I was honored to be the Grand Marshall of last week’s LEADD Walk (Levittown Educators Against Destructive Decisions) even though the walk part of the event got rained out. I did have a chance to briefly address the educators, elected officials, students and parents who were present. So what could I say that could make a difference?
“Drugs are bad; don’t do drugs.” No, everyone there knew that. I’d be stating the obvious. In fact, the more I encounter people with addictions, I’m realizing that drugs in themselves are not the enemy, even as more and more people are overdosing on opioids and alcohol and other drugs. So here’s what I asked everyone:
“If you’ve ever felt scared, raise your hand.” Pretty much every hand went up. “If you ever felt lonely…” Every hand. “If you ever felt mad…” Every hand. “If you ever felt sad…” Every hand. “If you ever lost confidence in yourself…” Every hand.
So, I explained that some people who are growing up drink alcohol to make them feel better when they have these feelings. But grown-ups know that after the alcohol — or other drugs — make them feel better for a while, the same situations that led people to feel scared, or lonely, or sad, or mad, etc. are still there. The drinking or taking drugs didn’t solve anything. And in fact, once people used alcohol or drugs to try to “solve” their negative feelings, this created even more problems in their lives.
So what can we do about these feelings? I told the boys and girls who were there that if they see their folks feeling sad or lonely or angry, etc., they could find ways to say “I love you.” And I told the parents who were there that the same went for them when they saw their children struggling with negative feelings or with lack of confidence.
And since I am a priest, I told everyone that they wouldn’t be surprised if I invited them to share their struggles with God, because I have found in my own life that is an excellent way to find peace and balance in the midst of what bothers me.
I didn’t want to take any more of their time, but here I’d like to mention that negative feelings aren’t wrong to have. They are certainly unpleasant, but our angers, doubts, sadnesses, etc. are spontaneous responses to things that are happening to us. If we did not feel anger when an injustice was being done, we wouldn’t be healthy. If we didn’t feel sadness at a loss, we wouldn’t be fully alive. If we didn’t look back our lives and question, “is that all there is?” then we wouldn’t have reached mid-life well. The challenge is how to work through these feelings.
Addictive behaviors can cover over the negative feelings that can otherwise be dealt with in healthy ways. Whether it is alcohol or other drugs, or shopping, or eating, or binge-watching TV, or spending too much time online, many of us have behaviors that become habits that give us some temporary comfort. And addictions happen when our brains are wired to crave a particular behavior or substance to get through our struggles. So when I say that drugs are not THE enemy, I don’t mean that they are benign. Rather the real enemy is our inability or unwillingness to face our feelings and to choose more healthy ways to walk through them to a more balanced and fulfilling life.
So what do you turn to when facing unpleasant feelings and situations? And how does this influence the young people in your life when they see you deal with your struggles?
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