By Stephen Hill, Founder of Speak Sobriety
“I want to grow up to be a drug addict”—said no one, ever. I had no idea where drugs and alcohol were going to take me when I first started using substances as a teenager. I certainly did not intend on becoming a college dropout and convicted felon addicted to opioids, but it happened.
“You are ruining your life! If you keep going down this path, you are going to end up addicted to drugs, eventually in prison, or even worse, dead.” This was said to me many times as a teenager when I started to experience negative consequences as a result of substance misuse. But while I was not happy with failing classes, being ineligible for sports and developing a bad reputation, these consequences certainly did not amount to “ruining my life” in my teenage brain. I laughed at the idea of ending up in prison or dead. I thought I was a typical high school student who would eventually get it together when I needed to. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol have a way of messing up people’s plans.
Move Away From Scared Straight
The “scared straight” approach simply does not work because fear does not resonate with people; love, honesty and true emotion, do. Education through fear, why is that even a thing? You don’t scare someone smart, you educate people by giving them the facts, applying facts to real life experiences and engaging in open discussions where people can express themselves and learn from one another. The fear and punishment approach is what has led America to be a mass incarceration nation.
With a story like mine, it is very easy to focus on the ending of my addiction where opioids controlled my every thought and action. But by forgetting to talk about the beginning—nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol—you can leave young people feeling like “that will never be me” and parents with the “not my kid” mindset because they don’t even know how you got there.
Opioids nearly destroyed my life and wreaked havoc on my family. I continue to see friends of mine suffer and die from overdoses, which are now surging during the COVID-19 pandemic. When I first started my prevention and awareness mission, I felt so strongly about opioid prevention that I put too much focus on the part of my story where prison and death were very real possibilities because of the seriousness of my opioid addiction.
Tell the Whole Story
My memoir and keynote presentation are called A Journey to Recovery for a reason. Don’t jump to the end of the story, start from the beginning. No one just wakes up one day and starts using heroin—it’s progressive—frequently beginning with the trifecta gateway drugs of nicotine, marijuana and alcohol.
The Brain Changes
It is extremely important to understand that the brain you are thinking with today will be different from the brain you are thinking with 6 months from now if you continue to misuse substances, especially at a young age. This is how that “line in the sand” keeps getting pushed back and eventually, disappears. The limits you set for yourself in terms of substance use and destructive behaviors fade away as your ability to make smart choices decreases due to changes in the brain.
Don’t Focus On One Specific Substance or Issue
Whether it’s vaping in schools or parents violating social host laws by allowing underage drinking parties, the problem—and the solution—is bigger than one specific issue or substance. By only talking about vaping, you are leaving out the part of where it can lead to. Of course, vaping is harmful in and of itself, and that should be made clear, but helping people understand the progression element adds another layer of prevention. It’s best to think about prevention education as teaching a way of life, a mindset of wellness, and awareness of the social, emotional, physical, mental, and legal consequences—both good and bad—of your actions.