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Coming clean about addiction - your child's

As her teenaged son clung to life in an intensive care unit, Katie Allison Granju found herself brainstorming elaborate explanations for why her gifted and musical firstborn was rushed to the hospital.

Ms. Granju, a prominent blogger and essayist on parenting, was acutely aware that her friends, co-workers and thousands of readers would want to know.

She could tell them he was in a car accident, she remembers thinking. Or that he was burned after rescuing small children in a fire. Or she could tell the truth: Her 18-year-old son was in a medically induced coma following an overdose and drug-related assault.

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Ms. Granju had spent two years enmeshed in the lies that entangle an addict's life, she says. But her efforts to protect his privacy hadn't helped him kick the habit.

So, on May 1 - the day her son awoke from the coma - Ms. Granju announced at Babble.com that he was addicted to hard drugs.

"I was done lying," she says. "It has been a profound relief."

Within days, her post was published on a New York Times blog and Ms. Granju was deluged with e-mail from well-wishers, including celebrated writers and politicians.

Ms. Granju's life is more public than most. But her disclosure raises ethical questions for any parent dealing with a child's personal struggles - particularly ones that are life-threatening and illegal.

When parents keep quiet about drug use, are they enabling a future addict or respecting a child's privacy while he or she tries to quit?

Should parents alert friends and family after a child's first toke of pot? Or does a teenager's right to privacy extend until he or she does hard drugs?

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Ms. Granju's son experimented with marijuana at age 14 and later became hooked on narcotics, says his mother, who refers to him as "H" on her blog, Mamapundit.com. He attended 12-step meetings and was in treatment for almost a year, she adds.

Meanwhile, his parents and three siblings hid the truth. When her son entered a residential treatment facility, Ms. Granju says, "we told people he went off to boarding school."

For a woman who has blogged about everything from miscarriage to divorce, keeping her son's addiction a secret from all but a few loved ones felt "bizarre," she says. "It really is like having a child with a critical illness that you're not allowed to mention."

When children abuse drugs or alcohol, parents have a legitimate need to seek support from trusted friends and family members, says David Wolfe, a psychologist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

But they should use "a lot of discretion" in choosing their confidantes, he adds, "because it could black mark the child."

And when kids feel exposed by their parents, "they're going to get more deceptive."

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The adage "you're only as sick as your secrets" is well-known in 12-step programs. But addicts normally reveal their secrets in groups whose members have sworn to preserve anonymity, Dr. Wolfe says. Coming clean is a positive step for an individual, he adds, "but you can't do it for someone else."

When information is broadcast online, it becomes part of the public record for law enforcers and future employers to see, says Gabor Maté, a Vancouver physician whose books include Hold on to Your Kids and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

"Self-disclosure has become a kind of ethic in our society," says Dr. Maté, but there's a world of difference between revealing a problem to an inner circle and "outing a kid publicly" without consent.

The lines between public and private have become porous in the digital age, however.

Ms. Granju says she had to keep her son's addiction secret from most of her friends and extended family to prevent the news from leaking out online.

"Somebody would have told somebody and then someone else would have blogged about it," she says.

Betraying her son's privacy was her main concern, she says. But when she decided to tell his story online, she also feared criticism as the author of the seminal book, Attachment Parenting, at a vulnerable period in her family's life, she adds.

Ms. Granju, who is pregnant with her fifth child, says she never presented herself as a parenting expert and "I never claimed that breastfeeding would prevent drug abuse."

Despite her fears, she says, online comments about her disclosure have been "overwhelmingly kind."

The main debate about her post centres on whether marijuana is a "gateway drug" to narcotics such as heroin and crystal meth.

Ms. Ganju says she reprimanded her son when he started smoking pot, but because she thought it was just an experimental phase, "I didn't take it that seriously."

Today she implores parents not to make her mistake. "I think it's so much safer to assume the worst than the best, because the worst means death."

Ms. Granju says her son will likely be angry about her disclosure. But as he struggles to recover from neck and brain injuries in the months to come, she says, resenting his mother will be the least of his concerns.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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