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Better Than Dope

One Colorado after-school program has saved kids from the dangers
drugs and alcohol.

Living is a word David never understood. To him living meant running for his life, from gangs and guns. It meant trying to avoid drugs and drinking. It meant being afraid. When he was growing up, he lived in a bad neighborhood. Down the street from him was a group of the worst people you would ever want to meet. He had to walk pass them every day. In his neighborhood, death was an everyday thing; he fell asleep to the sound of gunshots.

AT HOME, HIS MOTHER WOULD IGNORE DAVID and his sisters. She loved to drink with her men friends. When she let one of them move in, he would beat everyone up. Going to school was no better. He figured the only way to fit in was by using drugs and drinking. When he joined the Junior Reserves Officers Training Corps (JROTC), he found the common link was doing drugs. Because of his habits, he was failing his classes. During his sophomore year, he went to class a total of nine days. Soon enough, he just didn't go. He hated himself so much he even attempted suicide. He tried hanging himself and overdosing on aspirin.

At about that time he also started to eat a lot. In less than a year, he had gained over a hundred pounds. He was so alienated from his family that he barely spoke to his mom. Whenever she asked to talk he would tell her to go to hell. Then at the age of 16, David had a mild heart attack. Drugs were the reason behind his heart problems. Right then he decided to quit.

After that summer, he enrolled into school. His guidance counselor told David about our program, Project Self Discovery. PSD is a community-based after-school program that provides artistic alternatives to teenagers who have problems with school, their families or the community. Participants use music, art and dance to reach their goals. David signed up for the music program. Although his story is unique, his needs are similar to the majority of those who participate in the project. Artistic activities have proven to be powerful antidotes to emotional distress, drug abuse, crime and violence. In fact, PSD has evolved into a model for treating a broad spectrum of teenage problems.

At PSD, you will find youth with varied backgrounds and behaviors. Betty Jo, a 15-year-old African American, describes her mother as "a bitch" and "evil," and Betty Jo has attempted suicide twice. Her art teacher says she is interacting nicely with other students and "demonstrates an orderly, precise and methodical way of working on projects."

Rosa, a 15-year-old Latina, has decided to never again "bang" with her sect of the gang Gangster Disciples. Five of her close friends have died or have been murdered during the past year. She is considered highly motivated by her music teacher.

The usual outcome for these kids is enormous frustration and definite failure. These teenagers have different types of mental disorders and behavioral problems and come from radically diverse backgrounds. In the United States 10% to 20% of the 30 million youths between ages 10 and 17 experience emotional and/or behavioral problems. Forty percent of their waking time is "discretionary." In fact, the majority of teenage crimes are committed between three in the afternoon and midnight. For these teenagers a form of positive self-expression is vital.

The inspiration for PSD came from viewing substance abuse as just one of many forms of dangerous pleasure-seeking behaviors. Any action that deposits dopamine in the brain's reward center--be it alcohol, sex or cocaine--can trigger addiction. Yet rather than drugs, people can actually bring about self-induced changes in brain chemistry. The most important psychological challenge of our time is to bring about these changes through optimal living or natural highs.

Drugs and alcohol are really just "chemical prostitutes," counterfeit molecules that compromise the clockwork of nature's most complex and delicate entity--the human brain. According to the annual Monitoring the Future Survey, more than 40% of high-school 10th graders reported having "been drunk" sometime in the past year. About 35% of high school seniors engaged in binge drinking (having five or more drinks at a time), and approximately 20% of high school seniors smoked pot.

PSD was founded in September 1992 as the result of a national grant through the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. The grant was awarded to Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, whose mission is to provide cross-cultural arts expression to audiences, artists and students. The project was designed to show that natural highs could serve as viable alternatives to drug abuse and associated high-risk lifestyles. Teenagers have been targeted because of their extreme vulnerability to substance abuse, crime and violence. The most common causes of death among young adults between ages 16 and 24 are homicide and suicide. Here, Juan talks about his brush with death:


They came up the dirt hill. There were eight or nine of them and there was just six of us. My homeboy gave me a .25. It was already loaded, cocked and ready to bust some caps. So I went up to them and said, "I know you, the punk motherfucker who tagged up my locker. You disrespected my 'hood. Just kill me, motherfucker. Get it over with." So he pulls out this crowbar. And I pulled out the .25. I put it to his head and said, "What 'hood you from?" He said "CMG Blood." And I said "WHAT FUCKIN' 'HOOD YOU FROM?" And he said, "CMG Blood." Then he said, "Crip." I made that fool cry and shit. When you got a strap, you feel like you got the power to do anything in the world. You can make anybody scared of you with a strap.

Creative projects do have the ability to provide relief for young people in the midst of such violenece. While dance connects us to sensuality, music provides a safe vehicle for the expression of emotional unrest. Painting and drawing provide an opportunity to visualize topics initially too difficult for words. In Paula's script, it is evident that through writing and drama she is discovering important means to transcend the wounds of her childhood:


He's my father. I don't even know what that means. I don't even know what a father is. I used to think he was someone who took me fishing, or maybe camping. Someone who I could talk to, who took care of me. But if you ask me, I'd say a father is someone who beats up his family. A father is someone who screams, yells and cusses out his family. A father is someone who breaks things, smashes things, ruins things. I HATE HIM! I HATE THIS HOUSE WHEN HE'S IN IT! It's like a war zone and he is the enemy. Every second, I'm looking over my shoulder to see if he's coming after me. He didn't tear up my drawings. He tore up my dreams. I HATE HIM! I hate it when he beats on my mom. I hate seeing my mother on the floor, I hate feeling like I have to protect her from the enemy and I HATE THAT THE ENEMY IS HIM. WHY AM I PROTECTING THE ENEMY? He's my father. I love him.

At-risk teens experience traditional talk therapies as invasive and persecutory. We have discovered that adventure-based counseling, hands-on games and physical challenges--like walking on stilts to "feel ten feet tall"--are far more engaging than standard lecture presentations. A kid who has a strong drive for thrill-seeking and novelty can avoid gang violence by satisfying his needs through the performance of poetry, hip-hop or rap. Almost magically, the conga, paintbrush or guitar can become formidable substitutes for pistols or joints.

It is no secret that people who are hopelessly dependent on drugs can still participate in the creative process. But the necessary complement to artistic development is learning to restructure habitual patterns of thought and feelings that trigger destructive actions. To this end all PSD youth participate in Pathways to Self Discovery, a 24-session life-skills curriculum. Teenagers discover improved means to cope with frustration, disappointment and anger.

David describes the course: "We gathered in a theater and talked about our past experiences with gangs, drugs and all the other things that teens face. We also talked about ways we could avoid these situations. I tried to be quiet, but my mouth would just shoot open. When it came to bad situations, I thought that I had a lot to offer the group."

David was making great progress. He had successfully embarked on the first stage of our three-tier program, each phase providing the foundation for the next level of growth and change. The three parts include the intervention program, the graduate program and the mentorship program. The last program allows graduate students, who have demonstrated leadership skills, to serve as facilitators and mentors to youth in the initial intervention program.

Another such course designed to transform is the Rites of Passage. In this adventure-based course, the kids are hooked up to a rope that's connected to a wire between two large poles. The object is to proceed from one end to the other. "The ropes course really scared me," says David. "I kept thinking, 'I am going to die.'" When David hooked up his harness, though, everyone in the group started to cheer for him. "I got the strength to hurry through the course and when I got down, it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders."

The results of PSD have been impressive. In the past nine years the project has received 1,255 referrals from Denver-area youth advocates. We have shown that artistic endeavor and adventure-based counseling are effective antidotes to drugs and other high-risk behaviors. Not only do participants show test scores reflecting improved mental health and family functioning; they also reveal decreased reliance on negative peer influences and decreased drug and alcohol use. These positive outcomes are sustained long after graduation.

As David puts it, because of PSD he has "become a better person." He has learned how to care for others and himself. "Without this experience, I would probably be living on the streets using drugs," he says. Today David shares a house with a friend, has a full-time job, and visits his mother once a week. He has also started boxing to relieve stress and lose weight. And for the last four years, he has been completely drug-free. He plans to go on to college and major in business and computer science. "PSD showed me that the world is full of possibilities. The program also showed me that when a door is closed a window is open. What does living mean to me now? Living is knowing that you are not alone."

Harvey Milkman, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He is principal investigator and director of Project Self-Discovery.