by Mark S. Miller, Ph.D., LPC, CSAC, Professional Counselor, John Tyler Community College
Let’s make an agreement. Let’s all agree that we are an addicted society/culture. That every one of us is addicted to something. Everyone. So what are you addicted to? Some addictions we feel comfortable talking about and others, well, not so much.
Addiction can be defined as something you are doing in your life that undermines becoming the best person you can possibly be. In other words, your addiction is getting in the way of you living the life you were born to live.
About 4 years ago I was diagnosed with having a faulty mitral valve in my heart. Upon discharge after surgery I was prescribed nearly seventy Percocet to navigate what amounted to horrible pain in my chest resulting from the surgery.
I needed approximately 2/3 of the medication over the next month to assist with sleeping at night and getting through the rough post-op pain. Upon returning to the surgeon office for an update appointment I was asked if I wanted a refill. I said, “no” because I already knew I was becoming addicted.
Where did our addictions come from and how did we become an addicted culture?
Determining a root cause is complicated but let’s begin with a premise: Addiction fills a void. Getting honest about the addiction and the void it is filling requires psychological insight to our motivations and associated pain.
Anne Moss, the Executive Director of Beacon Tree, an organization that advocates for youth mental health, refers to getting completely honest as being “emotionally naked” from the perspective of refusing to be silent on such topics as mental illness, addiction, suicide and grief. I suggest that this can be taken one important step further which is to not only focus on mental illness, addiction, suicide and grief but to also be honest about addiction within ourselves, that is, self-disclose.
To be completely emotionally naked, truly vulnerable, is problematic, however, because, frankly, we live in society that is competitive and political. In short, once one discloses their insecurities and vulnerabilities what will the listener do with the information? Questions like “can I trust you? Will you judge me? Can you forgive me?” leave the individual stuck resulting in the addicted living a life essentially alone, disconnected and abandoned.
We are, in fact, sick.
We are holding information within that so desperately needs to be shared which is literally the difference between life and death. And that, my dear reader, is the essence of the problem. Share we thrive but not share we live a particularly diminished life (at best) or die (at worst).
Students that I have spoken to consistently state that initially using drugs is fun but, after a while, the “fun” morphs into something else.
Once this is realized, like a stunned animal, we are caught in a trap.
The primary difference, however, is that we are caught primarily in a psychological/physiological cage secondarily a physical cage. The difference is that although someone may view the trap as inescapable, there actually is a doorway out but that key to extrication is laden with guilt and shame.
The recovery community uses the phrase, “we are only as sick as our secrets” which I have found to be incredibly true. We guard our secrets with an impressive resolve which perpetuates the addiction.
The doorway and emancipation is identifying someone in the person’s life who they feel comfortable sharing that guilt and shame, and, therefore, divesting themselves of the secrets. The key to regained freedom as perceptively identified in the recovery community is to be rigorously honest—the question is with who?
So who do we offer up, in complete honesty, the depths of our insecurities and secrets? Parent(s) is/are particularly difficult to disclose to. The primary wish of every child is to hear their parents say, “I am proud of you” so the possibility of a son/daughter engaging the parent(s) when experiencing such a profound level of shame is incredibly diminished no matter the depth of connection the parent(s) may have with their children.
Parents (for which I am the father of two daughters) will always love their children but we are too close and too invested to see a reality that is incredibly important: Our primary job is to raise our children by feeding them, tending to their physiological/safety needs and some aspects of their emotional needs but since we are so deeply invested in our children we lack perspective.
It can actually be counterproductive for parents to be the ones to be there for their children when the addictions manifest. Parent’s (either conscious or unconscious) reactivity of disappointment, disillusionment, fear, etc. serve to undermine not only the addiction but probably enhance the addictive pattern. Addiction and its probability for it healing is based upon relationship of someone besides the parent.
Defining the Problem
So, for a moment, let’s digress from the discussion and take an in-breath and consider something before moving forward. At this point, what we are having an existential discussion.
Adolescence and young adulthood is a time in one’s life when a person enters into an existential crisis. To offer some quantitative proof, unfortunately, the primary way that someone between the ages of 15 and 34 dies is either from unintentional injury or suicide (CDC, 2015).
In essence what we are talking about is that the primary cause of death is the result of behavior where the individual is, in some measure, inviting death. We are discussing risky behavior. So why risky behavior at this time in one’s life?
The reason isn’t readily obvious when a person is making the transition between childhood and adulthood but given the statistics it becomes tragically evident.
I’ve come to refer to adolescence as the “years of the storm”
The body is literally in a spectacularly transitional state and the feelings/sensations that are emerging are epic and powerful beyond imagination.
The person is in the middle of a hurricane that makes the most powerful storms ever recorded on the planet look like a sun shower. Don’t believe me? Name the last hurricane that killed nearly 45,000 people last year between the ages of 15 and 34?
At this point I am going to make the observation that there is no meaningful methodology in the United States to assist someone for making the transition from childhood to adulthood. In many indigenous cultures there is a rite-of-passage ceremony in which the young adult is tasked with participating in an activity when, once successfully completed, would be considered an adult by the entire community—with all the rights and privileges afforded to those who are an adult.
This task is often for the adolescent to get in touch with their mortality and to approach death in a controlled safer manner than addiction. By taking on death in a ritualistic, safe manner the adolescent embraces life and evokes maturity.
Although a young adult in the United States encounters particular legal milestones that seem like a rite-of-passage the concept is intrinsically flawed because some of them are simply aged based, the only task the young adult needs to achieve to be granted access to voting and purchasing alcohol is to survive until the age of 18 or 21 respectively. Attaining a driver’s license or graduating from high school requires some level of proven competency but neither, once realized, renders in the eyes of the community as being an adult.
I will also make the argument that since the process of becoming an adult is ambiguous at best that young adults are attempting to create their own initiatory process by participating in risky behavior but with disastrous results.
So how is adulthood defined in our culture? The answer to this question alludes me. But, perhaps, as a first step, we could identify and recognize that when the transition begins we must take steps to realize that the parents can’t and shouldn’t facilitate their child’s transition from childhood to adulthood alone.
Towards a solution
So who does someone go to when experiencing an existential crisis such as drug addiction and how can our young adults safely navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood?
Our culture is currently incredibly fragmented given that we have all been carved up into separate boxes (homes) where meaningful communication becomes exponentially more difficult beyond those immediately nearby. Because parents are inappropriate to assist with existential crises it is critical that others support the adolescent.
The culture currently relies on “experts” such as psychologists and psychiatrists to assist with these existential crises. These “experts”, however (of which I am considered one of them), aren’t the whole solution and why this is goes beyond the scope of this discussion suffice to say that there isn’t the capacity to assist every individual between the ages of 15 and 34 to safely make the transition from childhood to adulthood. So what other options are there?
Historically, immediate relatives were relied upon to assist with the transition from childhood to adulthood such as grandparents, cousins, or uncles/aunts, etc. Unfortunately with everyone in the family often scattered worldwide the development of authentic, deeply genuine relationships are lost.
Technology can help via Skype, Facebook, email and/or texting but that is barely a reflection of true, face-to-face, visceral, tangible depth communication. It is also easier for the adolescent to hide what is genuinely occurring in their lives if not regularly seen. Because often no relative is naturally nearby to step in and serve as the young adult’s go-to person, I suggest that parents and the young adult around the age of 14 identify and agree upon someone who can serve in this role and be the Wisdom Guide.
This person is someone both the parents and young adult trusts and can be agreed upon. Optimally this person should be a relative. The adage that blood is thicker than water is true. It should be someone who isn’t transitory in the adolescent’s life.
The beginning of the initiatory process from transitioning from a child to an adult is to identify this person and then have the young adult approach the Wisdom Guide to see if this is something they are willing to do. This is teaching the young adult about asking for help before help is needed, not when the hurricane has already arrived in full force.
By just the act of asking and showing vulnerability the adolescent is a taking a huge step towards not only acceptance that everyone can find themselves in difficult and challenging situations but also when this occurs to ask for help.
Concomitantly, the Wisdom Guide is accepting the sacred honor to be there for the young adult not only when the hurricane arrives but to be available to build a relationship. Fostering the relationship prior to a crisis taking hold is key to possibly circumventing the potential disaster when it manifests. What is also simultaneously occurring is the Wisdom Guide is becoming the bridge assisting the adolescent who is making the transition from childhood to adulthood.
How the Wisdom Guide navigates this responsibility with the adolescent will obviously vary depending on circumstances. The Wisdom Guide will most likely have other life responsibilities beyond the connection with the adolescent but by just having someone nearby is essential to creating a sense of support and someone that can be trusted to assist with navigating difficult waters including serving as a bridge between the adolescent and the parents when necessary.
This essay is meant to promote discussion regarding the best way for our culture preemptively support those have yet to have fallen into the abyss of addiction. I think we can all agree that to do nothing is incompressible sitting in paralysis and fear while thousands die from addiction and risky behavior.
It is my belief that much of void that adolescents are attempting to fill is the result of the experiencing huge changes occurring in their bodies and navigating the evolution from childhood and adulthood without someone assisting with this transition beyond the parents. There are no formal rites-of-passage methodology in our culture to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Parents and their adolescent must mutually agree upon someone they trust to serve as their Wisdom Guide not only to prevent tragedy in the event of addiction but also to be a safe confidant with which to authentically communicate.
The Wisdom Guide’s sacred responsibility is to follow through with the adolescent to be available to act as an unbiased safe harbor before, during and after the hurricane.