Ten of my 13 years working in the behavioral health field have been spent working with youth. As someone who always has considered himself an avid people watcher with a keen interest in human behavior, I began to look at these young people not only as my charges, but as a microcosm of the fabric of society itself: individuals who were as likely to act out a scene from Harry Potter as they were to hide desert reptiles in a shoebox under the bed, occasionally licking them to test if they in fact had hallucinogenic properties.
So many times, I saw myself in these modern-day “latchkey kids.” They in effect had raised themselves by whatever was made available to them, garnering lessons of life from whatever happened to be in the room. My rites of passage had been three channels of television, a transistor radio, the occasional Sunday Mass, and stern and frightening lessons from an absentee father. This bunch was different, as was the cloth from which they were cut.
“This, is an eagle feather,” Charlie One-horse stated, in that careful, subdued way I have come to associate with Native peoples, who speak only when there is something important to say and only when it needs to be said. “It was passed along to me, by the elders, and it is part of what we use with our medicine.” He had pulled this from a cloth that had been neatly wrapped, where the articles of his faith had been carefully bundled, to be taken out only for ceremonial purpose.
The young men in my group stared at him blankly, and I watched them watching him. My interpretation of their hollow expressions was that everything he said was meaningless to them. In the mannerisms and behaviors of these young people, I saw that just about everything meant little to them—things such as values, artifacts, art, literature, things of deep purpose or higher thinking. Behind it was years of hard-wiring for intensity, in a generation raised on “Grand Theft Auto,” that had learned of romance and reproduction by an unguarded Google home page, that had been exposed to thousands of gigabytes of meaningless content.
That is not to say they had that position through all their waking hours. Surely beneath the teenage angst were the hopes and dreams that are part of the human makeup, though it seemed to take a good bit of digging to get there. I'd spend hours, days and months, often with the same configuration of a dozen or so guys, laboring to register through the dull affect of routine, always trying to break through. Sometimes, when a term such as “PCP” would come up in a presentation, I'd see something spark deep within them, something they could wrap their mind around—familiar and disturbing at the same time. I learned to use this as a tactic: light them up by speaking to them on their level, then steer the conversation to something meaningful.
It was around this time that my own mentorship and professionalism was starting to unfold. I was fortunate enough to spend a day with Michael Meade, PhD, who spearheaded a mentoring program in South Central Los Angeles. He noted that in most other cultures, the most highly regarded social classes are the elderly, who hold the wisdom, and the young, where the creativity lies. In stark contrast, Americans marginalize these groups like no other. When the elderly can't keep up, they're sent to homes to play checkers and watch daytime TV. The young, meanwhile, haven't accrued enough financial assets to matter. And we wonder why our young people are bringing guns to school, and are addicted to opioids in staggering numbers. As a society, we have taught our young people little.
When those who have fallen from a height enter a treatment or recovery support program, there is often a sense of “returning home,” a spiritual sense of restoration. In these programs, especially Alcoholics Anonymous, is the promise of being recovered and of being introduced to a God of one's understanding, to transform the sufferer to be immune to drink (contingent on instructions being carefully followed). Beyond that is a more subtle lesson: that of acquiring a working use of principle, with a sufficient duration to test the results.
As I was working the Steps, I found a series of values that perhaps I should have garnered as a child: honesty, commitment, doing your best—things not necessarily taught in a classroom, and which were absent from the “latchkey kid” household where conversation was scarce. The young people I've worked with seem to come from this same place. The program did what it was meant to do for me. I did find a God, and the process eliminated the deadly compulsion to continue on the same path as before.
The nice side effect was a rewiring that activated an inner consciousness. From then forward, partaking in something I shouldn't resulted in a guilt and remorse that indicated the need for a corrective measure, not a faceless guilt that would drive one to drink. It was this rewiring that helped me to see that applied principles don't hurt the soul the way crashing through life with a handful of worn, habitual responses does. Through trial, error and pain, at last integrity would begin to mean something, and I would begin to admire the things in this world that are worthy of that admiration. In short, it was for me, and for the many young people who have come after me, a short course in growing up.
Jeff Gould is chief operations officer at the Chapter House extended-care program in Dallas. He also is a crisis interventionist with 13 years of experience working in the behavioral health field.