Talking to Teens about Addiction
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Talking to Teens about Addiction


Talking to teens about addictionI work with troubled youth—that is, I teach a program for kids who are disengaging from formal education, at risk of suicide or self-harm and who present with a variety of drug and alcohol issues. I hold a Master’s degree in Education, have 10 years of professional experience in this field and consider myself to be a sane, stable, professional man. Oh, and I’m also a drunk; by the time I was 15, I was regularly binge drinking, taking any drug I could get my hands on and sleeping in parks with—well, let’s not call them friends. Associates, maybe? They were older teenagers I ran with that had access to drugs and alcohol. It’s not like that today; today, I’m sober.

A drug and alcohol counselor once asked me what advice I’d have given my teenage self. But for me this isn’t simply a mental exercise. I see my teenage self every day in the faces of the young people I work with—particularly the ones who abuse drugs and alcohol. And so I’ll find myself thinking: What advice would have gotten through to me then?

But first, make no mistake—it’s not like I was rejecting sound, sane advice my family was doling out. I may have been a drunk but so were the adults and role models around so instead of the calm guidance and information that I needed, all I got was chaos and alcohol. The kind of advice I was given as a child by my Irish Catholic clan was to never trust a man who didn’t drink. Heavy drinking and addiction was littered liberally throughout my family: my mother had to be brought up in a series of foster homes and orphanages because Grandad had been such a violent drunk that his children were taken from him. As a teen, I watched as my older brother was bounced from juvenile detention to prison due to his drug addiction. But, the adults around me would say, it was the sober man who couldn’t be trusted.

The only adult who ever spoke to me in a calm, rational and supportive manner was my football coach. I was a talented player but skipped training, missed school and bragged about my drink and drug-fueled escapades. One day he sat me down and told me things that I wasn’t ready to hear—that I was throwing away my potential, that my drug and alcohol abuse was harmful to me, that I didn’t have to end up the same as my brother. I didn’t listen to a word of it and certainly didn’t change any of my behavior. In fact, my drinking and drug use spiraled and became worse. But years later, I would think about what he’d said and how amazing it was that an adult had cared enough to sit me down and take the time to discuss these things.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was the first step for me on the long and bumpy road to sobriety. Because even though I didn’t listen to him, somehow it sank in. And this is why I work with young people. Teenagers don’t listen much but they observe everything—they take in values, attitudes, behaviors and knowledge of the world around them through a powerful form of osmosis. On the one hand, they may just be the most self-absorbed beings in the known universe but on the other, they are sponges. This creates a rich soil that the adult grows out of and the adult grows well or badly depending on the quality of the soil. My soil was 90% proof and so was the adult who grew out of it.

So I talk to my students and when necessary, I refer them on to drug and alcohol counselors. I don’t want them to go through 12 or 13 years of interrupted education without one adult taking the time to sit with them and calmly discuss their drinking or their drug use and what it’s doing to them. Because if nothing else, this will demonstrate that there are adults who notice their self-destructive behavior and are concerned for them—that they are loved and that their lives are important and have a meaning and a purpose. They won’t listen, the same way I didn’t listen at that age, but they will observe and I believe that this simple demonstration will come in time to mean something. I was initiated into drugs and alcohol at the age of 12 and by 14 was an experienced and regular user. For young people these days, it can happen at an even earlier age and the damage wrought on their developing brains by the time they are 18 can be devastating. Since the worm gets out of the bottle early, I believe we need to start talking to them when they’re young as well.

Children who are going to disengage from formal learning present early and present often. By the time they are nine or 10 years old, they may be exhibiting all manner of at-risk behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse. This is where the information needs to be passed on to them and, where possible, to their families—information about their family history of drug and alcohol abuse, information about the contributing factors when it comes addiction and the impact this will have on their lives, information about their precious developing brains and the damages drug and alcohol abuse can do.

And finally I would advise them to be lucky. Given the volume of my binge drinking, I could have died many times, my arrest sheet could have been much worse than it is and I could easily have been incarcerated. But I was not; I was lucky. And that, along with some compassion and information, can save lives.

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