Beyond “Just Say No:” Substances, Sobriety, and Initiation
Growing up with rites of passage and related practices woven into my life, I felt like I had all the tools I needed to navigate through any transition that life could throw my way. And it’s true, my toolbag is hefty, including mentors and elders I can call on, ritual and ceremony, practices for connecting with nature, and an ability to build community.
Then a few years ago, it became clear that alcohol was negatively impacting my life. It had become a key coping strategy for managing life’s stressors. While I would attempt to set limits, I couldn’t keep them, and the occasions of waking up embarrassed by what I had said or done the night before–or even worse, at times not remembering–felt miserable. I can see where this is headed, I thought, and it is nowhere good.
Thus began a profoundly powerful initiatory experience for me, far more difficult than fasting alone in nature or any other ordeal I had experienced. Getting sober required a complete reworking of my identity, a rewiring of my brain, and important changes in my social roles and sense of community.
When I first became sober, I felt like a trapdoor opened up on ground I previously thought was solid, and I found myself falling. That feeling didn’t stop for months. Every time I thought I had finally landed on something solid, the ground would again give way beneath me, and I’d find there was another trapdoor. Feelings I had pushed away for years came forward, and there was nothing I could do but feel them, pray, and turn to others who had walked this path for comfort and guidance. In the process of recovery, I found a rich community of fellow journeyers, mentors, and elders, and learned a process that deeply mirrored the approach I’d learned through rites of passage.
As I have walked this path, I have reflected on the role of substances in the lives of young people today, as well as the role of altered states of consciousness in healthy, intentional initiation.
Experimentation with altered states of consciousness is part of many young people’s transition into adulthood. The adolescent brain is uniquely wired for novelty and adventure-seeking, and substances provide this ready stimulation. And young humans are not the only species to experiment in this way: young dolphins have been documented getting high on puffer fish; other mammals ingest mind-altering substances as well.
Yet at the same time, societal messages about substance use are confusing and contradictory. Laws about what is legal and what is not are often arbitrary, and do not seem to correspond to what is safe and logical. Rather than being prepared to work with powerful plant medicine, and being held in strong containers with clear boundaries for such exploration, young people are mostly told simply to wait or abstain. So they make their own choices.
I know how important experimentation with substances was for me. In my early and mid-teen years, drug and alcohol use helped me explore different ways of experiencing the world. They helped me release social inhibitions, and connect deeply with my peers. They offered excitement and adventure. Yet what I didn’t know was that they were also gradually forming patterns in my brain, altering my brain chemistry in ways that made me less able to find both excitement and a sense of peace and relaxation without them. Before, in my childhood brain, I was able to develop new connections and pathways constantly. This is why children can pick up languages and new skills so easily. But during adolescence, the synapses that are not being used begin to thin through a pruning process, and ones that are used are made stronger and more efficient through myelination. My substance use literally wired itself into my brain, becoming habit. Social connection and coping with my emotional world became tied to substance use. Over years and further pruning, this evolved into patterns of addiction.
Plant medicines are an important part of cultures across the globe, sacred gifts from the earth that allow humans to pray, gain wisdom, and connect in countless ways. For many cultures, proper use of these plants is part of the Original Instructions handed down to them from the spirit world. There is nothing wrong with altering our chemistry in these ways.
Part of the problem comes from the ways these practices are separated from the realm of the sacred in Western culture. Questions arise: Does the use of sacred plants in contexts outside of their Original Instructions dishonor the plants and change their medicine? What of the use of synthetic substances: does this further separate us from our true nature? How does the exchange of money and commodification of sacred plant-based ceremonies distort the medicine, put pressure on traditional practitioners, and give rise to folks profiting off another’s culture? Certainly, in places around the world, the pressures of production for mind-altering plants lead to overharvesting and environmental destruction; the violence that comes as a direct result of the drug trade is almost unquantifiable.
Those of us that seek to support young people on the path to adulthood must be having a conversation about the role of substances in the lives of young people, and how it relates to our work. Substances are a significant part of youth culture, and their power to transform and their risk of harm is great. Also, the distortion of our relationship with altered states of consciousness is part of the same process which destroys healthy rites of passage, in large part a byproduct of colonization. Perhaps we can inoculate youth in some way by sharing this story. Finally, there is much to learn from the recovery community about what a healthy, spiritual-but-not-religious, multi-generational initiation process can look like. All of these topics are worthy of scholarship in their own right.
I grew up in the age of “Just Say No.” I can still picture the advertisement with a sizzling egg in a frying pan, emblazoned with the words “this is your brain on drugs.” That message did little to deter me from experimentation, and later, from dependence. This is not a simple issue, with a simple solution. As a network, I would love to see us grapple with the complex issues associated with adolescent brain development, the ubiquity of substances in our communities, and the spiritual, cultural, and environmental issues associated with altered states of consciousness. Such a conversation could help us develop ethical guidelines and resources for young people, parents, and other youth-serving adults.