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The following is an excerpt from the book The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence
by Elliott Currie
Published by Metropolitan Books; January; $26.00US; 0-8050-6763-9
Copyright © 2004 by Elliott Currie

Laurie was a sixteen-year-old ex-cheerleader and honor student when I met her, shortly after she had been released from a closed psychiatric ward after overdosing on such a bewildering variety of drugs that she "couldn't even remember" everything she had taken. It wasn't the first time she'd overdosed: there had been several other occasions when she had gotten so sick on drugs that she thought she should have gone to the emergency room. When I asked her if she had been afraid at those times, if she'd been worried about what she was doing to herself, she said that she hadn't:

I don't know. I just didn't care. I didn't care about anything or anybody. I didn't care about my life. I didn't care if I--if I died. I didn't care if I woke up dead the next morning. Sometimes I wanted it. I was just like-- you know how you can be alive but not really living? I was like a zombie.

Even after her massive overdose and emergency hospitalization, when she was hallucinating for days and thought she saw blood dripping from the ceiling, she told me that she "just laughed" at how "miserable and messed up" she was. "Physically I always felt so shitty. And I'd just laugh. I didn't care."

This attitude emerged over and over in my conversations with adolescents who had put themselves or others at great risk. However their crisis was expressed--as a suicide attempt, a descent into uncontrolled drinking or drug abuse, an episode of violence or recklessness--they almost invariably described the underlying state of mind as a feeling of simply not caring what happened: "I was like, whatever, dude, let's go." "I really just didn't give a shit." "I didn't care about myself at all." Their response to questions like "Why did you get in the car when you knew your friends were planning to break into a house or rob a store?" or "Why did you wind up doing heroin after all when you swore you'd never do it because you knew that getting hooked on it could ruin your life?" or "Why did you continue to put yourself in dangerous situations when you knew that you were risking your future, your reputation, and perhaps your life?" was some version of "Because I didn't care enough not to."

Sometimes adolescents do talk about specific issues that led up to the moment when something "crazy" happened: "I went out and partied and did every drug I could think of because my boyfriend . . . " or "I got in a fight because this dude was . . ." But there is usually a history of choices--or of failures to choose--that have put them in situations where such things are more likely to happen. And making those choices means they have had to abandon many of the concerns that would otherwise inhibit them from getting involved with troublesome people or hanging out in risky places in the first place.

For some of the young people I spoke with, that feeling of not caring began when they were small children; for others, it was more sudden--starting around the time they hit junior high school and worsening over a period of months or years. But it always involved a progressive erosion of the ability to care about most of the things that keep us, at whatever age, from acting "crazy" or "stupid" in ways that could hurt us or someone else and bring disapproval from people who matter to us. Adolescents on this downward path stop caring about what parents, friends, teachers, the community as a whole think about them; they stop caring about the physical consequences, for their bodies and minds, of what they are doing; and perhaps most importantly, they stop caring about how they will feel about themselves--about how doing something stupid or destructive will affect their sense of who they are, their claim to be regarded as competent and worthy, as people to be taken seriously.

They stop caring, too, about official consequences--what social scientists call "formal sanctions": getting thrown out of school, having to go to court, being locked up in juvenile hall, acquiring a criminal record. A seventeen-year-old I'll call Josh, who when I first met him had recently made a nearly successful suicide attempt after dropping out of school and becoming badly strung out on hard drugs, expressed that state of mind succinctly. "I didn't really care about anything," he told me: "Kids would stress over school or whatever, and I just didn't even care at all. I'm not sure why, but I just never did the homework, never did anything." Josh was living in an upscale suburb at the time; his parents, divorced, were both financial executives. He was bright and creative and had often done well in school as a child. On the face of things, he had everything to gain by being careful. But all he was interested in was getting high. When he was sixteen he was put on probation for dealing drugs, and he knew his probation officer would send him to juvenile hall if he was caught using them again. But, as with most other things, he didn't care:

Like it wouldn't matter what was in my way or whatever. . . . I remember one night I had to go see my P.O. the next day and go take a drug test, and I just didn't even care, I was using all night. And my friends were like, "Don't you have to see your P.O. tomorrow?" I'm like, "No, it's okay, don't worry about it." And they're like, "OK, dude, whatever."

Danny, an engaging but combative sixteen-year-old whom I interviewed in juvenile hall after he and a friend had beaten up and robbed another boy over a trivial slight, described a similar state of mind. His friend, he said,

was just like, you know, "Let's beat that kid's ass." He was hella mad, and he was like, "Let's just go do that shit right now, we're gonna jack him," and all that shit. So I was like, "All right, you know, whatever. Get on it." So I used to be, like I don't care about nothing. Whatever, you know? You want to do it, let's go. I mean you want to rob the store, let's go. I was just like that.

What makes such indifference so dangerous is that there are an extraordinary number of opportunities for American adolescents to do something seriously risky--and, at least for the "mainstream," far more than there used to be. When I was a teenager there were, to be sure, plenty of ways to get hurt or get in trouble. But they were not as pervasive or as accessible as they are for middle-class adolescents today. That is particularly true when it comes to drugs. When I was Josh's age alcohol was by far the most common drug among middle-class adolescents, and plenty of us abused it. But even alcohol was not always easy to get. And as for other drugs, the choices paled beside what is routinely available to middle-class teenagers today.

I grew up in an economically and racially diverse neighborhood in a very large and turbulent city, but the only drugs, other than alcohol and tobacco, that were readily obtainable where I lived were minor stimulants like Benzedrine and Dexedrine. I had a broad group of friends from every stratum of the local community, including some who wound up getting in serious trouble of one kind or another. But I never met a drug dealer when I was in high school, and to the best of my knowledge none of my close friends did, either. In my neighborhood, there were a few men who were rumored to be heroin addicts. But I never saw any heroin during my entire adolescence, nor, as far as I know, did any of my friends. We had never heard of crystal methamphetamine; there was no such thing as Ecstasy.

Today for adolescents in virtually every community in the United States the drug scene has changed so dramatically that it is as if we were talking about another planet. In the past few years I have spoken with teenagers from big-city neighborhoods, affluent and not so affluent suburbs, middle-sized "heartland" towns, and the rural and semirural countryside, and all of them have said that on any given day nearly every drug you can think of is available to them with disturbing ease. Drugs are "everywhere," they say; whatever they want, they "can get it in fifteen minutes." Many frazzled and frightened parents have discovered this to their alarm as they've moved away from what they imagined to be the peculiarly dangerous influences of a big city or a tough blue-collar town to a leafy and pretty suburb or the bucolic countryside--only to find that crystal meth, Ecstasy, and even heroin were, if anything, easier for their children to find than before. "There's heroin up the ass every- where," Terry says about his suburban town; heroin is "like how pot is in other places, 'cause everyone does it." Jessica, a fifteen-year-old from an affluent suburb twenty miles from the nearest big city, says that in her days of using methamphetamine, "I could get mine like that. I would page him, I would tell him what I want, and he'd be there within half an hour." Wanting to be reassuring, she quickly adds that "I only had sex for it once."

But though the social environment of middle-class America offers abundant opportunities for danger, most adolescents--out of guilt, lack of interest, or fear of the consequences--do not succumb to them, at least not seriously or repeatedly. Those who do sometimes say that they do risky things because it's fun, and there's surely truth to that, up to a point. Many of the things that can get an adolescent hurt or killed are intrinsically pleasurable, at least at first, and we won't understand why teenagers do them without acknowledging that. Terry, for example, explains his stunningly reckless driving in those terms: speeding on narrow mountain roads while he was stoned was "a blast," he says. "Having fun was more important than taking care of myself, basically." But that explanation doesn't, by itself, tell us why some adolescents are willing to go so far in pursuit of these kinds of "fun" that they risk everything or why they keep on even after it has become clear that bad things are happening to them as a result. When we probe more deeply into their state of mind, we discover that something else is involved.

I first spoke with Dale just after he had been released from an adolescent psychiatric ward, where he'd been sent following a violent incident in which he'd "gone off" on a teacher at his school. At fifteen, Dale was tall, lanky, and bespectacled and was often, he said, mistaken for a nerd, but he was widely feared among his peers because of his temper and volatility. He had drunk himself into the hospital emergency room more than once and sometimes cut himself deliberately. He'd also become addicted to crystal methamphetamine, which he'd begun using when he was thirteen. By the time I met him, he was not only smoking crystal meth regularly but had "slammed" (injected) it on several occasions. He was fully aware that any of these practices could kill him and, short of that, could affect his health in a variety of frightening ways--including some that I'd never heard of. Describing the arcane technology of methamphetamine use, for example, he told me that

you've got to cut it in a certain way, and if it cracks the wrong way, it's fucked up. And if you cut it the wrong way, if you smoke it you can get these little green bubbles on you. . . . It still gets you spun, but if you smoke the whole thing, in a couple of days you get these little green bubbles like right here [his arm] and on your hands. That's why you gotta have somebody that knows how to cut it, cut it.

But, he said, he had never worried much about that problem or about what his heavy meth smoking was doing to his health generally. "I didn't really care," he told me. "I didn't care if I was dying slowly, because you gotta die sometime. And I was having a fun life. So I liked it." I pointed out that while it was certainly true that everyone had to die sometime, fourteen or fifteen was awfully young to do so. Dale agreed but said that he probably wouldn't die in the very near future from his habit because he could handle the drug well enough to avoid overdosing: "You know how much it takes to OD off of coke? For someone that does it a lot? Two and a half eight-balls [an eighth of an ounce] for me. 'Cause I've done it a lot. For crystal, if I smoked two eight-balls by myself, I'd probably OD and die. But I can smoke an eight-ball by myself and not die."

Dale did recognize that the longer he continued using, the more likely he was to overdose and that, in any case, smoking meth at this level would probably shorten his life considerably. "I understand what it was doing to me. Crystallizing my lungs. And crystals never get out of your lungs. So if you smoke a lot of it, that's why the crystals build up on top of each other, and you can't breathe. That's when you OD." He'd in fact seen people overdose, including one of his best friends, but that experience only confirmed his lack of concern because his friend had, after all, survived. "He's OD'd like nine times," Dale assured me, "and never died." I remarked that nine overdoses seemed to indicate something about his friend's general state of mind. "Yeah," Dale said. "He doesn't care about anything."

When I asked Dale why neither he nor his friends particularly cared whether they OD'd or not, he said at first that it was because they were having so much fun. "It's like you're having such a good time you don't really think about it. See, if you don't think about it, you don't care." I told him it seemed like it worked both ways: if you don't care to begin with, you don't think about it. He agreed.

He described himself as having gotten, by about thirteen, to a place in his mind where he was, as he put it in an interesting turn of phrase, "care-less"--meaning not just "careless" in the conventional sense of neglectful or inattentive but truly without care: he "cared less" about long-term consequences. At one point he had gotten stoned at a party with some friends and they had ended up stealing the host's credit card, taking several hundred dollars out of ATM machines with it, and then deciding that they might as well take the family's Jeep Grand Cherokee too. So they drove the stolen Cherokee up and down the suburban streets at high speed with the lights off, "cut doughnuts" in parking lots and fields, and generally had a fine time-all while stoned out of their minds. When I asked Dale if he had been afraid that he'd be stopped by the police while driving the stolen Cherokee--stoned, and with no driver's license--he said no, it was all the same to him whether he got busted or not. He told me that if the flashing lights and the "woo woo woo" of a police siren had appeared behind him, he would have just pulled over, jumped out of the car, put his hands behind his head, and said, "OK, here I am, arrest me." It's not that he particularly wanted to be arrested: he said that he wouldn't have cared if it happened, and he wouldn't have cared if it didn't happen.

This "care-less" feeling--even on Dale's level-rarely represents a complete inability to care about anything at all, though at times it can come disturbingly close. It is not that adolescents in this state care about absolutely nothing but that what we ordinarily think of as more fundamental concerns fall by the wayside and are replaced, to the extent that they are replaced, by more immediate, and often perversely practical, ones. Dale's attitude toward injecting drugs illustrates this shift in perspective. He was well aware that though smoking crank was dangerous enough, shooting it intravenously, or "slamming," was even more so. He knew that you could "tear your veins" injecting drugs, and in fact he did during a three-day binge, because when it came to slamming, he admitted, he was just a beginner. But he had gone ahead and shot up again anyway. When I asked why, he told me that he "didn't want to waste" the drugs that were already in his syringe. "You know, I packed it in the syringe, it was there, I couldn't get it out really, and if I just left it in there, I'd be wasting all that money." What mattered most to him at that point, in short, was the thirty dollars' worth of dope. The erosion of his capacity to care about his health, his family, or his future had led to a fundamental reordering of the hierarchy of his concerns, so that the short-term desire to conserve his supply of drugs became, by default, the top priority.

Copyright © 2004 by Elliott Currie.