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.
"When you get into talking about spirituality and adolescence and drug treatment, all three together, it creates, obviously, a very hot topic," Mr. Savage acknowledges. "I'm telling the kids: 'This is not to convert you. This is to help you define your own belief system.' "
Even in the most rebellious kids, he says, "they have a need, a desire to feel spiritual."
"I believe every person has at their core a desire to be spiritual or to feel spiritually connected, and I think that with addicts, addiction provides a way to think that they're achieving that. And it's a very powerful way. And it's an illusion."
Chuck Daugherty, director of intervention and training for the Greater Dallas Council on Alcohol & Drug Abuse, says he's not familiar with the Imagine program but agrees that spirituality can be a major factor in recovery.
"Chemical dependency is a bio-, psychosocial disease that affects every area of your life," Mr. Daugherty says. "Some folks believe and say that the spiritual piece is the biggest piece in recovery."
This may be especially true--and especially difficult to impart--with teens, he says. "Adolescents don't have a lot of experience with spirituality and oftentimes relate spirituality with religion. And nothing could be even further from that. And if they've had a bad time with religion, they're going to be really anti-spirituality."
While Mr. Savage's use of Indian rituals may seem radically different from most teens' spiritual upbringings, he emphasizes to them--and to their parents--that the program aims to complement all faiths.
"I've always been adamant that this isn't about specifically promoting one religion or another," he says. "I happen to know something about Native American traditions. I've found that it's almost like a neutral, ethnic type of thing."
Mack, whose daughter, Anna, is in the program, had reservations about whether it might conflict with her Baptist upbringing. Now he's a wholehearted supporter.
"It's been life-changing for her," Mack says. "I've tried to keep a real open mind, and I've watched and I've listened. I haven't seen anything that would go against my faith."
He, along with other parents and teenagers, asked not to be fully identified to protect their privacy.
Molly, 16, says Mr. Savage is the first to take a holistic approach to her problems, examining the spiritual as well as the physical, mental and emotional aspects of her cocaine and heroin abuse. She went through treatment eight times before coming recently to Imagine.
"This is nothing like I've ever seen before," she says. "It's awesome."
Trent, an 18-year-old who is active in Imagine's after-care program, says, "Most of the kids, when you come back from a Vision Quest, you just have a stronger belief in what you've been taught" at home.
He sees the biggest spiritual impact in kids who have had no real exposure to such things before. "I think that's when it helps out the most, is when a kid has no idea," he says. "It makes you see--either the world's full of coincidences, or there's something out there."
Trent, who began drinking alcohol at 12 and smoking marijuana at 13, says he's still exploring his beliefs but is convinced that spirituality has been the key to his staying sober for nine months. "You can't do it on your own," he says. "You have to believe in something greater than yourself."
It has been a long night for everyone ... for the three "visioners" who ultimately made this quest ... for Mr. Savage and the seven teenagers who kept vigil all night for them at the base camp ... and for the parents, who spent an anxious but hopeful evening at a tiny motel nearby. Now, gathered around the campfire as a new day begins, they all share what the night--and Imagine--have taught them.
"I'll never doubt you again, God," says Drew. Aho, the others respond in affirmation.