‘So here’s the deal,’ I told the kid. ‘I’m going to take a huge risk on you. I’m not going to tell social services or your school at this point. I’m going to gamble that, as you’ve chosen to tell me, you want help to come off and stay clean. I’ll do everything in my power to get you the help you need, to support you and to stand by you, but you’ve got to promise me, right here and now, that you’ll go along with everything I suggest, no matter how hard it is and no matter how tempted you are to use again.’
‘Okay,’ he said.
Nobody had written the book on how to react – far less what to do – when a 13 year old kid you’ve known since he was knee-high, a kid you’ve watched growing up, a kid you thought you knew inside out, tells you calmly that he’s been using crack for a while now.
That’s quite lucky – that no one had written the book, I mean. If they had, I’d probably have gone by the book and I’d probably have lost him in the process. As it was, I had no choice but to go with my heart.
No point blaming. No point getting angry or whining that I was disappointed in him. I knew I had to start from where we were.
Oh it was not easy. It was easily the most not-easy thing I’d ever done. I’d given my word, so I couldn’t call on support from friends or family. Even the guy on the helpline (I needed information – fast – loads of it) did that sucking breath in through his teeth thing more usually associated with garage mechanics.
“Thirteen?? How long’s he been using?”
“He doesn’t know. He’s not been keeping a record. A while.”
“And it’s definitely crack?”
“There’s not a hope. I mean I’m really sorry but we have to be realistic here. There’s no way you’re going to get him to come off. The highs are so intense…”
I stayed calm. I didn’t scream or swear. I’d had quite a bit of practice at staying calm over the last few days, after all. I gently reminded him of the purpose of his helpline. I told him I didn’t have time or space for negativity. I told him I needed him to behave as if there WAS hope – masses of it. I told him to give me every shred of information and every contact number and address he possibly could and I told him that this boy was going to make it.
And he did.
This was the most desperate battle I’d fought in my entire life, but having decided on how it was going to pan out, help started to arrive exactly when and where it was needed. I found him a counsellor. I somehow got him to break away from his parasitic dealer. I spent hours listening to teenage angst on the phone every night. I bought him a copy of Melvin Burgess’ brilliant book Junk and above all, I cared.
A year or so later, when all the dust had settled and life was on a far more even keel, I asked him whether he’d be happy for me to write the story as a discussion workbook for the 10 and 11 year olds I was then teaching. They were about to start secondary school where – I knew – the temptations would be all too similar to those he had faced. He seemed to quite like the idea. We changed names and a few biographical details but everything else was as authentic as I could get it.
For several years, the story of ‘Josh and Stuff’ was shared, analysed, discussed and sometimes wept over by successive year 6 classes. At the end, the kids wrote messages to ‘Josh’ and I always passed them on.
I always thought drugs were just something everyone did. Your story made me stop and think very hard.
I’m not going to do drugs because of your story.
Hope you’re OK now. Thanks for sharing what happened.
I wish I could have been a true friend to you. You needed one.
Last week I finished working through the book with another, slightly older, group of kids. I’d honestly forgotten just how powerful the message was. This page reduced almost the whole group to silence for a long time:
Josh decided to tell the teacher about his habit.
He was shocked that she seemed so upset. He didn’t realise people cared that much about him.
She told him all the stuff he already knew, but some new things, too.
She told him that when he was on a ‘high’, his heart really started racing. It went so fast that at any point he could have a heart attack. If he was using in his bedroom, his Dad could walk in and find him dead. If he was using outside, someone would find the body, call the police and they would knock on his parents’ door.
She reminded him about his baby brother. If Josh died now, he probably wouldn’t remember him – just have a photo of the big brother who died because he was a drug addict.
She asked him to think how he missed his Mum; then to think how his family would miss him.
She told him that, if he was caught, he’d be put on the child protection register. Social workers would come round to check up on him, or maybe take him into care. She told him about juvenile courts and about custodial sentences.
She asked if a 20-minute high was worth all that.
Then she said she’d help him come off, if that was what he wanted.
Take a bit of time to look back at Josh’s story.
What if he’d known all the things this teacher has told him when Andy first offered him crack – would it have made a difference?
It was the quietest lad in the group who spoke. His eyes were blazing.
‘Yes, of course it would,’ he said. ‘That’s the sort of thing the teacher should have told the class. Not just the slang names and how drugs are used and what the effects are. If he’d known all this he’d never have done it.’
I’ve thought about that boy’s comments. It all comes down to this: young people would be far less likely to engage in risky behaviour if they realised how loved they are.
If ‘Josh and Stuff’ has helped another group of kids to realise that, it’s done it’s job again.
Copies of ‘Josh and Stuff’ – a discussion book for 9-13 year olds – can be bought from Lulu.com here. It is also available in PDF format as ‘Paul and Stuff’ – the same story, but with discussion prompts geared towards classroom use.
There are other books there which deal with issues such as cyber bullying, under-age drinking, shoplifting and relationships, all of which have been tried and tested in the classroom.