Experimentation Versus Chemical Dependency: Influencing Factors

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by Teresa A. McMahon, LCSW, MBA, LCADC

“Love Cannot Stop It”, “Suburbia’s Deadly Secret”, “The Grim Life of Suburban Addicts”, “Heroin Use is Epidemic”: these heart-grabbing headlines have been emblazoned across the front pages of newspapers in recent months. How does seemingly innocent experimentation so often lead young people to addiction, and what roadblocks are stopping us as a society from fighting this pandemic? Why will one young person experiment with alcohol or some other substance and develop a dependency, while another does not? This question is being studied by scientists and substance abuse practitioners everywhere in the developed world.

Let’s first consider how the teenage brain develops, and what impact substances have on it, particularly in terms of the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for executive function, that is, foresight, impulse control, and working memory. Some areas of the adolescent brain are not yet functionally connected to one another, in particular, the nerve connections for emotional regulation, risk taking, and sensation seeking. Since these brain connections are not fully formed until young adulthood, the excitement of experimentation, risk taking, and the need for peer acceptance are all the more alluring to an adolescent not yet capable of discerning long term negative consequences.

The media sensationalizes alcohol and drugs, associating them with glamour, excitement and successful, attractive life styles. Movie theaters, malls, concert halls and sports arenas have become gathering venues for drug use. Young people give “curiosity” as the number one reason why they experiment, and “feeling good” as the reason why they continue. Unfortunately, this short term gratification is followed by a vicious cycle of long term pain for them, and the people who love them.

As a society, we are now more accepting of chemical dependency as a disease, but there are still those who contend that addiction is a moral weakness that can be overcome by will power. Protestations of denial – “not my child” – compound the difficulty, and impede local communities from honestly addressing the problem and working together toward effective solutions. This pattern of denial – minimizing, rationalizing, blaming, and shaming – impedes effective problem solving on a societal level. In fact, it mimics the addict’s pattern of minimizing, rationalizing, blaming, and covering up feelings of shame with anger.

In addition, there is a marked difference in the way an adolescent enters into dependency as compared with an adult. The adolescent is interested in experimenting with many drugs while the adult typically has one particular drug of choice. The adolescent seeks to get wasted, to feel better, while the adult voices external reasons for using including “my boss, the kids, or a special occasion.” The adolescent’s addictive process is much faster, often just a few months, while the adult’s plunge into addiction can take years. The lack of a fully developed brain causes adolescents to have fewer life skills, and instability in emotional regulation. Adults have more skills, and often can remember a life before using drugs. Finally, adolescents often have an enabling system that seeks to protect the child from harmful consequences rather than dealing with them directly. An adult’s consequences, such as loss of home, job, and family, are often more blunt and devastating outcomes of substance abuse.

As a society that professes to love its children, it is imperative that we demand stronger measures to protect them from the harmful effects of drugs. Corrective measures must begin in our homes with honest conversation and information sharing. Our schools and sports coaches must be willing to identify the problem, and be willing to provide recommendations for assistance. As neighbors, we can be open to looking after one another’s children as if they were our own. We can avoid the denial of “not my child.” We can call upon our elected officials to accept no excuse for the proliferation of drugs, and we can demand swift and strict measures for those who lay waste to the lives of our children.