Kevin: Youth drug abuse is a growing concern. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, opioid abuse is now considered a national public health emergency. Since 1999, overdose deaths have increased by 500% among 15- to 24-year-olds. In 2021 alone, more than 1,000 adolescents died as a result of drug overdose. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends screening children for substance use, starting as early as nine years of age. What is causing youth drug use and misuse in the U.S.? How do trauma and mental illness affect students' disposition to substance abuse, and how can schools reach students who resort to drugs as a way to cope? This is What I Want to Know, and today I'm joined by Tony Hoffman to find out.
Kevin: Tony Hoffman is a former BMX elite professional who coached women's elite pro Brooke Crain to a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. His accomplishments are a testament of his recovery from addiction. Tony has dedicated his life to raising awareness around mental health and substance abuse. He founded pH Wellness and the Freewheel Project to advocate for effective addiction recovery for people of all ages. Today he joins us to discuss drug abuse among our students. I'm excited to welcome Tony Hoffman to the show in person. Thanks for joining us for this important discussion on What I Want to Know.
Tony: Thanks for having me. It seemed like a great opportunity and so I pushed the envelope in saying, I want to be in person. I don't want to do this over Zoom. I want to make sure that we capture intimacy, vulnerability and get that live in person and not over Zoom.
Kevin: This whole issue of mental health and substance abuse is huge, and I want to talk about a couple things. One is where our students are, but before we get there, your story's incredible, and this is why I wanted you on the show. You actually live this challenge. So, talk about your upbringing, which led you down the road of substance abuse and then recovery.
Tony: So I grew up in "the typical American family," if you will. My parents have been married for 46 years, 47 years next month. They moved us to a place called Clovis, California, which was a middle-class, upper-middle-class area of California, part of Fresno County. They moved us to Clovis because they wanted us to be a part of Clovis Unified School District, which at the time was one of the top public schools in the United States.
Tony: They were not only known for their academics; they were also known for their sports programs. And so, while we were able to get a good education, we were also able to be a part of some highly competitive sports programs that would be recognized all over the United States for their accomplishments. But around middle school, I really started to get confused internally, and I didn't quite understand where the confusion was coming from, and the more that I've been in therapy and the more I've been in sobriety, which is now 15 years as of May 17th, I really started to recognize through meditation work that there was so much emotionally taking place in my life that I didn't understand was taking place.
As a result of this confusion and this emotional storm that I was experiencing, I came up with some conclusions on my own, which, in turn, ended up being some of the bigger mistakes that I made. So, as a young kid, I'm already starting to experience this heavy confusion and these emotions that I don't know how to identify, and I needed a place to ground myself. The first place that I really was able to ground myself was being a class clown, showing up to class and trying to make people laugh. If people were laughing, it made me feel good about myself, and that was that grounding, that safety and security that I was looking for.
The struggle with that, though, is that that type of grounding isn't a true and strong grounding. It's a very temporary grounding built on some type of action-creates-reaction, reaction-equals-safety, when in reality, that's not the way the process works. I struggled with my attitude as a result of my mental health. I struggled with perspective and how I conducted myself, obviously because I was looking for some grounding or safety. But a lot of people overlooked the behaviors because of my sports gift.
So, I'm 13 years old at this time, and I get kicked out of seventh grade for selling a girl weed. Again, I'm looking for validation and safety, and I'm looking for it amongst my peers, and the reason that I was looking for it amongst my peers is I wasn't really getting it at home, and it's not my mother and father's fault, but they worked 14-hour days.
Kevin: You said some things that just are familiar. I've talked with young people who've had similar challenges growing up, mental health challenges, drug addiction challenges, suicide thoughts, and it's interesting, the consistent ring of feeling lost, like you're in an abyss.
Tony: I mean, that was really the big basis of a lot of it was feeling alone and that nobody would understand me and that I was wildly different than everybody I was at school with. And because of that, it felt even more that I couldn't communicate what I was experiencing. There were all of these pressures and stigma-related issues that were keeping me from speaking up about what I was experiencing. So I'm struggling. Young age, I get kicked out of school, and I found a BMX bike at that time because my brother was already racing. So I'm 13. I get on a bicycle, and that was where I found a lot of grounding.
I tell people, "You need two things. You need a safe place to have a conversation, and you need an activity that connects you with like-minded individuals." You have to get involved in an activity, though, that's empowering for self and others. If it's not empowering for self and others, you won't receive the benefits for your mental health or wellness. So, I find a bike, and that's my grounding, but I don't have a place to talk about what's going on.
Kevin: So, you have half of the equation.
Tony: I have half the equation, which isn't enough.
Kevin: Tony, let me ask you this. So during that time, the non-activity time, the non-bike time, obviously, you fill that void through drug addiction eventually. Did you find that there were certain drugs or chemicals that were gateways to other drugs and chemicals, and you just kept seeking something that would cure that loneliness and that pain?
Tony: Sure. I mean, the computer was the first thing. The internet was the first thing. I had social anxiety. I locked myself in a bedroom, and I stayed on the internet before it became what it's become. When I put my gift away at 18 years old, it was to take a computer opportunity down in Southern California. I was building computer networks in my bedroom at the time. That was now my goal: to be a network administrator so I could lock myself in a room like this and only communicate via email with human beings because my social anxiety didn't want to address people face to face. Then I started smoking weed like many other people. That's it. I try to say, I'm not this “Weed's going to make you a heroin addict.”
Kevin: Yeah. No, I get that.
Tony: No, I know. Yeah, yeah.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah.
Tony: I just have to put that out there because a lot of people think I am, because they get bits and pieces of my speeches, and it's like, "Look, just because you smoke marijuana doesn't mean you're going to end up on heroin."
Kevin: Absolutely. There's something else going on.
Tony: But what I do talk about is why we actually do that, and nobody's actually doing it for fun. It is an emotional process. It's connected to our mental health. It's a coping mechanism for our emotions. The person that goes home today that says, "I'm going to have a glass of wine to unwind the day," is not having the glass of wine because it's fun. They're looking to unravel the stress, anxiety, and focus and intention that the day has taken by having something that can make them feel that they're relieving the emotions that they experience through the day.
What if I said I did that same thing but didn't find any relief with marijuana? I didn't find any relief with alcohol. I didn't find any relief with cocaine. I found relief with opioids. My intention to use opioids, Oxycontin, when I found it, at 18 years old, was because, for the first time in my life, it made me feel grounded, completely. It made me feel safe for the first time completely. It removed my anxiety. It removed my suicidal ideation. It removed the appearance of depression and being overcome by sadness and confusion and loneliness.
So I thought to myself that I could use this to make myself feel normal and be the person that I believed everybody else was in the world. And 68% of kids who use substances, nicotine products, vaping products, marijuana, drugs, before the age of 14 — 68% have been sexually abused. So, when we go back to my childhood and our childhoods, all these kids that we kicked out of middle school and elementary school who could not perform in a behavioral sense, the likelihood that they were actually being sexually abused at home or in the environment away from school was almost a guarantee.
Then I want them to think, "Is this actually doing what I think it's doing?" Because if you're not careful, you'll find out, like I found out, and many others: addiction is not a choice. So you may find relief, but is that relief going to turn into grief? Is that relief going to turn into a nightmare or torment? Because there are other ways to cope with our experiences: sitting down and having a conversation in a safe space, whether that's with your mother or father, a teacher, a coach, a mentor, or a therapist.
Kevin: What happens oftentimes when you're in the maze of the chemical addiction, whatever that chemical addiction is, one is, as you alluded to, the stories sort of take hold, and the stories can take on a life of their own. Then the other thing is it becomes paralyzing in terms of whether you go left, right, straight — whatever you do. What would be your advice to a young person, a high schooler who was in the throes of that, where they may not even feel comfortable reaching out to you, but they're dealing with the stories, and they're dealing with the paralysis associated with, "Where do I go? What do I do"?
Tony: There's only one solution, and you have to say you need help. You can't do it alone. I tell people if this was a soda can, not saying anything is shaking this can. When I say shaking, it's erratically shaking it, and the pressure is building. The pressure builds, and eventually it reaches a point where they cannot contain the pressure anymore. That pressure is leading you to self-destructive behaviors, self-limiting behaviors. Eventually, you will use people, places, or things in a manipulative way to try and alleviate that pressure. The only way that you can release that pressure without causing harm to yourself or others is by having the courage to be vulnerable and speak what needs to be spoken.
Kevin: There are school administrators, teachers, and I would say that many of them know the kids who are having challenges.
Kevin: I mean, it's obvious.
Kevin: Yet these kids oftentimes end up drifting. What would your advice be to school leaders, school teachers who see a challenge, but they don't engage? What's the best way to engage even though they know that the kid may rebuff them early on?
Tony: I think a lot of teachers let that one kid just walk out of their classroom every day, and instead of just saying, "Hey, would you mind staying after class for a moment?" And just saying, "Are you okay?" Look them in the eyes. "Are you okay? Can I do anything for you?" Just that. Don't say, "Tell me if something's wrong."
Tony: "Can I do something for you? Is there something you need from me? How can I be of service to you?"
Tony: That's the key to this whole thing. I teach compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy: it truly is the key to the wounded soul. If we don't see hurt people and feel their hurt and ask how we can possibly be there for that hurt, we're never going to make a connection. I truly encourage any administrator that it's beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. Sometimes it's that conversation of, "Can I help you? Is there something I can do for you?” that could break that young individual into pieces in a positive way. The tears might start flowing. The conversation about their struggles might flow, and they might see you as the only person that's actually recognized that something's wrong.
I do think that, one, every school leader, every teacher, every administrator should be trauma informed, get training on how to engage young people, peers, colleagues who suffer from the challenges associated with trauma. But not only that, you need to continually have that trauma-informed training updated, because I see some people will go through it and say, "Okay, I'm there."
Tony: I think the other thing is that, I think, since Columbine, the indicators were there, something was wrong. These indicators are getting bigger and more frequent that something is wrong and that we're not doing the right things.
Tony: Schools are not focusing enough on mental health. We need social-emotional awareness. We need mental health community. We need community and vulnerability within our schools because if the individual isn't getting it at home, they're going to try and get it at school. But if the school is still only focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic, we're going to continue to spiral out of control until the mass is in that place. COVID, from my experience, has created a multitude more of individuals cycling.
Tony: I have never seen anything like it.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely.
Tony: This is not me speaking from fear. This is me speaking from somebody that's in schools every day, every week of the year. I can't explain how much more kids are struggling. They're struggling so much more as a result of these two years of disconnect that they've had, the constant exposure to the trauma at home and what was happening, and not being able to be with people and community or play sports and get that relief that I had when I was on my bike. That now we have kids using substances at such a younger age and more acceptably.
Kevin: Going back to the Reagan years: say no to drugs.
Kevin: There's been this approach where there's judgment attached to chemical addiction.
Kevin: What should we be doing from a national perspective in terms of engaging young people to dig deeper into their own psyche?
Tony: I truly believe that K through sixth grade should have therapists at every school. There is a required number of days a year in which an individual has to sit in a safe space at school. Every kid knows where the safe space is. They know there's an open-door policy. So we can normalize vulnerability and conversation and safe space arts and culture. You’ve got band individuals. You have artists. You have people that create things. You have your athletes. You have your individuals who are great at reading, writing, arithmetic, and how all of these groups find their purpose in life, in making the world a better place. It's no longer about making somebody a million or billion dollars. It's about how you take your innate features, work with your emotions, and make the world a better place as a result. I think that for us nationally, that's where we should be headed, is trying to meet the kids where they're at.
Kevin: I think that's a great start, and people need to be talking about that more. This is what I really want to know. It's one last question, and this question may surprise you. You and I share something, we talked about it earlier, and that's this overriding belief that compassion and empathy are so important. And it's one of the essential human ingredients to interaction that oftentimes gets lost. But another one, frankly, is this notion of gratitude. So talk to me about the value of gratitude in your life, particularly after all you've been through.
Tony: I was very ungrateful. I was very “me, me, me, take what I can.” And I've told the story before, but I was in prison, and I was doing my laundry. At this time my parents came back and forth to support me, and so they would send me these packages. You could get packages mailed in prison, and some of the things that I got were these white T-shirts. They were Dickies' white T-shirts.
A Dickies' white T-shirt was like a Louis Vuitton T-shirt in prison. It was held as this item in which affluent people got to wear a white T-shirt with a Dickies logo on it. I'm washing this white T-shirt, and I think the concept of gratitude hit me in that moment because I realized, if I'm learning how to take care of this T-shirt, because this T-shirt has so much value here in this community, how much more gratitude should I express for freedom, for the ability to breathe, walk, use two hands, see with my eyes, have a hotel to stay at. You get to ride on a plane, get to train for BMX, and get to do these things. You hear these cliché things: "I don't have to do anything. I get to do everything." I truly connected with that concept. It wasn't just a quote anymore for me.
So I still to this day have carried that experience into every other faction of my life, whether it was good, bad, or different. In that moment, I was able to ground myself in this perspective that, even if I'm struggling in the moment, I have all these other things that I can look at to be grateful for, because at one point, I didn't think I was going to be alive.
Kevin: It's a powerful testimonial. And the reason why I asked gratitude, Tony, frankly, is for young people who are struggling out there to be able to get to that place, whereas you work through your challenges, you still find joy and gratitude in waking up and seeing the sunshine, seeing the leaves change in the fall, seeing the snow, seeing a smile from someone who gives you coffee in a coffee shop.
Kevin: I mean, those kinds of things, I think, help drive the human experience and give you the impetus you need to build on for your own self-preservation. Look, Tony Hoffman, you're doing an amazing work. Thank you, and welcome. Appreciate you.
Tony: Yes, sir. Thank you. Thank you all for having me. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Tony Hoffman is a former BMX Elite Professional who coached Women's Elite Pro Brooke Crain to a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. His accomplishments are a testament to his recovery from addiction.
Beginning with his recovery on May 17, 2007, Tony has dedicated his life to raising awareness about mental health and substance use. He founded pH Wellness and the Freewheel Project to advocate for effective addiction recovery for people of all ages.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.