Student Well-Being

Interview: Bitter Pills

November 01, 2003 5 min read

In the mid-1990s, Meredith Maran spent many nights cruising the streets of her hometown of Oakland, California, searching for her teenage son Jesse. His spiraling drug use and subsequent stint in rehab (he’s now a full-time college student and former counselor for a drug rehab program) would later inspire the veteran journalist and nonfiction author to write a book. Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America’s Teenage Drug Epidemic (HarperSanFrancisco) follows three adolescents as they struggle with both drug and life issues.

Tristan, a pot smoker and pill popper from affluent Marin County, tries to find himself at Phoenix Academy, an alternative “recovery” public high school; Mike, a methamphetamine user, cons his way through a rehab program called Center Point; and Zalika, a prostitute and crack dealer since age 12, revolves through juvenile drug court. All three are trying to recover not only from drug use but also from an emotional emptiness that too often, Maran suggests, characterizes today’s youth.

Contributing writer David Ruenzel met the intense, black-haired Maran at a café in Berkeley, where, between sips of latte, she talked about how teenagers get into trouble with drugs and how parents and teachers can help get them out.

Q: Are teenagers really in more trouble with drugs now? After all, a lot of kids took a lot of drugs in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

A: The drugs are much stronger now, for one thing....[Smoking marijuana today is] not like being high, but being really, really out of it. Same with methamphetamine—it’s not the diet pills girls once took in college. But the real difference is in context. Back in the ‘60s, taking drugs was all in the context of making the world a better place. What moved me, for instance, was the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement. In other words, we felt we were doing more than getting high. There’s nothing wrong with rage, alienation. What’s hard is when you have nowhere positive to go with those emotions, as is now too often the case.

Also, our drugs back then came from our friends. Crack cocaine and methamphetamine do not come from anybody’s friend. No one uses them for insight. It’s about profit for the manufacturers, not peace and love.

Q: Did the kids you followed [for the book] all struggle with school?

A: Yes, but I would say that they were failed by schools more than they were failing. I mean, Tristan and Mike were both diagnosed with learning disabilities for which they received little help. And Zalika was too smart for school. She got bored and then started flunking. I quickly discovered that it’s often the brightest kids who are in these drug rehab programs—they don’t have the kind of brains that function well in a highly structured, 38-kid classroom. These are kids whose minds kind of go sideways. They’re often brilliant when released from the tyranny of traditional school.

Q: You emphasize that recovery treatments for adults won’t work for kids. Why?

A: The basic premise for adults, the 12-step model, is “bottoming out.” You hear the story over and over again of a 50-year-old person who talks about having lost career, family, home, and so on. But what does a 16-year-old kid have to lose? His relationship with family and friendships, that’s about it, and kids don’t lose friends with drug use because they use drugs with them. So the concept that a teenager will come to his senses because of what he might lose when he’s 45—get real, folks. That’s not going to happen.

Q: What kind of treatment, then, does work for kids?

A: Twenty years ago, treatment programs for kids didn’t exist. Adolescent rehabilitation is adolescent itself, so each program describes itself as in a process. None claims to have figured it out. How could they when 70 to 90 percent of the kids fail rehab and don’t stay clean? People at Phoenix Academy go to work and try to figure out what works for each kid. They have research on drug use, repeat rates, but they don’t claim to have “the answer.” And this is actually why I think Phoenix works so well. No one there is saying, “When I treated a 52-year-old cocaine addict, he got better, so let’s try it on a 16-year-old girl.” Their treatment is individually oriented.

Q: As is teaching in the best schools.

A: Exactly. Figuring out how to deal with troubled kids, drugs or not, is not rocket science. We do it every day in expensive private schools. You give kids small classrooms, caring teachers, things they’re passionate about, and adults who know about these things. The one thing we should do, drugs or no drugs, is to improve the education system and tailor it to the individual.

Q: You talk about how some kids, like Mike, learn to con the counselors with “therapeutic” talk.

A: They learn to hustle—I saw that in all the programs. This is especially true at places like Center Point, where kids like Mike are sent by the judicial system. They have to please the counselors because the counselors are the ones who send reports to the probation officers. It’s different at Phoenix, where the kids are there because they bombed out of regular school or because of a therapist’s recommendation. So Tristan had little motivation to deceive the counselors by saying what they wanted to hear.

Q: How can you tell when adolescent drug use is just experimental or truly harmful?

A: Denial on the part of both parents and children often occurs when the problems are serious. I didn’t believe that my son’s problems were as serious as they were. Every day I thought I’d wake him up and he’d have the same angelic smile he had when he was 6 years old. It’s hard to live without hope. So a lot of parents can’t confront evidence right under their noses about the trouble their kids are in.

But complete hysteria about drugs is equally dangerous. For instance, I got a call from a woman who said that her daughter was in terrible trouble with drugs and that she didn’t know what to do. Then she says that her daughter is smoking pot at least once a month. But she also is getting straight A’s and has great friends. Now, I would not define that as a kid being in terrible trouble with drugs.

Q: Should we have drug education in schools?

A: Yes, but we should use the model of sex education in which peer educators are trained to teach other kids. One of the problems is the lack of credibility adults have with drug fear tactics that have been used primarily by the government—the whole “just say no” thing, the “buy drugs and you support terrorism” argument. The evidence shows that kids who have been through such traditional programs are just as likely or more likely to use drugs. But kids will listen to other kids about drugs because they trust them. We, on the other hand, have no credibility. Like a psychiatrist told me, these kids know more about drugs than we ever will.

—David Ruenzel

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