Hart of the Matter

Column: Students show that addiction education has come a long way

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 4/14/22

Sitting in the Mt. Hope High School auditorium, I’d be lying to say I wasn’t a little hesitant about the addiction awareness theatrical performance I was about to see.I was born in …

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Hart of the Matter

Column: Students show that addiction education has come a long way

Posted

Sitting in the Mt. Hope High School auditorium, I’d be lying to say I wasn’t a little hesitant about the addiction awareness theatrical performance I was about to see.

I was born in Massachusetts in 1992, which means during my formative years in middle school and high school in the mid- to late-aughts, I was subjected to the infamous D.A.R.E. — an anti-drug program so incredibly ineffective that one study concluded it had actually encouraged more kids to try drugs than convince them to stay away.

Today, approaching my 30th birthday, it’s easy for me to see why the program failed so epically. Rather than educate kids about various drugs, what they did, and why they should logically abstain from poisoning their developing minds with mind-altering substances, the program dialed up the fear meter to 11 and simply concluded that all drugs — and therefore all drug users — were evil, and using any drug would be a one-way ticket to jail time, addiction, and an early grave.

Even as teenagers we knew this stance was, at best, exaggeratory. Many of us had older siblings or family members who used recreational drugs and lived perfectly normal lives. Some of my peers had already started experimenting with marijuana, so we knew that the progression from smoking a joint to becoming a heroin-addicted bank robber was not exactly a guaranteed, linear path. Having a police officer at the front of the room sternly proclaim such a farce as fact did nothing but embolden the more rebellious teens to prove them wrong, and scare the ever-loving daylights out of the well-behaved kids who likely would have never done drugs in the first place.

So I cannot adequately express my sheer delight after watching 2nd Act’s performance of “Ill Never Do That.” It was a short play that realistically depicts the life of a family grappling with the effects of a mom navigating a progressively unhealthy relationship with alcohol — which culminates in her taking a drunken fall down the stairs that finally snaps everyone out of their denial and urges them to undergo family therapy and get the mom into treatment.

The play resonated with me because it doesn’t shy away from stimulating deeper conversation by leaning on tired tropes and scare tactics. It doesn’t portray the mother as a cartoon villain because she has an alcohol problem. It does, however, show the very real kind of shockwaves that occur when a parent is unable to keep control of a blossoming addiction. It shows a father and husband choosing to disengage rather than deal with the problem. It shows a young son turning to drugs because of a lack of parental attention and love. It shows how the daughter asking for help from a guidance counselor was seen as “airing dirty laundry”, rather than an attempt to help the ones she loves most.

And in the end, the play shows the reality of a family banding together to fight something that cannot be fought alone, or by simply “making better choices” as D.A.R.E. once tried to implore. It shows how entering recovery is not a simple process, but an ongoing commitment to choosing love and happiness and supporting someone who needs it, rather than judging them and throwing them away as a lost cause.

After the play concludes, the actors shared their own personal stories of overcoming addiction. Three of the four actors were in recovery from alcohol addiction, while the fourth had a close relative that had gone from addiction to clean to relapse multiple times. They spoke honestly about their struggles, about hitting rock bottom, and what pulled them back up and allowed them another chance at living life.

This is the type of engagement that actually will make a difference for some of the kids who watched the performance. Rather than a nonsensical portrayal of addiction, they might very well identify with the family being portrayed on stage, which may inspire them to speak up about a friend they think might be in trouble, or make a change in their own life.

But what stuck with me most from the performance wasn’t even the act itself — it was the kids.

When each actor started talking about their own struggles with addiction, they began by saying how many years they were in recovery. After each admission, the students in the auditorium erupted into supportive applause and cheers. And like a lead weight being dropped on my head, it all snapped into place.

Rather than simply vilify drugs and those who take them, like the addiction curriculum I endured, I witnessed the glorification of people who have battled addiction and came out on the other end okay. The kids listened to their struggles, and they cheered for their victory. It was a profound moment of hope that I did not expect to experience when I woke up that morning.

I give major credit to the Bristol Warren Regional School District, the Warren Prevention Coalition, the East bay Recovery Center, the Warren Police Department, and the wonderful folk at 2nd Act for showing me a sign that we have progressed to a much healthier place in our educational efforts regarding drugs and addiction.

Dare I say it, such thoughtfulness will actually save lives.

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