- Erin Khar tried opioids when she was 8 years old and was doing heroin by age 13.
- She is now sober and wishes more parents would have open talks about drugs with their kids.
- This is Khar’s story, as told to Ronny Maye.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Erin Khar. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I came from an upper-middle-class family. I excelled in school as a popular, straight-A student. I was a cheerleader, an equestrian, and a volleyball player. To the people around me, I did not fit the description of a drug addict.
At 8 years old, I tried an opioid for the first time. It was an expired Darvocet in my grandmother’s cabinet. The bottle had an illustration of a woozy person and the disclaimer “may cause drowsiness.” That’s exactly what I wanted to feel.
At the time, I didn’t know that I was experiencing a panic attack, but because the Darvocet created a buffer between me and those overwhelming feelings, I began to look for anything that was labeled “may cause drowsiness” in any medicine cabinet I had access to.
At 13, I was introduced to heroin by my then boyfriend. Ultimately, I was looking for anything to provide an exit and create distance from my childhood trauma and mental-health issues. In hindsight, if topics like mental health were discussed at an early age in my home, it may have been helpful. Much of my drug-seeking was an attempt to silence suicidal ideation and shame about past trauma.
My son saved me
I was incredibly good at hiding the different versions of myself, including the one that was a drug addict — hardly anyone knew.
Ironically, it was when I was not using drugs that I displayed erratic and emotionally volatile behavior. Those were the moments when my parents’ concern increased. I used heroin primarily on the weekends and, outside of pills, I did not bring drugs home. My grades and extracurricular activities were not affected. No one looked at me and saw a child addicted to opioids and heroin.
A big misconception when it comes to drug use and users is that we are weak. That description did not fit me at all. In fact, because I was so good at hiding drug use, it took a long time for me to realize that I was an addict. I had the ability to stop for long periods before using again and, in my mind, that meant I was in control.
Eventually, I could not hide anymore. At 23, I was caught with drugs. It was the first of many rehab visits. The traditional 12-step programs laid a solid foundation, especially when paired with services for my mental health like talk and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
I was pregnant and safely detoxing but had zero confidence in my ability to maintain recovery, because at that point, I’d already had countless relapses. But the first time I held and looked at my son, my overpowering feeling was: “I love you more than I hate myself.”
It’s been over 19 years since I last used heroin, and having access to care was incredibly helpful in reaching sobriety.
‘Just say no’ is an outdated approach
Prevention can look different from person to person. Many people will explore mind-altering substances at some point in their lives, and there won’t always be glaring tell-tale signs of drug use in young people.
—Erin Khar (@ErinKhar) August 31, 2022
As parents, we should focus more on harm reduction rather than sticking to a “just say no” message, so if kids do choose to experiment with drugs, they don’t die. In general, kids are less likely to turn to drugs as a coping mechanism when we have early, honest, and age-appropriate conversations with them about our own experiences with drugs, mental health, and societal pressures, without dismissing their concerns or complaints.
These conversations should feel like a judgment-free safe place for our kids.
If your child needs help transitioning into sobriety, 12-step programs like AA and NA have meetings geared toward young people. SMART Recovery also has a program for teens.