6 Things That I’ve Learned At A Drug Treatment Center With Adolescents

Tim Balow
April 30th, 2019

We have a substance abuse/addiction problem in our culture. I didn’t know the extent when I was a ministry leader in a church. In my current professional situation, I’ve had the honor of walking and working alongside adolescents and young adults struggling with drug and alcohol abuse/addiction for the last several months. My leadership gifts and experiences gave me some preparation, but one never knows the extent of the problem + solution until you deal with these challenges on an everyday basis.

My facility is a treatment center that deals squarely with adolescents and young adults (ages 13 – 24) with a range of issues, primarily substance abuse/addiction, as well as co-occurring disorders including mental and behaviorial health diagnoses. Perhaps in your context, you’ve seen these issues and you understand all too well of the situations we encounter on a daily basis in our units. Our facility is dedicated to providing holistic care and attention, therefore we deal with the medical, mental, spiritual, and relational aspects of healing and recovery. I’ve zeroed in on 6 things that I’ve learned since working with adolescents and young adults in this context.

There is a problem, and it’s not substance abuse/addiction

Substances are a symptom. Substances are a coping mechanism. Substances are the expression of a deeper trauma, loneliness, wounded-ness, anxiety, and/or a host of other “negative spirituality” issues that reflect a deeper problem than just substance use. The problem typically relates to isolation, desperation, and at times a delay in getting help for individuals dealing with significant trauma, pain, and broken family systems.

Most adolescents/young adults want something different than what is currently existing in their life

It’s true that there are some clients that walk in our doors that are extremely resistant to help. There’s even some that walk with us through their treatment program and then relapse. It’s a constant struggle, full of doubt and hope, to get clients to see something different in their future. However, the prevailing mentality is that they want something different. The struggle can be how to navigate getting there.

Abuse is systemic, and systems are changed one inch at a time

I’m not just talking about substance abuse. I’m talking about relational, emotional, physical, and even self-abuse. Imagine a client with family trauma and the immediate coping mechanism is substance abuse. We can deal with the medical and personal affects of the substance abuse, however the care, compassion, and healing that needs to come with healing a system enabling the abuse is one inch at a time.

Connection is a central solution

Most adolescents will say that their use stems from their inability to connect with peers, brokenness in their family, or even an inability to understand their own feelings. Most of the work we do is modeling, practicing, and directing healthy connection, emotional expression, and cultivating a curiosity for spirituality and growth.

Addiction always has three phases: fun, necessity, and then nightmare

Walking with clients through their stories and usage histories always has three very distinct phases. At first use is fun. This can last for 3 months or 3 years. Then, using becomes a necessity. The brain literally is rewired to believe and crave that substances are necessary for survival (above food, shelter, relationships, etc.) Then comes the nightmare: legal issues, medical crises, heavy loss of relationships, or just about anything can characterize a nightmare. This is a helpful model for understanding the progression of any addiction.

Abuse/Addiction mirrors the more subtle issues in our society and church

I might get in trouble for saying this one; however, this is apparent when we look at the range of issues that clients deal with inside our doors. They have struggles with their families. They feel isolated from people. They have a hard time expressing emotion and finding purpose/direction in their life. They have significant unhealed trauma and unhealthy expectations for their life. They see substances as a core component to experiencing anything fun or relational. These have consistently been cultural problems. Abuse/addiction issues are typically just the extreme expression of many underlying cultural issues in our churches and community.

Best way to wrap this up is a line of hope: recovery and healing is available for those who struggle with any addiction (drug, alcohol, sex, gambling, etc.). This may be what you need to hear for your students, a family member, or even yourself. As a youth worker who walked through addiction in my personal life while in ministry during my twenties, I never thought it would be me. But it was, and I was privileged to receive hope, healing, and recovery in a structured recovery program. Thankfully I’ve been able to work in one professionally so I can experience a different side of things. Recovery environments remind me a lot of what we try to do in youth ministry. I think it’s been valuable to see what recovery environments can teach us as youth workers.

Tim Balow

TIm Balow is has served in a variety of youth worker roles between Chicago and Minneapolis over the last 10 years. Tim currently serves with Youth Specialties working on projects focused on customer and content operations. Tim's passion is to serve the under-resourced youth worker and to encourage the next generation of students to step into a transformative relationship with Jesus.

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