Don't get me wrong. Fun counts a lot in a well-balanced life, but how and where you find it counts too. Let's face it, being able to have a good time with yourself and those around you is a trait worth pursuing. People who can entertain themselves and their friends are in demand because they know how to turn a boring day or random activity into something better. This kind of talent is an awesome resource, but it comes more easily to some of us than others. Are you ever one of those "others"? If so, consider that developing your unique and very personal ability to make fun happen pays off in a big way. It guarantees a happier life, even during hard times. Will it require work? You can bet on it, but you can also bet on at least two lasting rewards: inner strength and emotional maturity.
The stumbling block to all this is pretty obvious. Sometimes we don't feel like putting in the effort. When we get lazy (who, me?), the idea of something for nothing begins to sound like a real deal. How about the guy who wants good grades but doesn't want to work for them? Maybe he finds a TA who agrees to give him an answer sheet for every test. Suddenly he has more A's than he knows what to do with. Of course, there is a slight hitch. Now he depends on that TA for every one of those grades. Can you guess what happens next? One day the TA gets caught, or maybe he just quits coming through with the goods. Not only do our friend's A's disappear, but now he has no clue how to get them back. While everyone else has been learning all along, this kid hasn't picked up a thing. The outcome? He flunks the class. Why? Because he no longer knows how to succeed taking the test on his own power.
Life is much the same way. Every time someone depends on a drug to make him feel good by artificially altering pleasure centers in the brain, he misses a chance to develop the skill of making his own fun—or even dealing with his own disappointments. By depending on something outside himself to do something he could do on his own, he loses power. He also puts up a big "Keep Out" sign for the Spirit, one of the few things "outside himself" worth inviting in!
When people's kidneys fail, their health and well-being depends on dialysis. A large and cumbersome machine cleans their blood every day. Would anyone ever choose this voluntarily? Not likely! Being a self-contained unit allows freedom and independence, two things we all enjoy. For example, would you rather take a thyroid pill or have your own thyroid working—take insulin or have a strong, healthy pancreas that makes its own? These are good questions, and so is this one: Are you willing to risk facing the ugly side of chemicals when you have everything you need to produce a natural high right in your own brain? Only you can come up with that answer.
And while you're at it, here's another interesting question: Does the capacity for making real fun shrink when you depend on outside methods? Scientists say it does. Our minds come equipped with the power to generate the endorphins we need. Endorphins are natural chemicals in the brain that bring pleasure and reduce pain. These "good-mood-makers" are released when we run, when we smile, and even when we think happy thoughts. The more we call upon them ourselves, the better they become at responding. On the other hand, the more we trigger them artificially, the more out of whack they become—and the more dependent upon outside help.
Here's another good analogy (I know, you've already done your time in English class today, but hang with me a minute): Some people take prednisone to control asthma. Because this medication performs many of the same functions as the adrenal glands, those who take it for awhile become dependent upon it. The drug actually suppresses the function of their own adrenals. In other words, the glands begin to shut down because a drug is doing their job for them. Those who go off large doses of prednisone abruptly run the risk of death from adrenal failure. Now that's drug dependence!
Endorphins are the same. Natural production in the brain is greatly reduced for people who rely upon alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. A person's ability to use his own mind and power to adjust and manage moods, thoughts, and life in general takes a big hit when he begins to depend on something outside himself. This is particularly unfortunate for teens, who are in the process of becoming adults. Coping skills fall by the wayside, which means emotional maturation either slows down or comes to a dead end. Before long, too much control has been handed over to whatever substance is used. At this point, even freedom over personal destiny has been left behind. The pathway is clear, but is it worth taking?
Fun, after all, is supposed to be just that—fun—from start to finish! My suggestion? The next time you're looking for a ray or two of sunshine, do yourself a favor: Make sure you're getting the real thing. (And check out the "price" while you're at it!) Nobody likes to be cheated, and staying in charge of your own destiny sure beats the reverse. Young people who chemically produce moods and feelings end up settling for less than they deserve and paying too much for it. They get lots of bitter with not enough sweet, and their personal resources are ignored or wasted. Why are they willing to put up with this? For the same reasons all of us put up with things we shouldn't: We don't know how much better things could be. We don't realize how powerful we truly are. We haven't learned when to call upon that power, where it comes from, or how to feed it.
Or maybe we do know these things. Maybe we know in our heads, but not in our hearts. Could this be your situation? The last time you sang I Am a Child of God did you find yourself really believing the words? Were you reminded that a spark of His divinity belongs to you?—that you have a righteous, spiritual power ready and waiting to be used? Knowing is half the battle, but the other half is doing. Are you doing enough to develop your divine inheritance? Can you count on your capacity (with God's help) to make your own fun, face your own fears, lift your own depression? Or are you relying on something outside yourself? Someone other than God? (Let's don't even go there!)
These are questions for you alone, and what you do with the answers is something you alone must decide. My request is that you think about each one carefully, remembering that change is always possible. Are you drug-free? Great! Continue to fortify yourself by increasing your own capacity to enjoy life. Are you dabbling in drugs...depending on drugs? Then think seriously about quitting, and don't be afraid to ask your bishop and others for help. You will probably need it. What's more, you will probably like it! "Repentance," as one young man put it, "is a much better high. As hard as it is to go into the bishop's office, knowing you are forgiven is one of the best feelings you'll ever have."
Have you ever thought of repentance that way, as one of the "best feelings you could ever have?" If that kind of high sounds appealing, you'll be glad to know that alternatives to drinking and drugs are surprisingly easy to find. Happiness is a byproduct of knowing what to look for and learning how to keep your balance. Working hard—believe it or not—is part of that formula. So is making time for wholesome fun and spiritual activity. Capture the flag, flashlight tag, touch football, picnics, hikes, swimming, snowboarding, team and other sports, family activities, service projects, a favorite hobby, EFY, upbeat music, art, building or creating something, enjoying nature, talking to friends, reading the scriptures, praying, listening for the Spirit, seminary, various church meetings—all are excellent resources for fun and joy in our lives. Even better, they're in good supply. Best of all—they're free! (And I'm not just talking about money, either. Is anything more freeing than the freedom from bad consequences? How about the freedom from outside control?) Taking and keeping the power to choose your own destiny is what freedom's all about.
So what do you think? It looks like there's a lot to be said for the "just say no" approach. And we haven't even talked about relationships yet. Can relationships be seriously affected by substance use? Let's hear what one 17- year old girl has to say: "When I was using drugs, I quit hanging out with most of my old friends. I told myself they gave up on me, but really I started pulling away from them. I felt like an outsider at church, like I wasn't a part of the group. I really don't know how to explain it: I just felt darker. The thing is that I could only realize how bad I was feeling after I began to change my life around."
A high school senior made this comment: "I pretty much dumped on my friends from before. When we got to high school I thought they were dorks. This year they turned out to be the only friends I had. I'm actually surprised they still want to hang out. What I found out is that it's hard to stay friends with people who are more into getting high than [being friends with] you. I'm not putting them down or anything because I was the same way. If I couldn't smoke out or at least drink, I didn't go."
What about relationships with parents? Can you see any problems that might come up there? A 22-year old new mother remembers: "I stayed away from drugs but did my share of drinking in high school. For a long time my parents didn't know, but when they found out they freaked. They knew I'd been lying, and when I kept on lying they stopped trusting me. I felt bad about that but not bad enough to quit. It was fun, and I felt more independent. Even after I changed, it took forever for them to trust me. We fought all the time. Now that I have my own son, I can understand how they felt. I'm afraid my son will do the same things I did, or worse."
Of course, relationships with brothers and sisters can suffer too, especially if your risky behavior is monopolizing parents' time and attention and putting the spotlight on you. We all know about jealousy, and it doesn't exactly bring people together! Neither do drugs—at least, not in the long run. Real relationships are just that—real. (No chemical additives needed.)
In the end, of course, the relationship that suffers most is the one between you and yourself. If you lose parents' trust, abandon friendships, or anger siblings you aren't going to feel good about it. And if you believe, even a little, that the Word of Wisdom is right, you're bound to have some guilt going on when you break it. Basically, your self-esteem will be in danger of taking a dive, to say nothing of your spirituality.
It's no big news that the Spirit can't abide with someone who's using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. No wonder Satan is so fond of these substances! Not only do they banish the Spirit, but they banish your own good sense. Drugs affect the limbic system of the brain, which means they affect the ability to make decisions and edit behavior. In a way, a person who uses drugs is a person who slides over to give Satan a free ride at their wheel. There's no doubt about it—If you're looking for a designated driver, he's the kind of guy who's ready and willing to step in. What a prince! (of darkness, that is.) Of course, you may not end up at quite the destination you had in mind.
The substances listed last week are some of the adversary's most powerful tools, and I bet they're his favorites. He used to need years to corrupt a young man or woman's values. Now he can take control in a matter of months, days...even hours if the drug is strong and/or addictive enough. What a perfect arsenal for his last-ditch efforts to thwart the Savior's plan.
It's been said many times: The war in heaven is now being fought on earth. "And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:7-9)
"That war, so bitter, so intense, has gone on, and it has never ceased. It is the war between truth and error, between agency and compulsion, between the followers of Christ and those who have denied him" (President Gordon B. Hinckley, "The War We Are Winning," Ensign, November 1986, pp. 42-43). The end of the battle President Hinckley describes is near. Which side will you choose? And will you be in any condition to make that choice, or will you be "under the influence"? (I don't think I need to say whose.)
Before you answer, I hope you'll check out next week's article to read some more comments, stories, and insights from LDS youth who've learned the hard way...from experience.