In the early 80’s, after teaching for a couple of years, I spent one year as a profoundly unsuccessful drug counselor in Philadelphia. During my time at the HIPID (“Help Instruction Prevention In Drugs”) clinic, though, I did learn 5 important lessons:
Lesson 1: Never believe an adolescent substance abuser who says, “Trust me. I can go to the ‘Dead’ concert without blowing my sobriety.”
Lesson 2: While employed as a drug counselor, never waste your time applying for a credit card. (Banks invariably assume that drug counselors are “in recovery” and are not inclined to give folks who fit that profile access to credit.)
Lesson 3: Most of the adolescents I worked with weren’t using crack, then the drug of choice, to feel good. They were smoking up simply in order to feel ok.
Lesson 4: There are all kinds of exceptions to this rule, but in general, addiction rarely “just happens.” Almost all of the kids I worked with used drugs to self-medicate. Many were dealing with sever depression and/or anxiety; others had massive family challenges, and a few had profound learning issues. (This was significant because school – the place where most kids spend most of their time — was for them a constant source of pain and failure.)
Lesson 5: As I drove JD, a19 year-old with a couple of months’ sobriety to a mixer, I noticed that he was becoming increasingly anxious as we got closer to the club. When he hopped out of the van a block or so from the destination (Nobody wants to be seen in drug clinic van, especially on a Saturday night!), he revealed what had been troubling him. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve never gone to anything like this straight since I was 13! I am scared…”
JD hadn’t gone through the typical adolescent roller coaster of social challenges because, whenever he had found himself in a tight spot, he’d simply anesthetized himself. While that “worked” temporarily, in the long run the “numbing” had completely undermined his personal development.
I need to remind myself of JD and the “blessings of the skinned” knee as I brace myself for the selection of winter sports teams. In the fall and spring the boys are outdoors with larger teams. In the winter, though, we are inside, where the teams are smaller, and spots on the team are more precious. The second week of November is a time for many of us to see how we handle what JD called the “tight spots.” The psychologist Alex Russell often talks about the importance of high school kids’ experiencing “non-catastrophic failure.”
The question for some of us is, “What qualifies as a catastrophe?”