by Emily Arndt
This essay was the first prize winner in 2010’s “Say It Straight Up” Writing Contest, in the 18-25 age division. Emily just graduated high school in Thousand Oaks and plans to attend college in the fall.
To Change and Be Changed: A Reflection
In a city like Thousand Oaks, with an abundance of white picket fences and perfectly cut, green lawns, it has always been hard for me to remember that I live in only a small, sheltered piece of this large world. Rarely would I think about the outside world – a place of unknown mysteries. Until I reached middle and high school, words like drugs and alcohol were foreign to me. I only knew them as vague and distant ideas that were unfathomable to my lifestyle. Yet as I grew up, abandoning the child-like mentality, and developing a sense of independence, I realized that these dangerous substances lurked in every corner. From the kids at school whispering about drug deals, to the parties I heard about from friends of friends, I soon began to open my eyes to the hazards these substances provided. And with such easy access, an invitation into their mysterious world seemed almost impossible to avoid.
That is when I joined Straight Up Ventura County. I walked in blindly, knowing little about the problems I would soon be trying to change. While in Straight Up, I met a girl about my age, and we instantly bonded over my shoes. As we began talking, our conversation evolved from footwear, to her ex-boyfriend, to her drug abuse problem. Until that moment, I had never met anyone so open, and so willing to discuss being a victim of drug abuse. Being in her presence suddenly opened my eyes to a whole new world. A world where getting a B on a test or ditching swim practice was something to be proud of. A world where drugs were the easiest way to escaping the harsh realities of one’s life. A world where nothing was perfect. Inside my bubble, I could never have known people like this existed. People like this girl were just like me. She loved shoes and shopping. The only difference was that her life was controlled not by herself, but by harmful substances.
Time went by, and this girl and I kept in contact. Suddenly, she stopped showing up to Straight Up events. For a while, I figured she was sick, or busy. It wasn’t until months later when I was told she had run away from home. Since she was eighteen, her parents couldn’t legally force her to live with them. After being in and out of rehab, she seemed to have spiraled downward. And now she was running. I will never know exactly what she was running from. Maybe from the past, or from the future. Maybe she wanted independence, or maybe she was running from the scary and dangerous reality she had created for herself. But I never saw her again, and I probably never will.
This girl taught me more than any lecture, or any textbook could ever teach me. She showed me firsthand what can happen when drugs and alcohol control your life. And after she left, I vowed to take action, so hopefully, her situation would not be repeated with another young girl. I took part in as many Straight Up events as possible, talking with uninformed parents and youth, trying my hardest to make a change. At first, it seemed impossible that one person could change the world. But the reactions I got from parents, and the tears I saw fall down their faces after every performance made me realize that I wasn’t trying to change the world. I was trying to change the perceptions of just one person at a time. Eventually, and hopefully, one day I could touch the world. But for now, all I focused on was touching one person at a time.
Being a part of Straight Up, and knowing people like that girl, and others in similar situations, showed me that change isn’t easy. But the more it’s discussed, and the farther it is spread, the more lives in can touch, and hopefully change. Instead of just live performances, maybe video productions of house parties and stage versions can reach more people. By spreading the world, and talking to as many people as possible, the road to change doesn’t seem quite as long and daunting. Every once in a while, I will think about the girl who changed my life. Who convinced me to live opposite to how she lived. To never let drugs or alcohol change my perceptions, or control my world. I will forever be in charge of my body and mind because I will not be like her. And as I remember how much fun we had, and how she was always smiling, I will also always remember how, because she gave up the struggle to live substance free, she could never have the chance to change and touch the lives of the many people I have, and hope to change in the future.