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Beautiful Boys

Addiction, recovery, and what can be 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 camps implement safety protocols for other predictable events – such as falls, fights, and thunderstorms – they 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 boys, each a former camper of mine.

And, it’s likely they were not alone.

The most recent federal statistics on youth drug use (Monitoring the Future, 2013) reveal the following.

• Five-year trends are showing significant increases in past-year and past-month marijuana use across three grades: 8th, 10th, and 12th.

• The percentage of 12th 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 8th graders, from 29.4 percent to 26.2 percent, and in 10th graders from 40.3 percent to 36 percent in 2013. This decline 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 15 to 27 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.

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 21-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 15 to 24 (Sontag, 2014).

As it turns out, it is a surprisingly short hop, skip, and jump from use to abuse to addiction.

According to NIDA, addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences (NIDA, 2010). It also 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.

In talking with my former campers, it became apparent that there are common elements of the summer camp experience that can prove helpful later in life when seeking recovery from addiction. What are they?

• Learning to work in a community and to be oneself

• Trying new things and simply having fun

• Meeting counselors who take the time to get to know every camper, learn their stories, and encourage them

• Having structure, purpose and goals

• Experiencing accomplishments

• Becoming more self-confident

• Supporting community values such as unity and kindness

• Making friends and giving to others

Laughing during the good times and facing fears during the rough ones

In the end, it may very well be that – through their relationships and experiences at summer camp – young people tackle risk, build resilience, and find reasons to believe. Even my beautiful, addicted boys.

Author's Note: This article is excerpted from the September/October 2014 edition of Camping Magazine by permission of the American Camp Association; copyright 2014 by the American Camping Association, Inc.

Stephen Gray Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing risk. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association, and a parenting expert at and NBCUniversal’s For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit

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