I grew up thinking it was acceptable and maybe even expected for me to drink alcohol before it was legal to do so. “Teenagers will be teenagers.”
I grew up thinking it was normal that my dad, who went to work every day, would end most of his days at the little bar down the road having drinks with his friends. I didn’t question it when my mother’s doctor suggested she relax during her pregnancies with my younger siblings by regularly having a little wine.
I watched my older brother attempt to relieve the symptoms of his “stress-related illnesses” with prescribed medications, but not make changes in his fast-paced life of profession, family and community work. For much of my life, I thought addressing tobacco use wasn’t as crucial a battle as addressing other substances or other life struggles.
I accepted all this as standard. Those beliefs were my norm.
Now, many years later, I have new information and new norms. I’ve been fortunate to have had rich learning experiences working to assist others. I’ve been a counselor and director in a non-profit agency that helped homeless and runaway youth, a high school teacher, engaged in substance abuse prevention and wellness, developed countywide procedures that support family-focused services to families in need, sustained an AmeriCorps team and was an intensive probation officer for juveniles. I’ve also involved myself, my younger siblings, the youth I worked with and many of their families in community volunteering.
I learned over time that children’s brains don’t fully form until they’re in their 20s and, consequently, alcohol affects them differently than it does adults. Youths are more likely to become addicted, and their cognitive abilities are impaired. I learned my father’s behavior was from his addiction. I learned there is no safe way for a pregnant woman to drink alcohol. I learned that communities can change their norms for substance use. I know of a rural community that now has barns with “Quit Spit Tobacco, Treat Yourself to Health” painted on them instead of their former paintings of “Mail Pouch.” I’ve learned it’s possible to use information to lead us to new, healthier norms.
Recently I started a job that allows me to support others as this group begins its third year of working with these community norms. Drug Free Montcalm has a goal of improving the health of Montcalm County by reducing the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs with an emphasis on creating an environment where youth are protected.
I’m interested in hearing from readers with their thoughts. What do you think about the norms for teenagers and for adults? What would we like for the children and youth in our county?
All are welcome to give me ideas, join the group, or volunteer for a project.
Amy Buckingham is the new coordinator of the Drug Free Montcalm Coalition. She can be reached at (989) 831-4591 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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