Chesterton Tribune



'Beast comes to play': Risk taking, adolescence and drugs

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From the notebook of Manda Spitler, age 18, drowned two years later in the family bathtub after shooting a lethal dose of heroin:

The door flies open, the gates give way,

In barges the beast, he comes to play.

I try to run, I try to get away,

No matter how far I go eternally he stays.

Hunting me at day, haunting me at night,

Whispering in my ear, testing me with fright.

I can’t break loose, for he’s wrapped me in chains,

Locking them up tight,

He tortures me incessantly,

Raping me with all his will and might.

Manda’s father, Dr. Mann Spitler--15 years after he and his wife made the decision to take Manda off life support, on Easter Sunday 2002--read that poem on Thursday night at Chesterton High School’s Drug Prevention and Outreach Program.

And for Spitler these lyrics, handwritten and accompanied by Manda’s own sketch of a lion, say everything that needs to be said about the savagery of drug addiction.

Spitler, a member of the Community Action Drug Coalition, has spent the last 15 years telling Manda’s Story, to any school or church or community organization interested in hearing it. On Thursday, as he always does, he began by playing the horrific 911 tape made of his call to a police dispatcher, pleading for EMS, as he performs CPR on his own daughter. “Parents should never have to make a phone call like that on behalf of their son or daughter,” he said. “It is a senseless thing to have to do.”

So here’s the question. By the time girls and boys reach the age of 13, certainly in the Duneland Schools, they’ve heard the warnings and the pleadings and the admonitions: drugs damage and cripple and kill, don’t do drugs, just say no. Why, then, do a not insignificant percentage of intelligent youth--like Manda--experiment with illicit and dangerous substances anyway?

Because, as Jason Kniola--a licensed mental health addiction counselor--explained, they’re adolescents, and that’s what adolescents do: take risks.

Adolescent Development

Adolescence, Kniola said, is--in the nature of things, by definition--a time of neurological, biological, and social upheaval. “Kids are having more complex, conceptual thoughts. They’re thinking for themselves. They’re questioning authority. They’re questioning traditional ideas of right and wrong. They’re rebelling. It’s a normal, healthy part of development.”

And that’s not all of it either. Adolescents, Kniola said, are caught between the desperate need to “form their own identity” and the equally desperate one to “fit in.” They’re hormones are firing madly and they’re developing sexually. They whip-saw, from day to day and hour to hour, from the heights of self-esteem to the depths. And through it all, because of it all, they’re tempted to take risks.

The jury is still out on why risk-taking is a common component of adolescence, Kniola said. Kids--bored despite, maybe even because of, the flood of stimuli available to them nowadays on their devices--are looking for “excitement and novelty.” Risk-taking can sometimes be a product of group-think, a way of “bonding” with a clique. It’s the open-air abyss which some kids think they must leap between youth into adulthood. And for some, those tempted to experiment with drugs, risk-taking is played for “very high stakes.”

As Kniola noted, “Reason can be overridden at this time. Kids aren’t thinking about the consequences.”

The point which Kniola went to pains to emphasize: risk-taking isn’t limited to a certain kind of kid from a certain kind of family in a certain kind of neighborhood. “It’s not about being a bad kid from a bad family,” he said. “Drugs can happen to any kid in any family. Drugs fulfill the need for risk-taking but in the wrong way.”

Kniola had this advice to parents. Encourage children to take their risks in healthy ways: in art or music or athletics. Communicate with them, but understand that doing so can be especially difficult with they’re “individuating themselves away from you.” Encourage positive behaviors, that is, “catch your child doing something good” and praise them for it. Negotiate emotional conflicts calmly. Set limits, when your kids are being disrespectful or defiant, calmly. And monitor how they’re using their unsupervised time.

And if you think you need to seek professional help, you probably do, Kniola said. There are numerous resources on line. Or call Partnership for Drug-Free Kids at (855) 378-4373.

A Recovering Addict

Amber Chaffer was only a couple of years behind Manda Spitler at Valparaiso High School. Like Manda, Chaffer fell afoul of heroin. Unlike Manda, she made it out alive and has been clean and sober for the last 10 and a half years.

Chaffer didn’t speak for long on Thursday. But she spoke from her heart: “There is hope.”

Chaffer wasn’t a slacker. She graduated from VHS with an honors diploma and a 3.8 GPA. She had plans to be a corporate lawyer. But she started on her “path to addiction” when she was 15, while hanging out with kids from work. She began smoking cigarettes, then marijuana, and eventually graduated to heroin.

At 22, she was facing 40 years to life in prison. Now, a decade later, Chaffer is the mother of two and has a life she can call her own. The hundreds of addicts right now shooting and popping in Porter County can too. There is hope. There is life after addiction.

“Kids aren’t stupid,” Chaffer said. “But they don’t think past the weekend.”



Posted 3/13/2017




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