BANGOR — Peer pressure induces many teen-agers to begin abusing drugs and alcohol. Now that same influence could help to show them the way out.
That’s the hope of substance abuse counselor Gerard Pepin, the driving force behind the only support group in the state open to the community and run by teens who are in recovery for their peers who would like to be.
“Teens listen to other teens,” said Pepin, whose group, Teen Recovery, began meeting several weeks ago.
“All the research shows that kids respond better when they share experiences, challenge, advise and defend each other,” said the counselor, who runs Nova Counseling Services in Bangor.
Until now support groups were available only for adults or for teens whose families are involved in substance abuse, said Pepin.
Calling his endeavor an “act of desperation,” Pepin, 47, said he has been frustrated for years watching the number of teen addicts in the area steadily increase.
“This is what’s been missing,” said Pepin who believes participation in the group along with individual counseling, consistent discipline and healthy role modelling from parents afford teens a better chance of staying clean.
For Mike Dunphy, 15, one of the teens who helped Pepin organize the group, the weekly meetings allow kids to be free of artifice. “It gives us time without adults, a chance to be ourselves,” he said. “It’s easy for us to connect with each other — we know all about withdrawal, we’ve all been there, done that. I really think this is going to help me stay clean.”
Plenty of teens here need help in that area. Alcohol and marijuana use in Maine is higher than the national average, according to statistics compiled by Robert Q. Dana of University of Maine’s Center for Students and Community Life.
Eighty-six percent of all Maine students in grades 10-12 have used alcohol, compared to 79 percent across the country. And 60 percent of all high school seniors in the state have used alcohol on one or more occasions during the past 30 days, compared to 50 percent nationally.
In Maine, 50 percent of 10th- through 12th-graders have used marijuana, compared to 45 percent across the country. Twenty-nine percent of Maine students in grades 10-12 have used marijuana once or more in the past 30 days, compared to 22 percent nationally.
Traditional forms of substance abuse treatment aren’t always effective for teens, according to Pepin. “Counseling is helpful, but it’s not enough,” he said. “The nature of an adolescent is to defy and rebel. Adults telling kids not to do drugs is a challenge that invites rebellion.”
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that schools offer in elementary school works during the one or two years it’s given, according to the counselor. “But without the same exposure every year, kids fall by the wayside,” he said.
Teens generally don’t benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous or similar groups that target adults, according to Pepin. “When kids walk into AA, they hear adults talk about adult issues,” he said. “Kids don’t face the same consequences adults do — they have a hard time relating to [stories about] the long years in prison or the loss of job and spouse.”
Adolescents are short-term thinkers, according to Pat Kimball, one of five advisers to the teen group and a clinician with Acadia Hospital’s FOCUS program, an intensive outpatient treatment for substance-abusing teens.
“When people [at AA] tell them, `Look kid, kick the habit before what happens to me happens to you,’ kids just look at them and say, `Of course, I’m not going to end up like you!”‘ she said.
Other advisers are from Hampden Academy, Wellspring, Wabanaki Mental Health and the Treatment Works and Resource Group.
Meeting weekly at the Hammond Street Congregational Church in Bangor, the fledgling group has included as many as 12 participants. Kids who are in recovery take turns facilitating the discussions, while a five-member teen executive board keeps minutes, decides how the meetings will be run, figures out how to spend the donations that have been trickling in, and makes sure that the $25 fee for the use of the room is taken out of the group’s checking account each month.
While an adviser is present during the meetings for security or in case an issue surfaces that is too complex for the kids to handle, he or she does not take part in the discussion.
Assembling at the church last week, the teens shrugged off their jackets, grabbed pieces of pizza donated by a local restaurant and pulled their chairs in a circle. As the chatter ceased and the kids looked around expectantly, Pepin knew it was time to leave them on their own.
Pushing closed the heavy door that separated him from the group, the counselor made a silent plea that “the kids with good recovery skills carry the day.”
Not every participant will have the desire or motivation to stop using drugs, and the worry that they could drag the others back into destructive behavior is always with Pepin, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict himself.
For his part, group president Justin Elliott is not concerned that he’ll be tempted to revert back to his old ways. “I know what it’s done to me and my family and I don’t need to get back into that — it’s not worth it,” said the 17-year-old who quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey almost two years ago.
Elliott is aware of the impact he could have on kids who still are using drugs. “If I had been able to talk with someone like myself, I’d know that [getting clean] can be done and I’d work harder,” said the teen, who has told kids to call him if they’re tempted to get high or if they want to talk or even play some basketball.
“We want to help kids figure out the easiest possible way to stay sober,” said Elliott. “We want to share ways to stay clean in difficult situations or deal with peer pressure.”
The kids are learning to facilitate the meetings on their own as they go along. “It’s their thing,” said Pepin. “We figure we’ll let them experience it and wait till they ask for a hand.”
One week they did. Emerging from the meeting room obviously troubled, the teens told advisers that some participants had been disruptive and the meeting had deteriorated into several separate conversations.
Treasurer Andy Cote was especially concerned. People clapped for teens who had long periods of sobriety, but fell silent when one or two announced that they had been clean for only 24 hours, said the 16-year-old who has been sober for six months.
“We should be clapping for everybody,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
The teens’ consternation is testimony to the importance they placed on the group, according to Acadia’s Pat Kimball. “It’s a sign they’re taking ownership for their own program,” she said. “They’re managing the group themselves and can identify what they want to change.”
Meanwhile, Teen Recovery is receiving high marks. “It’s a relief to come to a place where no one is urging you to get high,” said a 14-year-old girl who’s been clean for two years.
“I like knowing that [people] understand where I’m coming from,” said a 15-year-old boy who began using drugs when he was 12. He has been sober for three months.
Picking up her 13-year-old son who participated in the group for the first time, one mother felt optimistic. “He’s just done a little bit [of marijuana], but if he could see what happens to kids five years down the road, maybe he’ll learn from peers rather than adults telling him what to do,” she said. “You never know, someone could say something that hits him hard and wakes up him.”
Outside, two girls admitted they had been ambivalent about attending the session. In the end, memories of the ravages of substance abuse won out.
“I’ve been hospitalized too many times,” one said.
Teen Recovery participants have a real chance to get to the root of their problem, according to UM’s Dana, who lamented that society has adopted “too simplistic” views about alcohol and drug use.
“We tell kids, `Don’t do it,” but we don’t reflect on why they do it,” he said. “Our primary prevention shouldn’t be Project Graduation, but skills training and environmental management.”
For Dana, the question looms large: “What is it about this environment and our kids that makes chewing dried psychedelic mushrooms an alternative to standing on their own two feet?”
A number of factors precipitate kids’ drug use including stress, insecurity, mental illness, rebellion and poor performance in school, according to Pepin. Those with a family history of substance abuse or whose parents use drugs and alcohol also are more likely to become involved, he said.
Boredom also ranks high among the propellents, according to the counselor who said kids have told him time and again that they have nothing to do.
“As a society we’re not teen-focused enough,” said Pepin. “Nobody wants them around, nobody pays any attention to them.”
Pat Kimball hearkened back to a United Way study completed last fall which indicated that teens don’t feel valued. That’s enough to put someone on the road to substance abuse, according to the counselor.
“Where’s the motivation to be part of the community?” she said. “You might as well do drugs and alcohol — no one cares about you anyway.”
Pepin admires the young people who have made a commitment to Teen Recovery. “It takes a lot of courage to facilitate the meetings, to stand there and say, `C’mon, kids, lets focus, we’re here to recover.’ ”
“This is a real accomplishment for them,” he said. “Now there’s something for them to feel good about; they’re part of something positive that they’ve created.”
Meanwhile, as he tries in his own low-key way to enlist other kids who still are abusing drugs and alcohol, Pepin asks only one question. “When will you be ready for something to happen different in your life?”
The Teen Recovery Support Group is held from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays in the basement of the Hammond Street Congregational Church. Young people ages 13-20 who want to participate may simply show up. Teen Recovery has applied for grants and is seeking donations. Contributions may be sent to: Gerard Pepin, Nova Counseling Services, 263 State St., Suite 24, Bangor 04401. Telephone 990-5980.