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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Addiction, choices, and stories

In producing realistic novels for young adults, I’ve written about drugs, alcohol, and addiction more than once — so far, without much sales success.

In 2007, my book Falling portrayed a ninth grader who idolizes his older brother, a basketball star who graduated from high school, didn’t get a college athletic scholarship, and has fallen into heroin addiction. I set the novel in the working class city in Vermont where I was then living, and where sports are huge and low-cost heroin and crack are rampant. My impression is that you could say the same of communities of all types, all across America today.

My work on that book began with me reading very regular accounts of small-scale busts and occasional overdose deaths in the local daily paper. When I mentioned this one day to my son, a high-school athlete, he said, “Dad, I could get anything you wanted in 15 minutes.” And I thought, What is that like?

Nobody wants to become an addict. We all want to succeed, to become somebody, to achieve our dreams and be happy — but middle and high school are intense. They’re obstacle courses studded with internal change and external challenges, social and emotional and more. Everyone has bad days. At some point everyone feels awkward and embarrassed, or worse. As I researched Falling, a local city detective said to me, “Our experience is that this can happen to anyone — anyone. You have a terrible day, you’re incredibly upset, and someone says to you, ‘Here. This makes it all go away.’”

How many of us could get all the way through the intensities of adolescence and never make that choice?

This is the obstacle course our kids are navigating all across this country today. A few people are working very hard to help them through. Most of us are pretty oblivious. 

One morning last week I got five minutes to present my new book, The Prince of Denial, which deals with the impacts on teens of parental addiction, to a county chapter of the Association of Student Assistance Professionals of New Jersey. SAPs are school professionals — generally one in each high school, and in many middle schools in New Jersey — who serve as resources and do prevention work for students who are struggling with substance and alcohol issues. 

Before the session started, one of the SAPs told me how full her workdays at a regional high school are. Students come in with their own drug and alcohol struggles; they come in concerned about a friend; they come to join in support groups. The SAP makes presentations, leads discussions, tries to build awareness that students have choices. The choices can have huge consequences, and she is there.

Yet there are constant losses. The word among that county’s SAPs that morning was of another student’s death. In the past month, chapter members told me, almost 100 area young people had committed suicide, the great majority of those connected to drug abuse.

To get involved with drugs is a choice, however easily made. But once it is made, life does not have to be over, nor plunged into never-breaking darkness. A new article in the Atlantic, “The Science of Choice in Addiction,” describes a Columbia University neuroscientist’s research finding that addicts will often decline another hit in favor of a reward they see as greater — a reward that may be as little as five or 20 dollars.

Carl Hart of Columbia describes his findings in a new book, High Price—A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. And, writes the Atlantic’s Sally Satel, “studies going back to the 1960’s show that many people addicted to all kinds of drugs— nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines— can stop or modify their use in response to rewards or sanctions.”

I’m just a writer of stories, realistic stories. My first book on addiction, Falling, sold hardly at all, and I think made little difference — but I’ve seen many many middle schools creatively engage students with my books The Revealers and True Shoes, and thereby make a real difference in attitudes and choice-making around bullying. Students tell me this. So do teachers, guidance counselors.

So can a story, any story, influence choice-making around alcohol and drug abuse?

Well, here's my hope. Stories are powerful. The finale of “Breaking Bad,” on the dark trail of a teacher turned meth dealer, has just finished captivating — and, I gather, somewhat disappointing — the country. That one’s not a preachy story, and preachy stories have no impact. As Hemingway wrote about bullfighting, you've got to work in close to what’s real. If you do, and if you also show that human beings are capable of redemption, of positive empowerment, then maybe a story can mean something. Maybe it can help to open a different path.

I hope so. I can only hope so. Because this is a scary time.

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