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Beautiful Boys: Addiction, Recovery, and What They Learned at Summer Camp
Addiction, recovery, and summer camp — four words that don't often appear together. Nevertheless, addictions of all kinds, perhaps especially to alcohol and other drugs, remain hugely problematic at individual, familial, institutional, and societal levels. They beg the question, "If camp experiences are transformative in so many ways, might they also result in easier, faster recovery from addiction?"
Much as we implement safety protocols for other predictable events — such as falls, fights, and thunderstorms — we can do the same for those campers who one day might find themselves stuck at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a needle.
In 2008, California-based journalist David Sheff published Beautiful Boy — A Father's Journey through His Son's Addiction (Sheff, 2008), a poignant, moving exposé of the ravages of addiction and the toll it takes on others. Years later I would learn, sadly, of the addictions of three of my former campers — Ken, Michael, and Jay.
My professional journey linking addictions, recovery, and the summer camp experience began about eighteen months ago when I became reacquainted with Ken, a minister and Yale Divinity School graduate.
What drew me to Ken were his frequent Facebook® postings, mostly excerpts of sermons he had recently delivered. In them I found what I viewed as an unlikely connection with my own writing and speaking.
And I wanted to learn more.
We scheduled time for a call, and we found through our conversation a strong and enduring thread of compassion, hope, and healing practiced through spirituality and psychology, respectively.
That call led to an invitation for me to present at a fall 2013 Addictions and Recovery Expo that Ken was sponsoring. To prepare, I traveled to New York City to spend time with Michael, now thirty-nine years of age. I first met Michael when he was fourteen and a first-year member of the teen leadership program at Cape Cod Sea Camps — the same place I met Ken, though many years apart.
I knew Michael as a friendly, sensitive, somewhat rambunctious, typical ninth grader on the rise. What I didn't know I would find out that early fall day sitting on a bench in the middle of Broadway at Lincoln Center.
A fight with an upperclassman during his first year at boarding school (which resulted in a broken ankle for Michael) along with a less than mediocre academic performance short-circuited his career there. For a while he bounced from school to school, began drinking heavily, and smoking marijuana — which led, as it so often does, to the abuse of a spate of other drugs.
Now sober for almost nineteen years, Michael revealed a highly dysfunctional relationship with an authoritarian dad whose two metrics of success for his only son were 1) becoming a neurosurgeon, which Michael tried to explain wasn't likely to happen given his fairly significant learning differences, and 2) sleeping with as many women as possible. His relationship with his mother, while closer, was distant as she was consumed with her career and rested somewhere on the narcissistic side of life, according to Michael.
Michael craved structure, order, guidance, and direction but found little. He rebuffed others who tried to care for him because of his "conflict" in understanding, let alone accepting, unconditional love. Regardless, Michael was a resilient kid and found what he needed to make his way through six or seven years of addiction.
In many ways Michael's story illuminated the "Three Rs" in my Expo speech subtitle — risk, resiliency, and reasons to believe — along with the relationships that promote them. Each is captured in the stories of Ken, Michael, and Jay (a camper I had often skied with during winter visits to his family's farm in Vermont) as they relate their camp experience and its role in their recovery.
A Problem Defined
The most recent federal statistics on youth drug use (Monitoring the Future, 2013) suggest reasons for concern. For example:
- Five-year trends are showing significant increases in past-year and past-month marijuana use across three grades: eighth, tenth, and twelfth.
- The percentage of twelfth graders reporting past-year nonmedical use of amphetamines rose from 6.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2013.
- In 2013, perceived risk of harm of trying Vicodin occasionally declined in eighth graders, from 29.4 percent to 26.2 percent, and in tenth graders from 40.3 percent to 36 percent in 2013. This could indicate that use could begin to rise again in future years.
Every day in the United States an average of 2,000 teenagers illegally use prescription drugs for the first time, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). It's no wonder that researchers from the University of Colorado, in evaluating data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), found that young people, ages fifteen to twenty-seven are driving an overall "epidemic" of prescription drug abuse (Kelly, 2014).
In addition, the Partnership for Drug- Free Kids notes that the same study revealed the total number of hydrocodone and oxycodone products prescribed legally in the U.S. increased more than fourfold, from about 40 million in 1991 to nearly 180 million in 2007 (Partnership, 2014).
Well-meaning efforts to curb prescription drug use may be sending young people to the streets in search of easier-to-obtain (and cheaper) substitutes for popular opioids such as Vicodin.
Vicodin to Heroin
Indeed, there is widespread acknowledgement among prevention specialists of a recent rise in heroin use and deaths, including among those relapsing from recovery. A
February 2014 article in the New York Times, "Heroin's Small-Town Toll, and a Mother's Grief," recounted the story of twenty-one-year-old Alysa Ivy, who died of a heroin overdose in a Super 8 motel the previous May. She, too, went through "detox." The piece told a cautionary national tale: 19,154 opioid drug deaths in 2010, with 3,094 involving heroin and almost a fifth among those ages fifteen to twenty-four (Sontag, 2014).
The Face of Addiction
As it turns out, it is a surprisingly short hop, skip, and jump from use to abuse to addiction.
According to NIDA, addict ion is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences (NIDA, 2010).
NIDA points out that people use drugs for a number of reasons, including to feel good, to feel better, and to do better.
Etiology counts. So, too, does recovery.
Expending energy without making progress, that's what my drinking life was like. It was an experience of being divided against myself and distracted by feelings of inadequacy, resentment, and despair. I felt alienated from others and overwhelmingly tired.
The first five years after I quit drinking were like discovering that a valuable suitcase that I'd strapped to the hood of my car had been dislodged mid-journey. If I ever hoped to reach my destination, I had to go back and pick up the items scattered along miles of road.
I made amends to people I hurt. And I accessed long-buried feelings of fear, resentment, and shame.
What I found wasn't all wreckage — there was also buried treasure: a hunger to connect, to love, and to be of use to myself and others. In fact, an essential component of my sober life has been working with others.
Learning to work in a community was a key part of my camp's focus. Camp was a place that allowed me to be myself, free from needing to wear a mask or make myself into something or someone I was not in order to feel accepted. The ability to be honest and authentic was manifested in the relationships there, especially between campers and counselors. At every age and step from eleven to seventeen, I had at least one counselor who took the time to get to know me, learn my story, and encourage me.
Because of them, I was given permission to be who I was, to not be so hard on myself, to try new things that felt frightening to me, and to simply have fun.
When I was sixteen, I discovered that one of the counselors and I had a mutual love for the band The Replacements. He suggested that he and I play one of their songs together at the camp talent show. I declined. But he kept encouraging me, letting me know that the spirit of this band we loved was all about taking the right risks, being vulnerable and real.
The last week of camp we performed "Here Comes a Regular." (Ironically, it's about the sadness of a drinking life.) The crowd approved. It was awesome, clean fun. A natural high. Perhaps that night planted a seed that helped me get over my stage fright so I could flourish these years later.
I know that my camp experience helped me learn that trusting someone was essential to the healing and recovery process, and I could learn from the wisdom and experience of others.
Camp taught me how to sail, how to teach tennis, and how to be a water safety instructor. But at the core, the lessons of trust were most crucial. That skill is larger than the tennis court, the stage, or even the ocean.
There are several things that stick out in my memory of what I learned as a camper that proved helpful in life. For example, having structure, a purpose, and goals taught me to use my time well and to apportion my energy across a number of tasks. Of course, trying new activities, learning new skills, and experiencing accomplishments while also having fun with other kids helped me to grow as an individual and to become more self-confident.
Having camp counselors and supervisors with watchful eyes and great listening skills was certainly important as well. I appreciated having adults notice when I was upset and take an interest in my well-being. Talking with an adult authority figure and having a healthy dialogue about my experiences at camp made me feel heard and cared for. Their compassion and understanding taught me that I had great worth and value.
Like most kids, I found that the rules and guidelines taught me how to conduct myself in group situations and reinforced such community values as unity and kindness.
Because there were reasonable rules and violence of any kind was not tolerated, I felt safe. That I wasn't being ruled by fear and I had a voice to be valued and heard was crucial to learning self-care.
Ultimately, being supported through my fears by adults at camp and learning how to overcome difficult emotions was greatly beneficial. Being able to celebrate myself when I excelled at things I loved, like sailing, and get lost in that process of learning was the beginning of a kind of spiritual experience for me. And, although I didn't know it at the time, that helped me years later to deal with my addiction to alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mescaline, cocaine, MDMA, and amphetamines.
Other skills I learned at camp also helped, including how to make friends, how to give of myself to others, how to be good at something, how to find faith in something greater than myself, how to persist in the face of challenges, and how to rely on my creativity (acting, writing, and drawing) as a means of self-expression.
Of these, particularly compelling is the first: positive relationships that form the basis for the "sponsorship" model common in addiction treatment.
Most important, camp counselors and directors help children to relate to themselves in loving, nurturing ways while empowering them in their search for love.
Through my experiences as a camper, I learned to laugh during the good times and to face fears during the tough ones. That has made all the difference.
I grew up across the street from a horse barn in Vermont. Manure is something quite familiar to me. To relate my addiction experience in general terms, I will use it as a metaphor.
I don't know how all the manure kept showing up in my life, where it came from, who or what put it there, or why. It was my personal challenge to face my decades of drinking and drugging and put this "manure" behind me. I used it as a foundation to learn and grow, essentially turning my manure pile into fertilizer for my new garden, my new life as a recovering alcoholic and addict.
There is no doubt in my mind that my eleven years of summer camp experiences helped get me through the hard steps of recovery.
That story began over a year ago. The parallel was not lost on me that, once again, I was sitting across from "my counselor" — although this one was an addiction counselor, not the fun kind who taught me sailing or archery at camp. I was in a dark spot, dropped off at a strange and unfamiliar place by my loved ones. I found myself listening to my new counselor and his team as they imparted pearls of wisdom to use in my life of recovery.
Reflecting on my camp days, I recall my camp counselors who helped me begin to understand some of the rules of a good life. One in particular taught me more about the positive ways to act and live than anyone in my life had. The most important things he and other counselors passed on as role models became part of my DNA: Be kind. Don't be selfish. Be honest. Share your feelings. Think about the other guy first. Make your bed. Make people laugh. Make people think. Imagine how your actions affect others. Lead if you can; follow too. You can and you will do what you set your mind to. Brush your teeth twice a day. Be on time, be humble, stay focused, work hard, play hard, and have fun.
I loved my summers with him and my camp buddies, and I am still friends with many of them all these years later.
During my early recovery, I was able to tap into many of my past experiences from camp to help make the necessary changes in my life. I am not sure how things would have turned out for me in recovery without the special skills and values I learned at camp: unity with a group, service to help others, and experiences to be enjoyed, savored, and harvested.
These are the most important lessons my summer camp gave to me, and I have tried to use them to reignite my life and regrow my garden.
Risk, Resilience, and Reasons to Believe
In the end, it may very well be that — through their relationships at summer camp — young people tackle risk, build resilience, and find reasons to believe. Even my beautiful, addicted boys.
Author's Note: While the accounts of the contributors to this article are factually correct, privacy considerations dictated name changes, when requested.
Kelly, D. (2012, October 16) Young people driving prescription drug abuse. CU Newsroom. University of Colorado Denver. Retrieved from www.ucdenver.edu/about/newsroom/ newsreleases/Pages/youth-drug-abuse.aspx. Monitoring the Future. (2013). University of Michigan. Retrieved from www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/ monographs/mtf-overview2013.pdf. National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2010, August) Drugs, brains and behavior: the science of addiction. Retrieved from www.drugabuse.gov/ publications/drugs-brains-behavior-scienceaddiction/ drug-abuse-addiction. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2014). Retrieved from www.drugfree.org. Sheff, D. (2008) Beautiful boy — a father's journey through his son's addiction. New York, New York: Mariner Books. Sontag, D. (2014, February 10) Heroin's small-town toll, and a mother's grief. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/us/heroinssmall- town-toll-and-a-mothers-pain.html?_r=0.
Stephen Gray Wallace, MSEd, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps; senior advisor for policy, research, and education at SADD; director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE); and parenting expert and blogger at kidsinthehouse.com. Stephen also writes monthly for The Huffington Post and PsychologyToday.com. For more information about Stephen's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com.
© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2014. All Rights Reserved
Originally published in the 2014 September/October Camping Magazine.