While I was a field staff at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, we had a student named Eric who was a rock star throughout his stay; his history included a lot of substance abuse. Eric was heading home from Outback and returning to his previous environment. Throughout his stay, we had many a conversation on how he would successfully handle the temptations of substances once home. Eric was adamant that he could simply keep all of his old friends, go to parties, and avoid the temptations. As his discharge date approached, our time was running out. In Eric’s final week, we had two goals:
1) Have Eric accept that many of his friends would have to change in order for him to continue his growth and success.
2) Have Eric grasp the difficulty in abstaining from substances when presented to him.
The first goal was achieved by a simple, yet powerful letter from Eric’s parents presented during his final week with Outback: in their letter, they clearly advised Eric that if he were to come home, certain old friends would no longer be allowed in order to assure his continued sobriety and growth. With this simple and direct requirement in front of Eric, he did accept the need for a change of friends.
How to achieve the second goal? How to help a teenager understand the challenges one faces when trying to say “no” to an old habit or temptation such as various substances? Inspiration arrived as Eric and I went through the food drop entering into his final week.
Eric, along with most students, loved his granola drop of food. The students get a drop (two cups) of granola twice a week; it is one of the favorite food items and certainly was Eric’s favorite food item. Eric loved his granola so much that he would eat the entire granola drop immediately upon receiving it; often Eric would finish that granola within 5-10 minutes. It was decided that the granola could be a good example of impulse control and a metaphor for how he would fair against the temptation of substances.
Upon doing Eric’s food drop, a challenge was offered: “You say you can go to a party and not do alcohol or drugs, well I challenge you to show that to me this week. I challenge you to NOT accept your granola drop, rather allow me to hold it until Monday (the next drop of food).” Eric’s simple question was if he could still have more granola on Monday if he accepted the challenge; once we confirmed that he would still get more granola Monday, he accepted the challenge.
Come Monday, Eric was on a solo. During the solo, he would be alone all of Monday and Tuesday; this was plenty of time to cave on a challenge. As we went through his Monday food drop, another challenge was presented, “Great job this weekend not asking for your granola, I offer you a second challenge. Now you have four total cups of granola, please take a small bite of your beloved snack.” Eric took a bite of the granola. “Now Eric, I offer you another challenge. You have tasted the granola and have four cups of it sitting here in front of you. I challenge you to know not eat any more granola until the next food drop on Thursday. Except, this time, YOU must hold onto the treat so that you are seeing it every day.” Eric accepted the challenge.
Wednesday morning, we went up to Eric and offered one final challenge. “Eric, do you have your granola?” He advised he did. “Well, there is one final challenge for you. I want you to sit here and enjoy this view. While enjoying this view, please take out your granola and eat it all because the discharge team will be here within about 45 minutes to take you out of the field and start your journey home.” This is how Eric found out he was leaving Outback; to this day, I smile as I recall the moment.
Roughly six years later, Eric and his girlfriend stopped by the Outback office as they were traveling from California to college in Colorado. As we reminisced about the fall of 2010 and our time in the field together, I let him know that one of my often told stories was his granola challenge and explained the entire events to his girlfriend.
As I finished up the story, Eric said, “I need to tell you something.” Curious, I requested him to continue. “Well, I never ate the granola that Wednesday morning. In fact, it is still sitting on a shelf in my room as a reminder to me.”
One small challenge became a powerful lesson and reminder for Eric.
Aries M. McGinnis, ACMHC
Primary Therapist/Program Director