When I first met 14-year-old Miranda, she had a full head of frizzy pink hair and a sassy, cooler-than-thou persona to match. She also had the physical symptoms of alcoholism usually found in adults twice her age, including stomach ulcers, a fatty liver, and early signs of nerve damage. Miranda's parents had divorced when she was six and she had never heard from her father again; in the meantime, she acquired a new stepfather who battered her mother and made frightening sexual remarks to Miranda whenever he got drunk. By the age of 11, Miranda had started nipping from her stepdad's bourbon bottles. Now she was putting away a pint of hard liquor a day, usually accompanied by several joints. Often, she drank until she passed out.
The difference between Miranda and many of the other teens I was seeing for alcohol and drug problems was her attitude toward her addiction. "I gotta quit," she told me fervently. Before she came to me, she had tried--and failed--to stop drinking numerous times on her own. Miranda's feisty energy and will to survive impressed and touched me, and for the next six months, I threw myself into helping her get sober. In both individual sessions and a group I led for substance-abusing teens, I encouraged her to talk about her feelings and her troubled family life, while also urging her to try out AA.
I also recommended that she try "sobriety days--designated days on which she would forego all mood-altering drugs as a kind of stepping stone to recovery. At another point, I encouraged her to participate in an adventure-based addiction treatment program especially designed for young people. Miranda valiantly tried all of my suggestions, but she couldn't wrest free of alcohol or pot. One afternoon, she trudged through my office door and slumped into a chair. "I'm such a loser," she whispered. It was then that I asked her to write a goodbye letter to alcohol and drugs.
I had recently begun to experiment with this approach with people who were having a particularly hard time letting go of their addiction. While I didn't fully understand its power at the time, I noticed that letter-writing sometimes helped my clients and me move beyond an all-or-nothing focus on quitting to a more liberating understanding of the passionate dance between clients and their chosen substance. "What I'd like you to consider," I told Miranda now, "is writing a letter in which you imagine yourself saying goodbye to alcohol and drugs. You don't have to actually give them up right now. But let's see what comes up." At our next group session, Miranda handed me her letter:
Dear Narcotics, Pot (acid, alcohol) etc.
Thanks for all you've done for me. You've helped me forget my problems. You've made me feel good, You've made me see the world in a whole new perspective. You've made me fail out of my freshman year, You've made me Ruin the lining of my esophagus and stomach. You've made the Relationship with my Parents go down hill. You've given me a who gives a shit attitude. I've gotten fucked up Emotionally and Physically (Relationship wise also) I'VE gotten used by abusing you: even after all those complaints I don't want to give you up Because I'll be alone.
I knew that letters often took on greater meaning for clients when they read them out loud, so I asked Miranda if she would be willing to share her letter with the group. Bouncing up from her chair, she began reading in her usual dramatic, rapid-fire style. But within a few sentences, her voice began to wobble. As she continued to read, taking deep, shaky breaths between sentences, the other kids listened with rapt attention. When Miranda sat down again, I asked what the writing-cum-reading experience had been like for her. "I can't believe how much shit I've taken from this stuff--it blows me away," she said quietly. "Especially the booze." She tried to laugh. "It's like a rotten boyfriend. …