Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kids and Drugs

**Note: I wrote this one maybe a day or so after the previous post. I tried to get this published in the Opinions section of the Danville Register and Bee, but the decision-maker never responded to my email. I may very well pursue this avenue again, but for different pieces.**

Kids and Drugs
Sean Michael Barker

In grade school, I was taught that journalism addresses the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. I emphasize the last one because a recent series of articles in the Register and Bee left me hanging, wondering why a group of middle school students are abusing and distributing Xanax. Surely, I am not alone in my bafflement. 

I’m no stranger to drugs. I’ve been exposed to alcohol and marijuana since my own middle school days, and when I went to college, I came across a vast array of psychoactive substances, from prescription pills to hallucinogens to cocaine and heroin. I’ll go ahead and admit to some experimentation, but I’ll leave it vague and say that, to this day, I feel very comfortable with the decisions I made. 

Still, I am alarmed that people in this generation that is only one behind my own (I’m 23) are using harder substances at increasingly younger ages—in Dry Fork, Virginia no less. Drug use in college makes sense to me. There’s something of a cultural imperative to “find oneself” in a context full of youthful agency and free of parents. Plus, at least at the school I attended (William and Mary), there’s a persistent pressure to succeed, and the professors don’t exactly make it easy to do so. Pretty much all of my college friends used something at some point to relax, to escape from a bleak day-to-day, to explore altered states of consciousness, or to bond with one another. And, around exam time, there’s an incredibly robust black market for study aides. Drug culture, I can report, has become the mainstream in the American university. 

But what on earth could a middle school student have to contend with that would impute drug use? What manner of lows are they experiencing that, for them, necessitate an artificial high? What are they so anxious or restless about?

One obvious possible answer is the ceaseless, pervasive problem that confronts every generation of Danville/Pittsylvania youth: boredom. Simply put, there is nothing to do here that appeals to young people, and the same-old patterns of school/church/consumption become tiring once the inevitability of adulthood and its promised “freedoms” come into view. When lacking other options, kids find their fun in all the wrong places. Maybe someday we’ll work with our young people to address this in a manner that suits all interests.

But I suspect that there is something much more serious at work here. After all, if boredom alone were the culprit, we would have been popping pills ten years ago. It seems clear to me that what we are seeing now is the coming-of-age of a new Lost Generation. And I for one can fully understand why they would be so lost. 

Since feminism, the double-income/no stay-at-home-parent household has become the norm in middleclass America. The 70s brought us the idea that women should be considered equal to men, while the 80s and 90s ushered in the modern era of rampant materialism and a somewhat grotesque obsession with ever-increasing access to technological niceties. Each year brought us a fresh wave of must-have gadgets and gizmos, new things that promised to make our lives richer and more fulfilling. Our culture quickly adapted to each onslaught of expensive developments such that luxuries became “necessities.” To keep up with the Joneses, mothers left the home and went into the workforce, where they were now welcome and—thanks to Affirmative Action legislation—nearly recruited. 

Though these parents meant well, and their kids did indeed enjoy having the latest video games, cell phones, and music-playing devices, the price of all this was ultimately much greater than mere dollars and cents. 

We have become a generation—now two generations—raised on fast food, internet, and cable television. Over half of us are the products of broken homes. For the overwhelming majority of us, the idea of a “home-cooked meal” means something that came from a box that a tired mother slapped together within 20 minutes after returning from her 9-to-5. Most of us probably ate that meal in front of a television set. Anything resembling “family time” was spent frustratingly avoiding real conversation, waiting for the chance to leave the table and chat with friends online. The art of domesticity has been reduced to another consumerist cult, and the idea of parenting as an endeavor has all but gone out the window entirely. 

Families run on auto-pilot these days, cycling through the same patterns of instituted separation, collective consumption, mutual avoidance, and sleep. Children become more identified with their schoolmates and with pop culture than with their parents simply because these are the forces that take up all of their attention and quality time. Similarly, parents think of themselves primarily in terms of their career, leaving little-to-no energy or attention to invest in the home. Parents and children have no basis for relating to one another, and plenty of distractions to occupy their time. And so they simply do not communicate with any degree of quality or depth. 

Is it any wonder, then, that today’s young people would look for something more? What do we expect from a generation who learn their values through Myspace, Youtube, and MTV? Have you seen the crap they put on television these days? 

And then there’s the question of access. The way I figure it, we either have one or more corrupt pharmacist in Danville, or these kids are stealing pills from their parents and relatives. Frankly, the latter seems the much more plausible possibility.  Middle schoolers can’t drive to CVS, after all. 

Caught up in the rat race of working and spending, and unable to handle the reality of the black hole of meaningless that has become their lives, parents are increasingly resorting to psychoactive prescriptions that enable them to persist without perceiving any of the problems that continue to build around them. If parents are buying their happiness in a bottle, why are we surprised that their children are seeking it from the same source? And who’s really to blame, when that’s the case?

What these young people and others like them who have yet to be caught need is not our punishment and collective public ridicule, but rather our compassion and attention. Certainly, an event like this is disappointing, but we must be holistic in our consideration of the factors that create such a grave situation. As much as these kids have let us down, we have let them down. Parents, pastors, community leaders, and, yes, even our schools have seriously dropped the ball with respect to these kids. Instead of shipping them off to alternative school, why don’t we ask them about their lives? Why don’t we find out what the root of this problem is, and address it directly? Surely we aren’t so dense as to assume that these 11 students comprise the entirety of the local middle school drug scene. If we allow this incident to drift into the recesses of our public consciousness, we will continue to see our young people resorting to destructive behaviors. 

Kids grow up fast these days, and the very concept of innocence has tragically lost its currency in the cable television/internet era. But what if we’re all still innocent, in a sense? What if these kids truly do not understand what they are doing to themselves, simply because they have not been taught any better? Who are the role models in their lives, and how do the words and actions of these adults influence their adolescents’ behavior? If you ask me, these students are only reflecting the reality of their environment. Rather than pointing the finger at them, calling them the guilty ones, perhaps all of us should examine our own guilt with regards to this matter. Until we do so, healing and progress cannot and will not occur. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sean, I just noticed that you rejoined Facebook for the purpose of this blog. I hope that the "Register" will consider publishing this because it is a good point of view. The children of Danville, VA and as well as America don't need to be torn down they need to be built up and it all starts in the home.