“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.