Life after High School: Special Challenges for Recent Graduates and Others in Transition
Many substance-addiction problems begin in high school: the majority of teenagers either use chemical substances at least occasionally, or know someone who does. In fact, many parents breathe a sigh of relief when their children graduate twelfth grade, figuring that even if the kids showed signs of “experimenting,” the responsibilities of higher education or full-time employment will put an end to that.
That confidence may be misplaced. It’s easy to take a substance-abuse problem into college or the work force—or to develop a substance-abuse problem for the first time after high school. Millions of adults are addicted to alcohol or other chemical substances. Often, the stress of transition itself—new influences, new responsibilities, new rules—plays a role in starting or intensifying a drug problem.
While this post is addressed to recent high school graduates, anyone facing a major life transition—from marriage to a death in the family to seeing your own kids leave the nest—will benefit from it.
KNOW WHAT HAS TO CHANGE
When you’re fresh out of high school, your physical body is probably still “growing up.” Your brain almost certainly is. So just being alive is a “transition period” at this point.
Most likely, you’ll also have to change at least your regular peer circle and some of your “work hours.” Here are some other things that are, or soon will be, drastically new to many recent graduates:
- Moving to another town (or state) on a nine-months-a-year-or-more basis
- Living with a roommate
- Having to do your own laundry, room-cleaning, shopping and/or cooking
- Coping with rental arrangements
- Starting a job (part-time or full-time) that requires new dress, skills or behavior
In the best-case scenario, you’ll have mastered many of the necessary skills already. Otherwise, learn the basics of home management, budgeting and professionalism now, even if you won’t really need them for a few years. The earlier you start, the easier it is to learn: you don’t want your family (or the law) providing your room and board by default in ten years.
KNOW WHAT DOESN’T HAVE TO CHANGE
If you happen to be fresh out of high school and addiction rehab, check out our hints for staying sober in college—many of these ideas are also helpful in a new job. One key rule for any recovering addict coping with the stress common to all major transitions: keep up the support connections and self-evaluations.
Keep up other healthy practices too, including sleep habits, eating habits and wholesome leisure habits. A temptation for anyone in transition—and a sure recipe for unnecessarily increasing overall stress—is to neglect beneficial relationships and rituals because it seems new responsibilities need all your time. No matter how urgent things seem, keep up transferable parts of your old routine and pace yourself with regular breaks. Hard as it is to believe, your new world will not leave you in the dust—in fact, you’ll catch up with it sooner when you stay fresh and fit.
As for those endless new options—campus clubs, committees, service projects—where you have yes-or-no flexibility, try to limit your acceptances to one or two ongoing groups plus one special event a week. Granted, when you’re young and resilient and still uncertain what your life will really focus on for the long term, the risks of burning out from trying to do everything are less: but your still-developing brain needs time to rest and think. Keep a list of your priorities and interests, and check it regularly against your weekly schedule.
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
And remember that, however well-prepared you are, life has its frustrations and failures. Getting mad at the world for refusing to “cooperate” with your hard work triggers many cases of addiction and relapse. Instead, let the world have its way where it must, and give your energy to making the best of the things under your control:
- The words you say (or think)
- The consideration of alternate options when things go wrong
- The overall attitude you take
Note that some people really “can’t help” how they feel or react: they have mental illnesses that impede their self-control (and frequently become factors in addiction). If you suspect you have such a problem, schedule a psychiatric evaluation and get recommendations for treatment.
And remember to live mindfully in the moment—while keeping one eye on future goals!