STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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To treat addiction, this doctor says we need to start where the addiction starts: in childhood


Last week, a child showed up at the MidMichigan Health Medical Center in Clare with a suspicious set of symptoms. The child’s visit led to a phone call. That phone call led to an arrest.

Police told a local TV news station the child’s dad had been cooking methamphetamine inside the home. Yesterday, I reported that a record number of children were exposed to meth production last year in Michigan. The Clare case shows the problem hasn’t stopped this year, either.

When I was reporting the story, I called a doctor at the health center where the child showed up last week. Dr. Abid Khan isn’t the one who saw the child. But he is an expert on addiction. He runs a clinic at the center, and meets with addicts regularly.

He told me the way addiction is treated today is all wrong.

“Everyone’s talking about addiction and what kind of medications we should be using, or counseling,” Dr. Khan told me. “But nobody’s asking the real question: How did this begin, and what’s fueling this?”

To answer those questions, Khan says, we need to start looking earlier in a person’s life. We need to focus on kids.

Khan’s work with adult addicts starts by constructing a narrative of how the patient became addicted to drugs in the first place. By now, Khan has heard many of these narratives.

“And I’m finding these striking patterns,” he says.

In most cases he’s seen, Khan says drug addiction can be traced back to childhood. And it happens in two main patterns.

The first, is a pattern that Khan has come to call “mothering.” This happens when a child is raised by adults who themselves use drugs.   

“The drug use occurred while the child was very young, and was developing,” Khan says. “So the child developed an attitude that this is acceptable. And then the threshold for using drugs obviously becomes very low.”

Khan says drugs can become as normal to children as “mother’s milk.” As the children grow, they start experimenting, and end up addicted.

“This is a very difficult group to treat because this is a way of life for them,” Khan says. “They’ve known this since they were very young.”

The second pattern of drug addiction that begins in childhood is one Khan calls “numbing.”

In these cases, the child might not have been exposed to drugs. But they were exposed to trauma. Often, they were physically or sexually abused.

“So what these children end up doing is they want to numb themselves,” Khan says. “And they will find any means.”

In many cases he’s seen, Khan says the addiction starts out as simple medical treatment. As a result of the childhood trauma, the person might end up with medical issues. It could manifest as physical pain, or as anxiety or depression. So the person goes to a doctor, and they’re prescribed medicine to deal with the symptoms. Then they’re hooked.

"We're just looking at the effect, not the cause."

Yesterday I reported on ways Michigan could try to address the increasing cases of meth exposure among Michigan’s children, policies that would make it harder to get the ingredients needed to make meth. Those policies could help put a stop to meth production in Michigan. But drug addiction is opportunistic. If meth becomes harder to get, more people will switch to prescription painkillers, or heroin.

To address the underlying causes of addiction, Khan says we need to pay more attention to where it starts in a person’s life: childhood.  

“This kind of addiction … we have to stop at the level of childhood,” Khan says, “not what I’m doing, which is when they’re adults. Because we’re just looking at the effect, not the cause.”

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.