Honest, open teens talk about negative experiences with drugs and alcohol


Michael Hazelroth, 1977 - 2006

A high school teacher invited me to have a conversation with her students about alcohol and drug addiction. Her invitation feels like a hug and a nudge from my son Michael who died of an accidental drug overdose. 
  When I meet the students, they say they want to write a book about drug awareness. (They eventually write and distribute zines in the school and to their families.)

The teacher introduces me as a teacher and someone she trusts and knows.

I begin with a question: 

“Have you or do you know someone (family member or friend) who has had a negative experience with drugs or alcohol?”

We take about fifteen minutes to write our response. I write, also. 

After we finish writing, I read what I wrote. 

There's a pause, and then I ask if anyone else wants to share what they've written. 

I wait for that first, brave student to share what they've written. A hand goes up.

Then another. Everyone shares.

The students write:

“When my dad was younger he was a heavy, heavy drinker and smoked a lot and is now in phase 2 of kidney failure and on a kidney transplant list. The amount he drank and the time period he did made his kidneys shut down to a 20% working level.”

“My brother when he drank beer almost drowned in a lake because he was drunk. We took him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped.”

“My friend lost her son to an overdose.”

“When I was in 4th grade I was in a bad wreck. I was with my friend and her mother and we were leaving the lake to go home. I thought everything was fine but my friend knew something was up. Her mom was drunk. I didn’t notice until the mom started yelling but we were already going too fast and there wasn’t enough time to brake. What scared me was that I couldn’t tell the difference. Also, I was told that if my friend didn’t make me sit in the back seat with her that I could have died. I have a scar to remember not to ever drink.”

“Drugs and alcohol at our school are a very popular thing. I don’t do it because of how I was raised, but one kid got caught. He was pulled over and had beer and marijuana. Other older kids supposedly go somewhere and have massive parties with all of this happening. I watch TV and know the regrets, losses, and pains people are going through when someone important in your life is hurting.”

“My sister got hit by a drunk driver and it screwed up her back.”

A lot of kids in my school go to parties over the weekend with alcohol and use weed to smoke. I’ve never heard of really anything bad happening to them, besides getting high or drunk. I’ve actually been invited to one of these parties, but I refused to go because I was too scared that I would get caught by my parents. I have friends that smoke and drink, but I honestly don’t care anymore, because it doesn’t affect me.

“I heard about a guy who was engaged, in college, and living a very successful life. He started doing drugs because he thought it was cool. When people found out about it, his fiancĂ© broke up with him, and his whole life went downhill.”

“Many of my friends from my camp in Arkansas have been through rough addictions to drugs and alcohol. The camp is a church camp and has strong uplifting counselors and work members. So it is an amazing place to recuperate and rehabilitate. Most have done minor drug and alcohol such as weed, cigarettes, beer, margaritas, and mixed drinks, but there are the few that have done cocaine, rum, and others. They all have been beat down inside.”

“My cousin almost died of a drug overdose.”

“I can honestly say no to my family or I doing any kind of drugs. I have seen the after effects of what drugs can do by looking at Lindsay Lohan.”

“My friend gave into peer pressure and did weed and now they think it’s okay to do it and it’s not.”

“My biological dad is an addict and my grandfather has drinking problems. Both of my parents were doing drugs when I was conceived, but only my dad when I was born.”

“I’ve heard, seen and read things about drug and/or alcohol that end up bad. I know a lot of kids partake in them in this school, even some of the kids in this room. I’ve read that the victims get overwhelmed, I guess I can say, and can’t stop. There could be peer pressure involved with the whole thing as well. I’ve read things that say once you’ve done it even just once, it is very hard to stop. With kids becoming smarter in today’s world, more and more teens and under-aged kids are not falling into this habit.”

“Me. I’ve tried it. At the time I didn’t think much of it. Now, I feel bad about it. Call it an experimental thing, but it’s not good to associate with marijuana users.”

“My cousin got caught with drugs and alcohol. Her parents sent her to a place in Oklahoma City to get her help. She is much better now. I know a lot of kids here at school do drugs, but I don’t really see a point in it, especially with how dangerous it is.”

“My best-friend’s brother was in a car accident and almost killed himself and his friend. This happened because they were both drunk and made a bad decision. My friend’s brother had to get rods put in his leg and his friend lost his kneecaps. They are both alive and doing well but they never drink that much anymore.”

“My uncle died of an overdose on speed. Once he realized it was bad and tried to stop, it was already too late.”

“A distant uncle of mine had an alcoholic problem since he was twelve years old. Our family is pretty clean about all that stuff, but he was the black sheep. He never got married, and I believe it was because of his addiction to alcohol. When he was just in this early 40s, about 25 years ago, he was drinking and driving. He got in a wreck and it severely injured the others involved, and killed him.”

“My mother had a boyfriend when she was young who died after he dropped her off late at night. He was drunk and my mom, who wasn’t drunk, told him she would drive him home but he refused to let her.”

“My dad’s side of the family drinks a lot. My uncle smoked and he died of a heart attack. My dad dips and I’m worried for his health.”

“My aunt is an alcoholic. She has 5 kids and drank a lot with two of them when she was pregnant.”

“I have heard on television that drugs are bad for you and that they can ruin your life. Also, I have uncles and cousins who use drugs and I see how horrible their lives are. That makes me realize that I don’t want to live like they do because I want to do something with my life. I think if I try it then I’m probably going to like it and keep doing drugs. So I really don’t want to take those chances."

“My biological mother is a drug addict. Because of that she is not allowed in my life. She has a crappy life of her own. My grandma had a prescription drug addiction that drove everyone away. My mom was in a coma because of a mix of Tylenol and drinking and I’ve had some bad experiences myself.”

“My friend is a regular drug abuser. A few weeks ago she was at a party and used drugs and alcohol. On her way home she was in a terrible accident that she should not have survived but did. I’m very thankful she did survive but things could have been a lot worse than they were. Her life could of ended just cause she wanted to have fun.”

“My best friend’s dad used to be addicted to both drugs and alcohol. It was mostly before I knew her but the thought has always scared me. She told me stories about how he used to be and it’s not pleasant. They worst episode she can remember was one summer night when they hadn’t heard from him in 2 weeks. He showed up to their (her and her mom’s) ‘hiding’ place and beat down the door. Although he could barely function, he mustered up the strength to stumble through the door. My friend was hiding but she remembers all the horrible things he said to her.”

“Once my friends invited me to a party. They said they were going to get wasted so I said no. I have more important things to do. Like school and my athletic career. The End.”

“My dad always tells me to avoid alcohol and drugs. They are bad things and they will get you nowhere in life. Bad things can happen when you let these things into your life. One time we had a speaker come talk to us about drugs. He told us that when you do drugs the consequences are out of your hands. That one decision can ruin your whole entire life.”

“My best friend was at a fight club and he got drunk and when he gets drunk he gets angry very easily, and some guy threatened him and they took it to the ring and my friend got stabbed in the stomach. He called me shortly after and he was totally calm, and I only knew he was drunk because he was slurring his words. He told me he had just taken an adrenalin shot and some type of weed to kill the pain while his friends stitched his abdomen up and took him to the hospital. He called me a week later and I started talking to him about that again and he said that, and I quote: “Jo, because of you, I am going to stop using drugs and alcohol because I couldn’t live without you and just the thought of never being able to see or talk to you again just kills me inside.”

“My cousin was a drug addict. She overdosed and died a little while back after going to rehab. The people most affected by it were her parents and my sister because they were really good friends when they were little.”

We end the hour by creating questions to dig deep into their curiosities related to addiction. 

Questions the students raise. They use these questions to write their zines:

What is going on in the life of an addict?

Do family members or friends of drug and alcohol users have regrets?

What are signs that someone is using drugs?

It’s hard to say no sometimes. [What are some ways to say "no" when there is pressure?]

Do you think that bonding as a family and becoming closer would have stopped the addictions?

Why don’t addicts ask for help?

What was your son’s reasoning for trying drugs?

What do you think you could have done better that might have saved Michael? Could he have been saved?

Why do you think your son or an addict feels that he cannot talk to parents?

What are the effects of drug abuse on other family members?

Can an alcoholic get better?

If your son had never started on marijuana, do you think he would have traveled this road?

Everything you said about co-dependency explains my mother. Could what has helped you possibly help my mom?

Why does someone keep doing something that is bad for him?

What is going on in the life of someone who is abusing drugs?

How do you overcome grief from loss like this?

Was your son influenced by friends who were drug users?

If you could, what would you like to tell your son before his death?

Do you think drinking grandparents enable kids?

What do you do when you catch kids using drugs?

Do you think a person abusing alcohol or drugs can stop by himself?

Can you make someone stop using drugs?


What do I learn?

·      Addiction knows no demographic boundaries and touches all sectors of society.

·      Just as reported, alcohol and drug addiction is prevalent in teens and their families. Every teen wrote. Most have personal, negative experience with drug, alcohol, and codependent-relating behaviors.

·      Peer pressure is a serious issue. Along with stress overload. Their comments include drug prevention suggestions: teach us how to say no and reduce stress.

·      Parents play an extremely powerful role in drug and alcohol awareness. 

·      Sharing stories provide ripe, teachable moments.

·      Treatment works best as a family affair. (I went to Caron Treatment Center in Pennsylvania in the early 90s for codependency recovery. Caron provides programs to help families and patients understand the emotional consequences of addiction, the dynamics of addiction, the recovery process, the impact of addiction on the family, and how families get well.)

I have respect for this extraordinary teacher and her skills in creating a safe atmosphere for difficult conversations and talks about challenging topics.

And what terrific timing for this discussion. Prom and graduation happen soon, and these fun events can be some of the most dangerous times in a teen's life.




“May I have a hug?” Natalie asks. Preschool children practice asking for what they want.


Jordan Grace Owens, illustrator

Natalie comes to me crying, “Robert pushed me when I asked him for a hug! He won’t let me give him a hug.”

This experience prompts a circle conversation to help the children (3 to 6-year-olds) ask for what they want and listening for the response to their asking. I find a small, handmade cloth pouch with tie strings. I show it to the children and introduce the “ask for what you want” activity.

“This is the hug pouch. When I want to give a hug, I take it to the person I want to hug and say, "May I give you a hug?" And then I wait and listen to hear if the person wants a hug or not.

I show the kids how to ask.

“Natalie, will you practice with me?” She agrees. 

"When I bring you the pouch, stand up, look me in the eye, and take it from me. I’m going to ask for what I want. Natalie, you can either say ‘yes’ and hug me or you can say, 'No, not now.’”

I walk over and kneel down so we’re at eye level. I ask and Natalie hugs me.

The children sitting around the circle watch us. Then Harry waves his hand like he’s swimming backstroke.

“Harry, do you want to say something?”

“I don’t want any hugs,” he emphatically states.

“Thanks for telling us, Harry. Saying no is an important skill to learn. Let's practice saying no to hugs. What words can we use?" I ask. 

“No, I’m concentrating,” says Natalie.

“Maybe tomorrow,” says Sam.

“I don’t want hugs now,” Maxwell adds.

“Later,” says Sophia.

“I’m working now. It’s not a good time,” Ashlinn says.

“No. Thanks for asking.”

Harry and I practice. I bring him the hug pouch and ask for hug. He says, “No, but I’ll shake hands.” 

I show the children where the hug pouch goes on the shelf and end with, “If you want a hug and no one is available, the stuffed owl at the peace table takes hugs anytime.”



NOTES

This is a photograph of the hug pouch used in the "ask for what you want" activity. It was made by friend and designer, EunSook Kwon. It is a treasured object made even more special by its use.

Later, we used the pouch to ask for other things. Inside are small pieces of paper. Each one is a different request to ask. For example, “Will you sit next to me?” or “Will you hum or sing to me?” or “Will you tell me something you like about me?” 

The hug pouch is worn from use. And owl holds thousands of child hugs.

Originally published 9/30/12


A stark startle while reading Dear Sugar (it was a tiny beautiful thing)


Francesco Chiacchio, illustrator. His blog
"I love to grow words in my word garden [and] sprinkle them with different signs, watch them grow from afar, and pick them up with a drawing (Curious Hat)."


I'm still thinking about Cheryl Strayed (and what I wrote). 

That got me thinking about a moment I had while reading her book Tiny Beautiful Things, Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.

Strayed is Sugar, the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus who thousands turned to for advice about life when it’s tough and when it’s good: a loved-one dies, courage to write, wanting to marry, getting a job, a partner cheats, whether to have a child.

She is like Ann Landers on steroids. 

Addressing advice-seekers as “honey bun” and “sweet pea” not so much with affection as to help us circle what she’s about to say, she acknowledges she hears and understands. She shines light on plights from her personal experience and uses quotes from her favorite writers.

Her sugar is laced with pointed statements that feel like forced awareness. I gulp air as I read.

A friend sent me the book with a note that when I got to a certain page to let her know. It’s that kind of book. The problems are all of ours and the strangers become me.

So I had my own page of stark startle.

It was in the letter from twenty-six year old Elissa Bassist who sums up her dilemma as a “writer who can’t write” mostly because she believes she doesn’t have it in her to write: “I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness…How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you?”

Ahem.

(Too many) friends (if they’re reading this post) may see an ever so slight similarity in Elissa’s letter to some of my writing whines. Like how I don’t have the degrees, haven’t read all the classics, that my life isn’t all that interesting, and what can I say anyway. I have many excuses.

Those excuses sit squarely within a victim-thinking frame of mind. A thinking that when I’m in that space keeps me in a triangle of poor me (not good, smart, educated enough) thoughts that spill over into persecuting (why did or didn’t you do, say such and such) and then rescuing myself (I would have if only) from that harsh criticism.

An utter waste of energy and time.

Strayed helps. She says the only way to override your limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude is to produce. To practice. 

To write. To do the work. 

And about those feelings that arise? She reminds me that I have control over how much power I give them.

She says write “blazingly good…Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say…”

Again: I have to do the work.

She tells what she commits to: “Read voraciously. Read and memorize the work of writers you love. Record your life copiously and artfully in journals…”

To sum it up, she says, “Write like a motherfucker.”

Strayed’s response to Elissa helps in the same way I imagine Cupid’s bow does when it ends up in someone’s heart. I sit straight up.

And here I am writing.