravery are pretty undeniable. The fact that someone so young has managed to find sustained recovery — and speak out about it — is an achievement in itself.