By Matt Mikeska
There are two absolute truths in this world that we can all probably agree on, one, teenagers make a lot of really dumb choices and two, time and life experience are the greatest teachers of all. These two truths are as old as human existence itself, but they have also been in conflict with each other for just as long. As a teenager your still developing brain is preparing to leave childhood behind and strike off on its own into the world of adulthood. It’s a strange, complicated, and sometimes overwhelming state of existence. Your brain is trying to cope with new and intense emotions, while you are facing the pressure of defining who you are as an individual, while trying to fit in with peers. All of this is swirling in the teenage brain, at the same time having a very limited amount of personal life experience to draw from for direction. This is where we as adults tend to forget the complexities of our own once teenage brains. We find it maddening to watch as, in spite of our best efforts to offer direction, a teen will still make terrible choices, one bad decision after another. It is a difficult time for both parent and teenager to say the least, but there is also value in this struggle. From every mistake, misstep, and poor choice there is a lesson, an opening for a teaching moment, a chance to build something positive from a negative life experience. Even though we may want to spare our children from making bad choices and the consequences that sometimes follow, it isn’t always going to work that way. What becomes more important is how we handle what comes after the choice has been made. Nothing highlights this multi-faceted struggle better than the way we teach and speak to our children and teenagers about drugs and addiction.
I am a child of the 80s, born in 1980, I grew up during the “War on Drugs.” I was steeped in the “JUST SAY NO” campaign from an early age. I, like everyone else of my generation, was taught that people who used drugs were dirty, awful, hopeless people that wanted nothing more than to bring you down with them. We were taught that any drug (coincidentally prescription opiates were not included in this list) can, and will destroy your life, then kill you, and that it only takes one use of any drug to become completely hooked. These stereotypes, half-truths, and in some cases complete fallacies were presented as absolute fact, end of story. There was no honest explanation of what addiction really was or how it happens, and especially never a mention of recovery from addiction, or ways to get help. It was just dishonest scare tactics based on old and uninformed ways of understanding the nature of addiction, as well as a constantly changing cultural view of what was a good drug and what was a bad drug.
As a child I obviously accepted all this as truth, and it scared me. I pledged to never use drugs and had every intention to stick to it. Fast-forward a few years. As a teenager I began to see for myself that what I was told to be true about drugs just didn’t hold up. I saw some of my peers used certain drugs on and off recreationally. Not only did they not die or become addicted, but they also sometimes maintained better grades and peer relationships than I did. I also observed people I knew that used drugs, whether occasionally or more consistently, didn’t seem addicted or “hooked” in the almost comically over exaggerated way I was taught addiction looked like. I learned fairly quickly there seemed to be a big disconnect between what I had always been told, and what I was able to easily observe. The teenage brain has an amazing capacity to question everything, and seek out institutional fallacies. Although there had been some truth and some value in the information I was given as a child about drugs and addiction, there was also enough misinformation and dishonest exaggeration that I, like many others of my generation, decided to just disregard it all in the interest of figuring it out for ourselves.
The sheer magnitude of the addiction crisis we are facing today is evidence enough that our past approach might not be working. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new approach. I am telling you as a recovering addict that at one time was scared to death of all drugs. Scare tactics alone are not sufficient. Relying on fear of punishment as a deterrent is not sufficient. Playing on stereotypes is not sufficient. Ignoring the messy and hard to explain issues of drugs, addiction, and recovery is not sufficient. We need honest information about drug use that is free of exaggeration, and that is backed up by science so that it can be easily observed and proven to be true by every teen. We need to teach our children what addiction is and how it effects the brain. We need to let them know that is often slow and subtle, in most cases, unfolding over a period of time. Most importantly, there is always a way to recovery. There is always hope. Addiction is not a death sentence and there are plenty of people right here in our community that are proof of that. When we attach guilt and shame to the mistakes of youth we force isolation and a breakdown in communication. This is the very fuel of addiction. Rather, if we are honest and open and although this is sometimes extremely hard, try to be patient and understanding. Refrain from saying things like,
“If you ever do drugs and I find out, I’m going to…” We’ve just broken the chain of communication. They aren’t going to tell us anything if they know that they will have to deal with our shaming and disapproval. Instead, let our children know that sometimes they will make bad decisions, and that we are always there to pick them up. Perhaps if our children feel comfort-able confiding in us after a mistake is made, we can steer them in the right direction. Perhaps we can provide our children with a much shorter path to recovery. Let us all begin to shed light in the dark place between the wisdom of time, and the experience and follies of youth. Strive to be a place of refuge in a big confusing world, educate yourself on the issue of addiction, and always rely on open communication rather than uninformed fear.