Where I spray-paint my thoughts…



“Touch not, taste not, this is the pledge we take today.”  I was raised on temperance songs and slogans (anyone for a rousing chorus of “Dare to be a Daniel”? No? Oh come on).  It all seems a little old-fashioned and stuffy these days, and plenty of people who share my SDA upbringing (or a similar background in another conservative church) lament the rigidity of legalistic rules that made Smoking, Drinking, and Drugs out to be the ultimate evils.

The place I spend my working days now is a long way (not geographically) from the Sabbath School rooms where I sang “Yield Not to Temptation.”  My students almost all drink heavily and smoke marijuana (as well as tobacco) regularly, and most use an array of harder drugs.  This is not, of course, unconnected to the fact that they didn’t finish high school and are now attending an adult-education centre to complete their high school education.

The other day I gave a journal assignment: “Write about something you do that makes you feel relaxed and good about yourself.”  I used to give this writing prompt as is, but after the first time I tried it, I had to amend it to “Write about something (other than alcohol or drugs) that makes you feel relaxed and good about yourself.”  For obvious reasons.

Most students write about the same things you or I might write about — listening to music, hanging with friends, doing yoga, walking, running, etc etc.  But I had two girls who were completely stuck.  With the disclaimer in there that they couldn’t write about drugs or alcohol, they didn’t know what to write.  Neither of them could think of one thing that relaxed them and made them feel good other than getting drunk or high.

In my vocab, there’s no word for this except tragic. I’m not even going to talk about the big-T Tragedies, like girls having babies while on drugs, or kids who go to rehab and work hard to get clean and then are sucked back into using when they try to go back to school, because there are other drug users there.  When I look at the big picture it’s so depressing I can’t handle it, so I’ll focus on this one tiny thing currently making me angry: teenagers who don’t even know how to relax or have fun without chemicals.

I know, I sound like an uptight old … Adventist woman, I guess, but it’s true, and it really does break my heart. These kids start drinking and using drugs at 11, 12, 13, and I see them at 17 or 18 or 19 and they do not have ANY of the skills they were supposed to spend their teens learning — and I don’t mean study skills, I mean things as basic as how to cope with stress, how to face things that scare them, how to interact socially, how to have a laugh with a bunch of friends — unless they have drugs or alcohol or both to help them cope.  Because every time they’ve reached a hurdle, they’ve gone around it instead of over it, and when they finally realize that their lives are unmanageable, they have no resources with which to manage them.

There have been people, over the years, who have tried to tell me I have missed out on some rich vein of life experience because I’ve never been drunk and never used drugs, not even once, not even as an experiment.  When I look back over my own young-adult years, I remember all the highs and lows — heartbreaks and heart-to-heart talks and silliness and stupidity and lifelong regrets.  And the things that seems most amazing and lovely to me now is that I was there for all of it.  All the laughter, all the tears. I didn’t bypass or shortcut or numb one minute of it, and so I have it all, and it’s all part of me, today.

I used to feel a bit embarrassed when I was out in the big wide world about admitting this, that I’d not only grown up in a church that taught me it was a sin to drink or smoke a joint, but that even as an adult I still clung to those standards.  Then a few years ago I was talking to a Salvation Army woman who was telling me about her father’s alcoholism and the havoc it had wreaked on their family, and she said, “I’m so proud to belong to a church that has its roots in the temperance movement,” and I thought, Why can’t I say that too? Because the truth is, I am.

I know lots of people use some drugs — at least alcohol; I won’t comment on any others — responsibly, and I don’t ever want to come over all judgemental on those moderate folks (including most of my friends and some of my family) who enjoy a nice bottle of wine over dinner or a few beers on the weekend.  But let me go all Oprah on you for a moment and tell you “What I Know for Sure” and it’s this: if there is one bit of “strictness” or “narrowness” in my upbringing that I will never regret, it is being raised without drugs and alcohol, by parents who didn’t use drugs or alcohol. I will always be grateful, not just that I was spared addiction, but that I didn’t get to shortcut around any of the difficult emotional business of growing up, and that I had role models in my parents and in my church who showed me how to live as an adult without shortcuts too.  And if I can give my children that same upbringing, it will be worth any accusations of being “strict” or “uptight” or “out of it” that they might throw at me in their teenage years.

6 thoughts on “Temperance

  1. Trudy, the story of people who can’t relax without a drink or drugs both frighten and depress me.

    I do drink – occasionally, so occasionally that I can’t remember the last time I had a drink… sometime in the past two months – but have never tried any kind of drugs. And yes, sometimes I have felt like a square (do people still use that term?) but I have never regretted not trying drugs.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I read something recently about finding the “best of your tradition” and clinging to that. While I’ve always appreciated the anti-drugs/alcohol thing, I have never thought about exactly WHY I am grateful for it. You put your finger on it nicely, and I’m forwarding this link to my youth pastor husband.

  3. Go Trudy! Awesome post. Same childhood upbringing here, although unlike you I do enjoy the occasional alcoholic beverage. Not for numbing purposes, however, and never, ever, to miss out on anything! I don’t like to be either numb or out of control. Those teenagers of which you speak literally arrest their emotional development at the age they begin using regularly. I have 30 (or 40, or 50) year old clients in recovery who are emotionally only 13. Which is one of the reasons why it’s so damned difficult to stop!

  4. The thing I don’t like about the whole temperance thing is the usual lack of education. And I think the lack of alcohol education is a huge contributor to the problem of binge drinking by young people.

    A lot of my friends, and a lot of people I know were taught “Don’t drink until you’re 21,” or, “Don’t get drunk,” and then they’re expected to have an understanding of alcohol.

    I think parents need to not only have the sex talk with their kids, but an alcohol talk, a drug talk, etc. rather than just telling them not to do it. Explain why not, tell them what happens, give them advice on how to be safe if they do choose to use.

  5. Trudy, I really don’t know what to say – because you said it all so beautifully. As a parent to 3 boys, drugs is my number 1 fear for their future.

    And you are SO right – drugs and excessive alcohol use as a coping mechanism leaves these young people (who quickly grow into grown-up people, often with their own little people to look after) with little or no skills when faced with adversity. Not only that, they usually have a mountain of pain from their past that they haven’t been able to face either – which means they feel like they have to keep coping through ‘artificial’ means or drown in their own hurt. My brother-in-law has been free from crack cocaine for over 5 years now, however at aged 50 he has the emotional capacity of a 12 or 13 year old – that’s where his development stopped and his drug taking started. Although he is clean now, he doesn’t know how to have a meaningful relationship with anyone. It’s very sad to see.

    Like you, I’ve led what some would call a sheltered life and wouldn’t swap it for the world. I can get myself into stupid situations on my own – I don’t need drugs or alcohol to help me! I think my choice to abstain came not only from a solid grounding in Adventist theology (although the rest of my family drink etc.) but also from my control freak nature – I couldn’t handle the thought of me not being in control of myself. I guess that’s an upside of a type A personality… 🙂

  6. Thanks for responding, everyone. When things have been gnawing at my brain for awhile, and I put them out there on my blog, it’s great to hear what others think.

    FLG, that’s a fair point about lack of education on drinking responsibly in “temperance” circles — just like lack of sex education when we teach them “abstinence only.” I’m still working through in my mind how to handle a lot of that with my kids, and scarily the time to deal with it is getting closer and closer.

    Karen, I totally hear you on the type-A control freak thing — I have always felt that that, more even than my religious beliefs, was the real deep-seated reason I never tried drinking. Out of control? Even for a second? Not if I can help it!!

    Again, thanks for the thoughts, everyone — I really like hearing what others think (including those who disagree with me, so don’t let that stop anyone from leaving a comment!)

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