(Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
During a recent podcast on Straight from the Source (1), David Higham (founder of The Well, a peer-run alcohol and other drug service in the northwest of England) spoke about his life.
For more than 20 years, David was a habitual heroin user more accustomed to life in prison than the outside world. He joined a 12-step program during his final stint. Upon release, he found that sustained well-being and recovery was rare and he knew he had to help change that. What interested me most from his story was this insight:
“Drug treatment is trying to find a solution for my solution…But what’s the solution for my problem?”
What he meant is that drug use was his solution to a problem – growing up in poverty and a violent and abusive home. So, he turned to the streets and drugs at 14. When he was finally ready for a different life, drug treatment says to get off drugs. All well and good and being on medication may work, “But you’re only giving me a solution for my solution… It’s not really hitting the heart of the problem, which is me, in terms of dealing with those adverse childhood experiences, dealing with the traumatic events, dealing with the issues that remind you that the world is a dangerous place.”
Childhood trauma creates isolation in what is supposed to be our first experience of true community – the family. Families where violence and abuse are rife brings isolation from other healthy communities due to the necessity to keep that behavior secret – and to keep shame at bay. This leads young people to seek out a community of their own where they can feel a part and be safe – but safe to them may not be safe. Finding safety in a gang is not safe, whether that gang is running on the streets or a clique of the “in kids” in middle or high school.
In many ways, our son and his peers had a similar dynamic working in their lives. But their trauma was not born out of poverty or from violence or abuse in their homes. Nevertheless, their lives lacked true community in the age-old sense of a wider family circle. Their trauma is real in that it pushes the modern teenager to rely more on peer-pressure than family relationships and values. Peer pressure and group dynamics is known to be one of the highest risks for adolescent drug/alcohol experimentation and use. (2)
The focus for The Well is that recovery needs to be in the community and it needs to be owned by the community to sustain well-being and recovery. It is the same solution we are hearing over and over again from voices around the globe:
Sam Quinones wrote about it in Dreamland: “Because of the loss of close-knit communities in American society over the past 40 years, children have grown up more isolated than ever before…it is in this vulnerability addiction thrives.”
In Chasing the Scream Johann Hari said, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.”
In her TedTalk on Vulnerability (3), Brené Brown said, “Connection is why we are here – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired…The opposite of connection is disconnection…and in order for connection to happen we have to be vulnerable.”
In a recent Washington Post article (4), journalist Peter Jamison wrote about the perfect storm of the opioid epidemic and the Covid pandemic, resulting in almost 100K overdose deaths in the USA in 2020: “Human connection lies at the heart of addiction treatment. From the “inebriate homes” of the 19th century to the church basements later colonized by AA, systems of mutual support and accountability have long been a vital part of achieving and maintaining sobriety.”
Next week I’ll delve into the specific perils for teenagers, historically and currently…