One night of bad decisions in eighth grade changed Ben Chappell's life forever. Through writing, he's finding his way back.
Ben was hanging out with friends, some of whom had recently begun smoking pot. They offered it to Ben-and he tried it. As the night wore on, he also experimented with alcohol and acid.
"Honestly, the lack of thought [about using] was baffling," recalls Chappell, currently a senior at Boise High School. "I drank, I did acid, I freaked out. It was crazy."
The next day, though, Ben decided to do it all again and purchased acid for himself. It would quickly become a habit, although his drug of choice would change for financial reasons.
"Purchasing acid was unsustainable, so I moved to pills," says Ben. "I would steal my father's pills-opiates-and that's what led me to heroin. I would basically consume anything."
"I stole a lot of money. I stole from my family, friends-I would just go to peoples' houses and take what I could," he admits.
Ben's school was the first to notice that he was using drugs; he was caught with pills and paraphernalia, the police and his parents were called, and he was expelled. Soon after, he and his mom moved to Seattle in what he describes as a "geographical fix": "I was no longer around the same people, I didn't know where to get drugs, so I didn't do them. At first, anyway."
In Seattle, Ben was placed mid-year into an advanced poetry class. Totally out of his element, Ben was told he would have to write and perform a poem in front of the whole school.
"It was horrific. I was very scared," he remembers. "But I worked hard on a few things, tried some different stuff, and I wrote this poem that I had no idea if it was good or not."
His poetry reading went better than he expected. Students loved it, and even the "cool kid" had a tear running down his cheek. It was the start of a new obsession, this time a positive one.
"A handful of days later, I signed up for a poetry slam organized by the school," he says. "I came in second at the slam and thought, 'Holy cow,' that's pretty cool."
Unfortunately, Ben began using drugs again and he and his mom made the move back to Boise. "As I fell back into using, I noticed myself needing to get things out-and I started to write. Every word was important to me, and it felt like it was helping me a little bit. In no way did it save me, but it was really impactful in my life at that time."
Ben began performing his work at poetry slams in Boise, finding the format, the way in which it creates connections between people, cathartic.
"I love the conversation that can happen at a poetry slam: the poet yells something at you, and the audience gives them a snap in response," Ben explains. "That conversation is so beautiful, so powerful. It's saying 'I need to be heard,' and that snap, the rubbing of the hands that people do at slams, is the audience's way of saying 'I hear you, and it's ok.'"
Around this time, Ben began participating in an intensive outpatient rehab program that he attended several times a week. He didn't have any friends his age at the time, but he found support in the form of therapy and Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) peers, whom he still spends time with.
"At school, I keep my head down-I don't jive with the whole high school experience," he reflects. "I had to grow up really fast because of my addition...I spend a lot of my week with 50-year-old alcoholics talking about life."
Ben continues to explore and express his experiences through writing. He published a poetry collection called A Guide to Crying in Public, and is directing and performing in a play by the same name in May at Boise's JUMP. The play is born out of his love of slam poetry; he and the cast have written the script-their personal poetry-together during what they jokingly call "therapy sessions."
"It's a social commentary on the way we self-express," says Ben of the play. "It's a discussion about why it's so difficult to cry in public."
"Creating this play came from what I love of slams and what I love of human connection, my own personal struggles, and what I learned from my time at rehab, like the ways these people, who are in really impossible circumstances, came together, had to sit in a room-there was nothing in there-and just talk. It's magic."
The cast rehearses two to three times a week, and Ben also spends time performing around the Treasure Valley. He has performed at Boise's Goathead Fest, the World Village Fest, and Drug Free Idaho's Red Ribbon Rally on the capitol steps, and on Radio Boise. He and the Guide to Crying in Public cast also presented a writing workshop as part of Treefort Music Fest's Storyfort.
WRITING HIS FUTURE
Ben will be graduating in June, but he won't walk with his class. He'll receive his diploma in the mail and continue to focus on what's ahead for his writing. A producer has expressed interest in his play, and he envisions traveling with it, creating a new "script" with each local cast's poetry. He may work with JUMP to deliver more programming for creating, writing, and collaborating. He's also shopping around his latest poetry collection.
And Ben is still working on his recovery. He attends AA once a week and speaks to his sponsor each night.
"I've been sober for more than two years now ... and I know I'm a completely different person than who I was when I first walked into rehab," Ben says. "That being said, my recovery is not perfect. There's times when some of the behaviors come back out-the manipulation, the lying, the addict behaviors. It is so painful to have to do with these behaviors and try to figure it out."
He still has some relationship mending to do, as well, including with his mom. "I have the disease I have. All I can do is take the next indicated action, move forward. It's a day-by-day thing, sometimes it has to be hour by hour. Every once in a while, you have to take it second by second."
ADVICE FOR TEENS
What would Ben say to young people curious about drugs and alcohol?
"I would tell them my story," he says. "I might read them one of my poems. I would make it clear that if they take the drugs, there is a huge chance they'll get way more than what they wanted."
As told by Laura Loftus of Neighborhood All Stars. Find Ben's story as well as poetry and writing resources for youth at http://betheparents.org/ben/