Surrender to Win: How Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Users Change Their Lives

By Vaughn, Courtney; Long, Wesley | Adolescence, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Surrender to Win: How Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Users Change Their Lives


Vaughn, Courtney, Long, Wesley, Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

At a recent Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, a recovering alcoholic, head bowed, talked to the group about his 30-year-old daughter, who had died of a drug overdose. She had unsuccessfully fought her addiction since she was a teenager. Yet, some alcoholic and drug-addicted youths do overcome their personal nightmares with substance abuse.

Achieving a state of surrender is contained in the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the most prominent substance abuse recovery program in the United States and elsewhere (see the Appendix for the Twelve Steps of AA). Those who are overwhelmed by their addictions may be driven by fear, desperation, and degradation to surrender to a Power greater than themselves, which is not synonymous with compliancy (Tiebout, 1944, 1953, 1954; Reinert et al., 1995). The surrender stories of recovering adult alcoholics are contained in the phenomenological work of Denzin (1993). For some, the realization that they had become like their abusive parents, or that they were going to die drunk, catalyzed the surrender process. Yet, because most adolescents are not rearing children, and not confronted with major health problem due to decades of drug and alcohol abuse, their surrender experiences may be unique.

Accomplishing AA's fourth through twelfth steps may also involve distinct challenges for adolescents. These steps largely involve the repair or integration of what Denzin (1993) calls the "divided self' by identifying character defects, atoning for past mistakes, praying for the strength not to repeat them, and working with other alcoholics and addicts. Because drug use can arrest emotional development, these adolescents may have little identity to rediscover, reform, or repair. Milan (1996), an adolescent substance abuse counselor, explains, "if we can keep kids in the net [sober] until, emotionally, they progress through childhood and reach an identity struggle, then they have a chance of staying sober." Citing Golden and Schwartz (1988), Polcin (1992) further delineates recovering adolescents' particular problems: "Chemical dependency in early adolescence disrupts the development of the client's ability to tolerate emotions. Among adolescents in the middle-age phase, the critical issues shift to avoidance of conflict and a sense of false intimacy with drug-abusing peers. Older adolescents with chemical dependency tend to have difficulty with individuation, and are overly dependent on family and peers" (p. 378). If addressed, however, adolescence may be "an optimal time for healing" (Bauer, 1994, p. i).

METHOD

The present phenomenological study investigated the uniqueness and complexity of adolescent recovery, particularly the early years and events catalyzing the surrender process. Reinert et al. (1995) have developed an instrument to gauge surrender, which could be helpful in deciding whether or not to release a substance abuser from treatment, or in making any number of other related decisions. Yet, phenomenological studies such as Denzin's provide the most in-depth understanding of the relatively new area of adolescent recovery and the complex phenomena of surrender and identity construction (Tesch, 1984, 1990; Swadi, 1992; Denzin, 1993; Moustakes, 1994).

Potential participants were identified through counselors and recovering alcoholics. They included eight European Americans (three females and five males), ranging in age from 22 to 32. All had gotten sober in their teens and seemed to have built stable lives for themselves. They had at least five and as much as fifteen years of sobriety. All but one female agreed to be interviewed, and she was the only one who was not involved in AA. That all of the participants were active AA members was not a concern, because as other researchers have noted, adolescents who manage to get and stay sober for any length of time are most likely in AA (Marshall et al., 1994).

In extensive individual interviews, the participants told their stories, including events leading up to their surrenders and extending into their early identity struggles (all names have been changed to ensure confidentiality).

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