It Takes More than One Talk: Continuing the Conversation After Chris Herren Speaks

On March 23rd, the town I live in joined Chris Herren, former NBA player turned advocate for youth substance abuse prevention, in Project Purple. The event was a success by measure of attendance and sponsored by a group called It’s Worth It, D.A.Y of Guilford (Developmental Assets for Youth). Most impressive was the youth leadership that worked incredibly hard to spread the word and bring together local businesses, churches, and organizations in support of this initiative. The best part of the event is that is the launch of Project Purple, not a one and done moment. As a I often say in my workshops and blogs, promoting positive moral decision making in our children’s’ lives is not about one time talks or scare tactics; it’s about teachable moments and on-going conversations.

Chris Herren spoke to all the high schoolers as well as give a community-wide talk in the evening that many parents, community members, and youth attended. During these talks, Herren focuses on his life story from about 18 to 32 detailing the decisions he made and the toll that substance abuse took on his career and his family. He does not use a “scared straight” approach (which isn’t very effective with adolescents). Instead he focuses on how seemingly small, one time choices led to major problems with substance abuse. He talks about the positive and negative influences in his life. He is honest and direct. To hear what he has to say you can listen to one of his TedTalks or watch the ESPN 30 for 30 about him.

After attending the talk, I can see why D.A.Y. worked hard to get Chris Herren to Guilford and launch Project Purple. It supports their efforts to create a culture shift around substance abuse — a shift FROM the perspective that if we avoid issues or pretend it only happens to other people’s kids the problem will go away TO a community that knows the facts about youth substance abuse. It is a minority of kids who do use drugs, but every kid feels like they are the only one not participating. And, when parents support teenage drinking and smoking in “safe environments” they are giving kids a false sense of security and promoting drug use at a critical stage of physiological development. I support D.A.Y’s work in our community, including signing up to be a real “safe home” family.

Yet, after I left Herren’s talk, I thought to myself, “What am I going to say in the car to my kids?” My son (9 ½), daughter (13) and her friend (12) would have been happy to just turn on the radio and not discuss the event. I was emotionally exhausted from hearing Herren’s story and not sure I was ready to talk about it either. But this was an important opportunity to keep the conversation going and not allow the event to be a “big talk” that did my parenting work for me! So, I asked questions, like:
~ What was something he said that you found interesting?
~ What do you think he wanted us to learn from his presentation?
Then after hearing their responses, I picked up on some points they made and pushed them a little further, like:
~ Friends really made a difference in his life in positive AND negative ways. Sometimes we mistake friendship for being liked or fitting in. Which people do you think were his true friends and which ones ended up harming him?
~ It seems like even though he had what lots of people dream about (NBA career) he was never really comfortable with who he was. He even said he wished he was confident enough to be himself instead of hide behind drugs. Who could you talk to if you felt like you were alone or had to drink or do drugs to fit in?
~ Many different adults, including coaches, family, and friends gave him 2nd, 3rd, 4th chances and eventually that allowed him to fight his addiction. Everybody makes mistakes. Why do you think it is so hard to admit that and make a change?
The car ride took only 20 minutes. I wanted to see if they had questions, figure out what they heard, and use their own responses to highlight the important messages of his talk. It was not a lecture and we did play the radio in the background commenting on songs along with our discussion of the talk.

Thanks to Project Purple and Chris Herren we have a teachable moment to use to raise important issues. However, this won’t be the only time we talk about substance abuse in our house. Parents don’t need to wait for a big event like this in their community. Every time I turn on the TV, especially sporting events, there are commercials about alcohol. They use good looking, young people to sell fun or sophisticated, tough guys to sell manhood and sexy, beautiful women to sell femininity. Those can be appealing reasons to drink when you are a teenager. Media literacy is a huge part of creating realistic expectations about popularity, body image, and self-perception. It’s also a chance to name the consequences and expectations you have in your home regarding substance use. This is only one example; there are tons of great ideas about how to have these everyday conversations.

Thank you D.A.Y. and all the peer educators who made this a great event!

SIDE NOTE:
As I sat through Herren’s talk, I wondered how many others in the audience know first hand about the family destruction that can come from substance abuse. For those families who currently have someone in their home who is struggling with addiction, I recommend the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change. It has helped me take care of myself and better respond to those I love who struggle with addiction.