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Ex-drug addict finds self-esteem the key to going straight

BOB Meehan has been involved with drugs most of his life. From age 12 to 27, he was addicted to what he calls ``mind-changing chemicals'' -- from alcohol to marijuana to heroin. To support his habits he stole, and was imprisoned several times as a result. But in 1971, fresh from the federal penitentiary, Mr. Meehan met an Episcopal priest called Father Charlie, who responded so effectively to his need for an improved sense of self-worth that Mr. Meehan was changed forever. He stopped using drugs and alcohol and started helping chemically dependent teen-agers sober up, too.

According to the American Council for Drug Education, more than one-third of the 18- to 25-year-olds in the United States currently use illicit drugs. More than 5 percent of all high school seniors use marijuana daily. Nearly 7 million high school students get drunk at least once a year, and at least 35 percent of all Americans in their 20s have used cocaine.

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Bob Meehan had 15 years of drug abuse behind him when he kicked the habit. He was an ex-con, working as a ditch-digger in a strange city where he had no friends. He had recently received a letter from his parents, who had always bailed him out before, in which -- gently but firmly -- they refused to help him for the first time. Under these unpromising circumstances, what was it that caused him at last to go straight?

``I believe,'' said Meehan in a recent interview, ``it would have to be the unconditional love shown to me by Father Charlie. . . . He immediately made me feel different. Here was a man that I had respect for, who said he loved me. . . . I believe that that did something to me about how I saw me. His love for me started me changing me.''

Meehan had met the Rev. Charles Wyatt-Brown at the Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston. Across from the church was a park where local teen-agers -- many of whom took drugs -- would hang out. In order to be near Father Charlie, Meehan would often spend time around the church, and would entertain the kids with ``war stories'' about his life as an addict. But now, he desperately wanted to stay off drugs, and he discovered that encouraging those kids to go straight kept him sober as well.

``Previously I defined happiness as heroin, alcohol, or cough syrup,'' Meehan writes, ``and I pursued it with everything I had in me. . . . Father Charlie, by fulfilling my needs, not just telling me what they were, allowed me to pursue a new definition of happiness. When I started working with kids I redirected my will towards a new goal -- staying sober and helping others do the same. That, I decided, was what would make me happy in life.''

Within a year these talks with teen-agers had evolved into the Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP), which employed Meehan as a youth counselor. Since then, he estimates that he has helped some 20,000 young people get off drugs in similar programs in Texas and southern California. He is now happily married with two children and lives in San Diego, where he founded SLIC (Sober Live-In Center) Ranch and a teen-age drug rehabilitation program called Freeway.

Meehan has also written a book, ``Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drugs'' (Farnsworth Publishing Company, Rockville Center, N.Y. $14.95), in which he advises parents how to help their children get off drugs -- or avoid taking them in the first place. He also explains his drug recovery program, based on the ``12 steps'' method used by Alcoholics Anonymous, and describes how similar programs have been set up around the country.

Meehan believes that the recovery process must address the physical, emotional, and spiritual facets of a person, and he does not recommend consulting physicians or psychiatrists in the treatment of drug addiction. He feels that the best rehabilitators are former addicts, and that ``positive peer pressure'' is the most effective curative force in getting young people off drugs.

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Meehan is not alone in this opinion. Milo Kirk, president of the Dallas County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), has this to say: ``One thing I really enjoyed about [Meehan's] book is the peer system he uses. What he says is very true -- if you're not a doper today, you're not cool. Peer pressure has more power now than anything. We feel that Bob Meehan definitely has the answer: a good, common-sense approach.''

One section of Meehan's book is headed ``Love Means Not Accepting Wrong Behavior.'' It sets out his convictions about the kind of love parents must express to minimize the likelihood that their child will take drugs. And he maintains this standard with his own family as well.

``Wendy, my daughter, is 11 and a half,'' says Meehan. ``Since she was 9 she has heard, `Wendy, there is one thing that can get you out of this house real quickly, and that's the use of mind-altering drugs.' She knows that she is risking her entire home life by getting high. I think it's going to be real hard for her to do that, since I believe that my home is a good one, and that what we have given her is real love -- unconditional love -- a real, basic security.''

Meehan feels that this one ``condition'' -- that she not take drugs -- is a particularly meaningful expression of his love for his daughter. He believes parents should erect a ``wall'' of specific and firm prohibition against the aggressive pull of the drug culture, so present in teen-agers' lives today.

Any parent who fails to recognize this pressure, he says, is like someone teaching his child the rules of baseball -- while everyone the child will encounter outside the home is playing football.

He holds the communications media -- especially films and rock music -- largely responsible for the drug culture children are growing up in. ``I guess I really have indicted the media,'' says Meehan. ``But I'm going to continue to do so. I call it the `Cheech and Chong generation.' Cheech and Chong show kids how to smoke marijuana [to Meehan the most insidious of all drugs] in their homes. HBO runs their shows.

``These young people are as primed to smoke a joint as you are to drive a car. At age 12 they're sitting around saying, `Is it my turn yet? I'm waiting. I mean -- everybody smokes dope, don't they? Is it me now?' This is where they are.

``To me, using drugs was a real rebellion. . . . Today [for] the young person who walks into junior high school, it's the norm. It's a way of fitting in. Our children are stepping into a society where all this is totally socially accepted by the majority.''

Aside from building solid ``walls,'' to indicate clearly to a child what behavior is unacceptable, Meehan feels that the best preventive measure parents can use to keep their children from getting involved in drugs is to instill a sense of self-esteem.

``So many parents push so hard trying to make their children look as if, and act as if, they were well reared,'' says Meehan. ``Well, great, that's the byproduct. What about the well-rearing part? If you give your child self-esteem, if you teach them to care about themselves, they're going to do [the right] things. It's not your job to get on every little point.

``Every child I've ever dealt with, the joining part [succumbing to peer pressure to take drugs] is serious low self-esteem. Your job is to say, `OK, how do I get him to a place to love himself? How do I give my young person self-esteem?' ''

Other books that have been recommended for the treatment of teen-age drug abuse are:

``Not My Kid,'' by Beth Polson and Miller Newton, PhD (Arbor House, New York); ``Getting Tough on the Gateway Drugs,'' by Robert L. Dupont (American Psychiatric Press, Washington, D.C.); ``Marijuana Alert,'' by Peggy Mann (McGraw-Hill, New York); ``Drugs, Drinking and Adolescence,'' by Dr. Ian Macdonald (Yearbook Medical Publishers, Chicago, Ill.).

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