Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2(8), p.25
By the time I was 16 I had a serious drug problem. My parents knew I was likely to end up with serious mental and physical health problems—if I was lucky enough to survive my addiction into adulthood. My mother, father and stepfather all practiced in the mental health field as psychologists and were in despair at not knowing what to do with me. Finally, right after my 16th birthday, they organized an intervention designed to send me for six weeks of treatment at a government facility for treating adult addicts. That was the day I left home, plunging headlong into years of drinking, drugging, crime and going in and out of institutions.
At 20 I was arrested, charged and convicted for cultivating marijuana, trafficking, and weapons offences. I was sentenced to three months, which I served on weekends. My fear of jail evaporated the day I arrived once I had smoked my first joint with other prisoners. Drugs and booze were readily available, and I smuggled my own supply in as well. Jail sure wasn't a deterrent, and I was far from being rehabilitated.
By the time I was ready for help, six years after I left home, there was finally a place in Western Canada for treating young people: the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC) in Calgary. Until AARC opened its doors, kids from BC had been sent to the US for treatment, as well as to some adult facilities and one short-term centre in Saskatchewan. The majority of these young people, as well as the ones being treated in BC outpatient facilities, were continuing to use drugs and hardly missed a step when they got back into their communities.
I entered AARC at 21 and was there for a year, along with young people from BC, Saskatchewan, England and the US. Treatment in a long-term facility was ideal for me. After 10 years of sustained, daily drug and alcohol use it took me a month just to detoxify. With guidance and help I began to go back to school and to associate with 'regular' people.
I was reintroduced to the life of an addict involved with the correctional system when I started volunteering at the Calgary Young Offenders Centre as a mentor to young people who are incarcerated. Two of the young men I became involved with had gone through several treatment centres, and were continually in trouble and going to jail for crimes such as theft, assault, drugs and even aggravated assault for stabbing an adult crack dealer. Neither of these bright, funny, articulate middle-class kids was getting help for their addiction, and in fact, they were exposed to drugs within the facility. One overworked addictions counsellor oversaw from 75 to 250 kids. These young offenders were offered one hour-long AA meeting per week, and the rest of their time was spent talking to other young offenders about their glory days of crime and drugs, day dreaming about getting high, and plotting new crimes with other inmates.
Every week my two young friends told me how badly they wanted to get sober, to be a part of their families again, to go to school, have jobs, and perhaps girlfriends, and how, when they were lonely, hurting and depressed, all they could think about was drugs. I was the only person they could talk to honestly about their cravings, fear and shame. To be vulnerable with those thoughts around other prisoners would result in being laughed at, confrontation and exploitation.
So where are these young addicts destined to go? Well, adolescent addicts and offenders become adult addicts and offenders. I did. And the worse the drugs consumed, the more difficult it is to be sober. Cocaine, methamphetamines and other chemicals numb the pleasure centres of the brain, so when drug use ceases it can take months, even years, to feel good again—even with successful accomplishments and relationships. How many young people can handle that frozen numbness? Without long-term, supervised treatment and care, any hard-core addict will seek what works—drugs—especially if they are going through tough times.
There is no question that addiction is a mental health issue. Paranoia, depression, suicidal ideations, violent tendencies, hallucinations and a host of other symptoms can be present in an addicted person.
The actions of someone with an addiction affect all of us—communities, families and businesses. A huge number of incarcerated offenders have drug problems as well as other mental health issues, and they continue to offend over and over again in order to survive and feed their addiction. It is time to focus on treating addiction effectively if we want to deal with crime.
About the author
David is the author of The Demon and the Monk: My Life of Crime, Addiction and Recovery. He speaks to groups on issues of adolescent addiction, treatment and recovery. David can be reached through www.demonandmonk.com