October 31, 2014

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Natural high

June 23, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

There was an empty seat in my daughter’s advisory at Champlain Valley Union High School these last few weeks. A friendly, gregarious sophomore went missing following news of a drug bust on campus. Amid the swirling rumors, my daughter’s teacher was careful to point out that even good people sometimes make very bad mistakes.

The arrests of two CVU students for alleged possession of marijuana with intent to distribute prompts reason to pause as we stand on the precipice of another Vermont summer. Whether or not these students are convicted of felony charges, their lives are changed. Two seemingly promising student athletes have been “disappeared,” whisked away in a shroud of suspicion. Youth, presumed resources, and a criminal justice system geared towards restorative practices indicate they will likely emerge intact but not unscathed. I’m reminded how, sadly, high school sports are all too often intertwined with a culture of illicit substance use.

A Memorial Day weekend party hosted in Elmore by James Casey, 51, of Morristown, N.J., resulted in a series of citations related to underage drinking. Casey hosted the gathering to celebrate his daughter’s graduation from Deerfield Academy, an elite private school in Massachusetts. Casey is charged with furnishing alcohol to an estimated 150 teenagers in attendance. Private buses were chartered to bring the students to Elmore (population 849). Did Casey feel the locals wouldn’t pick up on the partying vibe?
I had my own recent brush with drugs. In downtown Burlington, not far from where toddlers downed drippy ice cream cones and revelers swayed to the rhythms of open-air jazz, a woman passed a carefully packed freezer bag to a young man’s eager hand, overflowing with $20 bills.

“He’s open 24-hours,” she said with a smile as the exchange — cash for drugs — was completed.

I paused in a sort of, “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” and moved on.

These events prompt introspection and conversation. As a teen, I was decidedly outside the partying culture of my high school. I wasn’t invited to parties, but I heard about them in homeroom on Monday mornings. Weekend work in a restaurant may have actually had a protective effect. I was literally surrounded by booze — adult customers downing martinis and scotch and sodas — but didn’t feel drawn to the stuff. I think I drank six beers my first semester in college before asking myself, “Why am I doing this? I don’t even like beer.” Marijuana never made it onto my radar screen or into my lungs. Call me a geek — a happy one.

As the parent of a teen, recent events prompted dinner table conversations about drug and alcohol use. No family is immune. Any one of our kids might choose to imbibe. All we can do is encourage alternative, more healthful behaviors. We can and should model moderation in our use of regulated substances. If marijuana use is eventually decriminalized, I feel moderation is still the name of the game.

Researchers who know far more than me wrangle with the intricacies of why some young people choose to use illicit substances and why others do not. For some, it’s a way to “fit in,” to gain social confidence as natural inhibitions are chemically altered. Others self-medicate, treating with great inaccuracy underlying chemical imbalances and perhaps, hidden mental illness. Others, in despair from real or imagined trauma, seek escape, however temporary.

I once interviewed a former prostitute and recovering heroin addict. She told me, “You never recapture your very first high.” She pointed out that individuals fall deeper and deeper into addiction, chasing an elusive nirvana.

With summer’s approach, I am reminded of Vermont’s plentiful opportunities to acquire free or highly affordable natural highs.

Climb one of our magnificent Green Mountains and take in the view.

Catch a free concert.

Ride your bike along the Stowe Bike Path and dip your toes into one of its rushing streams.

Walk along Lake Champlain where sunlight dances on crystalline water.

Plunge into one of numerous swimming holes.

Sit on your porch or stoop to watch fireflies light up the night.

Read a book or explore a handcraft for sheer pleasure.

My daughter interns in Montpelier this summer, following up on a burgeoning interest in public service. Her application required a full and complete background check. It was an opportunity to remind her that the choices she makes have consequences.

As we look toward summer with its promise of warm, sun-filled days, I invite you to pursue the natural highs that come from filling our lungs with fresh air while surrounding ourselves with positive people who seek wonder in the world. Happy summer.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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