There is value in using substances

I was talking with someone the other day about a seventeen (17) year old girl who was using crystal meth. “Her mom and grandpa are on top of her about it, but she just won’t stop,” said the person.

I was stunned by the comment. The thought that there would even be a possibility that, simply because her family was “on top” of the girl about her behavior, she would even think to stop using. There was just no way, in my mind, that hearing about how bad using crystal meth is would be a trigger for change. Just not going to happen.

See, those who don’t abuse substances can’t understand the reasons why a young person would. To me, it comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis: If the perceived cost of using a substance is less than the perceived payoff of using the substance, then there’s reason to stop using the substance. The key is the perception of cost versus benefit. Regardless of what anyone else thinks about another person’s behavior, any given individual will reinforce the payoff and benefit aspect of a behavior, even if that behavior seems harmful to someone else. It’s through this reinforcement process that the perception of high value is achieved.

“Hmm,” I said to the person. “Why did she start using in the first place?”

“Well, according to her grandpa, she got involved with some guy and he got her into it. Her family can’t stand him, he’s bad news.”

In that statement, I saw that there wasn’t going to be a way for her family to get through to the girl because, not only was the payoff of using crystal meth probably high, but it also appeared to be associated with love and probably sex.   That association with love and sex, coupled with the huge rush that crystal meth provides, reinforced the value of using crystal meth and regardless of whatever losses she faced were well worth continuing to use. “Does the girl love her family?”

“I guess, why wouldn’t she?”

“Well, until she loves herself and her family more than the dude and crystal meth, there’s no way yelling and screaming is going to make a difference.” I hated to sound fatalistic, but the truth is that, unless the girl experiences costs that are just too high or realizes that other aspects of her life are higher in value than her current trajectory, then she isn’t going to change.

The person with whom I spoke nodded and changed the subject. The reality that we all face is that, people will stay their current life trajectory until that trajectory stops providing its payoff or becomes too expensive to continue. If we want to be “help” someone who needs to change, we have to understand the payoffs involved in a behavior and their associated costs. Until we understand that there is high payoff if using substances, for example, then there’s no way to alter the behavior.