Been There, Done That
Counselor J.G. Regnier dishes simple, hard truths to addicts and parents
By Dwain Hebda Photography by Brian Chilson
It’s been more than 40 years since J.G. Regnier sat in his high school parking lot getting loaded at the height of the so-called War on Drugs, with “Just Say No” commercials in regular rotation.
“I was a teenager when ‘Here’s your brain on drugs’ came out; we’re all sitting around drinking and smoking weed,” he said. “We’re making fun of that stuff, you know, we’re laughing.”
Regnier would eventually find his way to harder substances, hit bottom and pull himself out to become a drug counselor. His Little Rock practice, Counseling & Psychology Services, is considered a preeminent resource for families of young addicts.
And when he says young, he means young.
“For alcohol, it was a 6-year-old one time,” he said. “I was working at Children's Hospital in the late '90s and I had a 5-year-old that was drinking and smoking weed with his parents. With opiate addiction, I’ve had kids that have been taking the oxys and the roxys as early as 10 and 11. I’ve had a couple kids we’ve had to send off to residential care at age 12 for shooting heroin.”
You’d think the 61-year-old would seem as square as those bygone commercials, but such is not the case. A combination of life experience and refined communication techniques has shaped him into a unique animal, at once highly skilled and highly approachable.
“I’m just an old guy, but I got into recovery when I was young,” he said. “I relate almost like a friendly grandfather to kids in recovery. I facilitate a lot of them through friends into the 12-step groups, and I get other young people to help them out, too.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Regnier discovered emerging treatment protocols that were effective without compromising his authenticity.
“Years ago, everything was very confrontational, and that never went along with my style,” he said. “I was part of a research project in 1998 using empathy-based practices, in particular, a style called motivational learning technique. It’s all about respecting the client and client’s choice and getting them to elaborate on the process of change.
“If you get somebody to talk about change they’re 10 times more likely to do it than if you sit there in your ivory tower and tell them, ‘You’re going to have to do this,’ and ‘You’re going to have to do that.’ It's a more respectful approach.”
Respect equals trust, which is a hard commodity with addicts. Regnier said societal changes and technology have both forced and enabled kids to become more self-reliant. Thus, finding a steady drug connection is only slightly more complicated than ordering off Netflix, which helps explain why 85 percent of Regnier’s clients are addicted to opiates.
“Social media is an ally to the drug dealers and the drug culture more than anything else,” Regnier said. “The kids, because of their networking and ability to manipulate, seem to be more sophisticated. They'll sneak out of the house, get an Uber and go get drugs in some cases. I mean, this bunch is creative.”
Regnier has seen some positive trends, such as peers being more willing to speak up to the family of a friend who’s using. What happens from there, though, isn’t always what you’d expect.
“No parent wants to think their child’s doing it, so they put up this wall of, ‘Oh my kid wouldn’t do that,’ at least initially,” he said. “With opiates, it’s not as easily detectable in the early stages. Kids can still be high-functioning, make decent grades, hold down jobs and do their chores. [Parents] might think resistance and not wanting to pay attention to authority are as much adolescence issues as drugs.
“At the same time, good parenting means being involved, and what I've seen in too many situations is there are too many parents that aren’t involved. They don’t want to do the right thing and they make exceptions for their kids too many times. Parents need to stand up for themselves, go back to more traditional values and toe a firm line on this deal.”