Plano, TX, Feb. 9--The room is dark, save for the four candles flickering on the floor. They cast a soft glow on the colorful Indian blankets beneath them and on the feathers, pelts and other items that make up the medicine wheel at the blankets' center. About a dozen teenagers sit quietly, eyes closed, as their leader talks about energy--the good kind. Holding a shell filled with burning sage, he passes by each and tells them to feel the smoke's cleansing power.
Thus begins one of the rituals of Jim Savage's Imagine program in Plano for young people wrestling with substance abuse. What started as an outgrowth of Mr. Savage's interest in American Indian culture has blossomed into an unconventional approach to outpatient drug treatment that seems to resonate with many teens who have tried it.
And spirituality is at the heart of it, Mr. Savage says.
"Basically with Imagine, the objective became to focus on the spiritual aspect of recovery and provide ways that might increase the chances of the kid having a positive spiritual experience," he says.
Mr. Savage, 42, says he learned the importance of spirituality while he was in his 20s and fighting his own drug addiction. He has been sober for nearly 14 years.
"I sort of realized my second time around in recovery how much spirituality plays a part," he says. "I realized what I was missing in my own recovery the first time ... and what the treatment field in general was missing."
Too many drug-treatment programs pay only lip service to spirituality, says Mr. Savage.
"Back in the '80s, in inpatient treatment, it was sort of like the extent of the spiritual part of the [typical] program was the one-hour-a-week 'rap with the chap.' The hospital chaplain would come in, there'd be a group or they'd send them down to the gym for the church service on Sunday morning. And that was pretty much the extent of it."
But drilling addicts with dogma won't work, either, especially if they're teens, he and others say.
"Sitting in a room on hard chairs under fluorescent lights with a guy in a black suit and a collar who says, 'Let's talk about spirituality,' the kids are not going to be real fired up," says Mr. Savage.
That's the beauty of Imagine, says Tom Collins, chief executive officer of Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas. Instead of lectures, the program uses Indian rituals, storytelling, music and drama--as well as the 12-Step recovery method espoused by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous--to help kids identify and express their problems and beliefs.
"It is one of the most creative, effective services for adolescents" in the area, he says.
"I don't think Jim even knows the value of what he does," Mr. Collins adds. "If you tried the sort of head-on approach--group therapy, ask the question directly--you're going to get the wrong answer. You're not going to get the answer. And Jim gets around all that. The kids are having fun. They're acting things out, and it's all very cryptic and symbolic.
"It's experiential. It's not didactic in any way. They don't get a lecture on a grease board."
The pounding of the drums starts slowly, almost hesitantly. But before long, everyone in the circle has joined in. The rhythmic beating rises in intensity, punctuated only by the trill of a flute and the occasional warble of an American Indian chant. The music eventually fades, and Mr. Savage lifts up the "talking stick." When you hold it, he reminds the teens, you must speak from the heart.
This night, five members of the group are preparing to go on their first Vision Quest, the highlight of Imagine's eight-week curriculum. In a few days, they plan to travel to a 20-acre spread near Mineola, about 100 miles east of Dallas, where, after much ritual preparation, each will venture off alone for a night of intense prayer and meditation. Others who have been before will stay at the base camp, praying, chanting and drumming for them through the night.
One by one, the "visioners" tell what they hope to experience, and it boils down to a spiritual encounter. One says he's uncertain about spirituality and hopes to get answers in the woods. For him comes this advice from one teen who has been before: "Don't look for proof [of God]. Look for signs." They'll be there, the others agree.