A young man at a Salt Lake City homeless shelter advised me to refine my interviewing questions: “Rather than asking how use began, ask why an individual first chose to use a substance, he advised.”
Accepting his advice, my interviews immediately became more personal, more revealing. What I learned is that at the core of addiction lies psychological injury or trauma. Isolation, bullying, neglect, abuse. In almost all cases, when asked about those first uses of a substance, interviewees took me on a journey back to their adolescent years and recounted, sometimes in surprising detail, painful situations for which they were ill-prepared and unprotected. Even those who at first said they used drugs “to fit in,” upon closer examination, then explained why they felt they did not fit in.
In city after city, people underscored for me the vulnerability of youth and ignited my fear for this current generation of children. Deep, emotionally supportive relationships with adults are too often crowded out by technology—both the child’s thirst for technology and the parent’s tethering to it.
I did not begin this project to try to solve the complicated problem of addiction, but the weight of these stories, over and over again, fueled an alarm that I hope to broadcast through my art. We have to stop the cycle.
So I bought a shipping container; found a fabulous muralist, Rodrigo Pradel, to paint it; and am filling it with all those items we buy to keep children physically safe. As you walk through it, safety items will press in upon you from all sides, their weighing presence almost haunting. Journeying through it, you will hear the words of the people I met, from Los Angeles to Portsmouth, revealing their reasons for using substances to numb the pain or fill the void created so often in adolescence.
We must find ways to protect them.