Linda Wolf and Karen Wind Hughes direct the Daughters/Sisters Project and facilitate multicultural teen focus groups for their book-in-progress, Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun. This article draws on experience of girls 15-17 years old. Names and distinguishing characteristics have been changed. For more information please call 206/842-3745 or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
"I take drugs because that’s where the people are." Zoe, a 16-year-old girl talking in our girls focus group last spring, gave no reason to use drugs except this one. An exceptional athlete, thoughtful, bright, outspoken; an emotional and spiritual powerhouse, her statement silenced the group, not because of the discovery that she took drugs, but by her reason for taking them which was key to the issues we’d been grappling with for many months.
I will never forget that afternoon. It was a hot summer day, and we’d decided to leave the lights off in the office where we meet each Tuesday afternoon. About 12 of us were sitting around on couches and on the floor. Many had tried drugs, meaning marijuana, LSD (acid),"meth" or "shrooms" and some were treading dangerous waters with them. I was happy that Rose, Ali, Glenna and Erika were there. They were the ones most at risk.
Ali was a shy, willow of a girl who ended all her sentences with a question. Erika had been my children’s baby-sitter when she was younger and I’d known Rose for years. I’d watched her grow able to confront her step-father, a violent, alcoholic man, and move out at 15 to live with her friends’ families. Glenna, a talented artist, barely spoke above a whisper, telling us that her mother wouldn’t even notice if she hadn’t been home for two days. Then there was Jessi, a Native American, who often had a hard time relating to the other girls’ problems because she felt very close with her family and strong and sure of her mind and heart.
Erika had often told us how much she liked using drugs, how she took "acid" twice a week, how she’d gotten an A -plus on a paper that she wrote while on it, how she used drugs because she wanted to be alive and was never more alive than when she was on three hits of acid.
Rose talked about how much she had discovered about herself and her mind on acid, how she "couldn’t wait to use it at dance class" and "how boring regular life seemed without drugs."
Jessi talked about the Peyote coming-of-age ceremony her family and members of the Native American Church had given her and how important it had been to bond in that sacred space with her mother, diagnosed with a fatal disease.
As we explored our experiences, we realized that most of us – unlike Jessi, whose family would be offended by the juxtaposition of "drugs" with their medicine, were poking in the dark, taking chances without grounding, ritual, mentoring, or understanding of what they were doing.
That day, after Zoe spoke, something shifted in our conversation of drugs and their usefulness in creating what we were really looking for: bonds and connections. As dusk spread over the room, we broke through layers of facade and protective armor and started laughing at the stupidity and paradox of it all. I threw myself on Glenna and gave her the biggest bear hug, and everyone started hugging and dog piling and more laughter glued us together and I screamed out above the howls, "Look at us! Who needs drugs? This is what we’re really looking for!"
The girls and I wrapped ourselves in that bonded moment between day and night and stamped the universe with our understanding. Just for that one moment we saw something vital, essential about ourselves, something substantial, healthy, and real.
When I was a teenager I was proud of having taken LSD. I found myself. I looked in the mirror. I knew you knew that I knew that we knew everything: remember? But what began as a source of epiphany became destructive. I’m 45 years old now and have two little daughters, and it took me most of my adult years to work through the pain I’d caused by dissociating from myself and my feelings so that I could be liked and be cool, like in totally cool, like in freezing cool, like in I was totally disconnected cool while other kids were having fun skiing, hiking and even singing together. How uncool can you get?
A few months ago, Erika came back to visit the group, something all the girls had been looking forward to. Soon after the amazing "Zoe day," Erika had run away from home, quit school, and moved into a "party house," only to, as she said, "hit bottom." She put herself into treatment and spent the summer facing herself, with help. Here was a girl who was one of the biggest users in the group, who had held her life together with cigarettes and mouse size bites of other people’s food, who had expounded regularly on the value of drugs, coming back to the group a reformed, sober person. What would she be like?
Before rehab, Erika was thin and sallow. She returned rosy cheeked and bright eyed. She talked about her life, how important treatment had been and her need to separate from the old friends. Here’s what she said:"What’s different about me? When you’re using a lot – and for me it was a daily thing for a while – it’s really kind of incredible how all your emotions go to sleep. You don’t miss them, but when you stop using it’s like taking your sunglasses off. It gets really bright, and life kind of goes zoom right in your face, and you just get a flood of emotions. I didn’t realize when I was using how little I was thinking. I know myself a lot better now, and I enjoy being able to get up in the morning. Life is completely different now. It’s a ‘been there, done that’ kinda thing. I don’t ever want to not feel again."
Her words brought powerful emotions out in the group that day. Many cried. Rebecca said she was jealous of Erika for being able to change. "It’s all really gotten bad now," she admitted "I think we all want to get out of the scene but it’s so hard."
Ali said, "Part of me feels really stupid, because I remember how many talks we had in the beginning about drugs. We knew what could happen."
"I think I saw it from the beginning," Glenna said through tears,"I think I need help. But not the kind just anyone can offer. I need my closest friends to reach out. But I don’t have them anymore."
I thought of Zoe, who was turned on to activism now instead of drugs and I reminded the girls of the day she spoke. Back then we had experienced how simple it was to feel fulfilled and connected, without any drugs. We agreed that each time we felt that feeling of connection an alternative was being nurtured, another way to bond being reinforced.
But habits and patterns die hard and systems change slowly. As Erika said recently, "I relapsed last month. It was awful because I stopped feeling again. I didn’t think I could pull myself out, but I did."
What the girls are learning from the group is that we all need to feel connected. We need to cultivate authentic relationships and see life as a process. We need to know that we are not alone, know that we can make mistakes, tell the truth, and not be rejected. We need safe places where we can talk about anything, examine our choices and actions to see if they sustain and empower us, if they contribute to compassion, empathy, inclusion, and partnership. If this world is to work, it will be because we connect deeply, powerfully and courageously with it, ourselves and each other.
Thanks to Zoe’s honesty, Erika’s example and a circle of love, courage and understanding, these girls have experiences of connection they can take with them always.