By Meena Venkataramanan
“I don’t care what you did yesterday - I care what you do today.”
Those are the first words of advice that PJ, tonight’s substance abuse workshop facilitator, tells six teenage victims of substance abuse and their parents as they sit in a semicircle around him. The teenagers are here as part of the constructive consequence assigned to them upon completing Teen Court, a local diversion program for adolescents who have committed misdemeanors or drug-related felonies.
The night begins with a round of The Ungame, a noncompetitive communication game in which each participant draws a card that either poses a question or allows the participant to ask a question of someone else.
One of the mothers sits on the edge of the semicircle, so it is her turn first. Her question is, “Who in your family do you have the most trouble communicating with?” Without hesitation, she points to her son, who is seated next to her.
As PJ puts it, “People don’t do drugs to become addicts. People do drugs because there’s something missing inside their hearts.” In this instance, it is vital communication between a mother and her son that is missing.
After each participant answers the question posed on their card, the activities begin.
Like the icebreaker, the first activity is unconventional: the participants are to list as many street names for marijuana, cocaine, and heroin as they can. After several minutes of brainstorming, they come up with twenty-six street names for marijuana, eighteen street names for cocaine, and eight street names for heroin. Then, they are to think of as many stereotypes associated with each drug as they can.
After this has been completed, PJ asks the participants a question- “what is culture?”
A variety of answers are thrown out, but ultimately, it is decided that a culture is a set of shared beliefs and traditions, including religion and language, within a group of people.
“Drugs are a culture,” PJ explains. “Drug users have their own names for drugs- they speak a common language that allows them to hide.” The participants consider this.
“So how do you initiate yourself into the drug culture?” PJ asks the group.
The answer? By lying. And as it turns out, every teenage participant the room confesses that they began to use drugs by lying to those around them.
“But is it worth it?” inquires PJ. “Have you ever really seen drugs improve relationships in our society?” Everyone in the room shakes their head. “The answer is no. Your brain is still growing- constantly rewiring and refolding as you learn new skills. Drugs kill your developing brain.”
To illustrate this, PJ draws on a seemingly unrelated subject: baseball. He assumes the role of catcher, and asks the teenagers to act as pitchers. First, he asks one teenager to pitch an imaginary ball to him, which he catches with ease.
Then, he asks all the teenagers to pitch balls to him at once. When they do, he is unable to catch them.
“The baseballs are brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins,” he explains to the teens. “When a few are released, the receptors, or catcher, can successfully receive them. But when an excessive amount is released, the receptors cannot receive them properly and become damaged. They close up, and some never open back up. This is exactly what drugs do to your brain.”
To elaborate, PJ tells several stories of old friends of his who suffered drug addiction. He depicts them in detail both before and after becoming addicts, and the difference is evident. The teens are clearly moved by these stories- but have they been stirred enough to stay away from drugs?
“No one wants to become an addict,” says PJ. “So why do they try drugs?”
The group lists several reasons- boredom, depression, peer pressure, curiosity, thrill, adventure, easy access, and a desire to escape reality are just a few.
“Addiction causes you to show up too late to your life,” PJ explains, recalling a memory of an old friend who became permanently paralyzed after jumping off a building while he was hallucinating on LSD. “Drug dealers don’t care about you. You are their slave. And most of all, drugs are not going to make things better for you.”
The workshop ends with a Jeopardy!-style game that tests both the teens’ and their parents’ knowledge on the harmful effects of drugs. The game is competitive but friendly, a perfect mix of fun and learning to end a three-hour long workshop filled with laughter, tears, and honest conversations about substance abuse.
And in the end, the teens win.
Thank you to the staff at Pima County Teen Court for making this visit and project possible.
Where: Pima County Teen Court
When: August 18th, 2016
Who: PJ, Workshop Facilitator
Objective: Observe Teen Court's substance abuse prevention workshop in order to learn and spread strategies for preventing youth substance abuse.
Takeaway: I not only was able to immerse myself in the stories of these teens, but was able to see firsthand how engaging and effective group workshops are in preventing youth substance abuse.