My father was 15 when he hitchhiked 404 miles from Baltimore to Boston with his 14-year-old girlfriend. He grew up in a dysfunctional family with five siblings and an alcoholic father. As a result, he was constantly trying to escape through drugs and alcohol. My grandfather’s father was an alcoholic too, and so was his father. But my father broke the unhealthy tradition when he started a family with my mother and they raised me.
I have a great father. He is supportive of all of my goals and has instilled in me deep values of honesty and hard work. We have a strong bond, and he has always warned me of the dangers of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. But after he told me of his explorations with drugs and his adventures as a teenager, I was curious. To this day, I haven’t touched alcohol or a cigarette and don’t plan to. But after hearing of his experiences with marijuana, I started to doubt the validity of the warnings (particularly from middle school health class) that marijuana was a life-destroying drug. After all, my father used it as a kid and still graduated college cum laude. Now he runs his own bankruptcy firm. He turned out fine, right? With this logic, I decided to pursue my curiosity. Apparently, the phrase “Do as I say, not as I did” that my father so often quoted didn’t resonate with me. Plus I was naive.
So when some of my friends started getting into pot, I did too. It wasn’t peer pressure. I wanted to conduct a self-experiment: “I wonder if I can smoke once and satisfy my curiosity without developing a habit.” Well, smoking marijuana definitely became a habit, but I tricked myself into thinking it was harmless.
The first time, I was surprised by how it made me forget all my stress from schoolwork and my worries about my future. After that first time I always turned down the offer to smoke when my friends did. However, a few months later, I began to smoke with them occasionally. I justified my use by telling myself that it was okay because I usually said no. I would estimate that I said one yes for every 20 nos. At first, this appeared to be a strong ratio of self-control, but when compared to the daily use of my friends, I was smoking pot every three weeks. Even that much can be damaging to the developing adolescent brain. I knew this, but somehow I convinced myself that my behavior was okay.
That is how the drug works: it makes everything okay. No matter how grave the circumstances are or how bad a problem is, marijuana tricks your brain into thinking that everything will be okay.
Imagine you are in the jungle. A lion approaches you. It roars ferociously, but it is small and you think you can defeat it. It starts sprinting toward you, and you summon your courage and run at it. You both jump into the air, but right before the clash you are yanked out of harm’s way by an invisible harness. You’re in the clouds, floating. There is no danger here. A week later, the hungry lion returns. It is bigger and faster. You sprint at each other again, and right before you meet, you are yanked away. Time and time again, you are saved from the lion. Over time, you are pulled up before you begin sprinting. You begin to run less. Soon you expect the harness to pull you to safety before the lion charges. You stop using your muscles, your fight or flight response, and they weaken from lack of use. Then one day, the lion returns, monstrously enormous. It runs at you, but you do not run from or at it. The harness will save you. But this time the harness is not there. You realize that you never learned how to fight the lion.
That following summer, I spent five weeks in a dull cloud of smoke – five weeks avoiding reality and running from my fear of failing in high school (my lion). I told myself I was doing it because I was “just bored, just relieving stress.” That summer, three of my friends decided to drop out of school. I realized that for them, marijuana was a constant means of escape. Getting high daily was their way of coping with their dysfunctional situations at home. For them, the lion in their life had grown too big, too scary to face. They were constantly escaping from it.
Suddenly, the school year was about to begin, and I realized I hadn’t done my summer work. I panicked. My brain was so fried I could hardly remember what I had been doing all summer. Though I never spent a dollar on the drug (my friends were generous), I had paid a significant price in my mental acuity.
The real world is stressful; that is a fact. While others were dealing with the stresses of school and worries about the future, I was running away. I was checking out of reality to escape.
I needed help. While most parents would react in an extreme way if their kid admitted to experimenting with drugs, I had a strong relationship with my father. He has always been understanding, and respects my life as my own. When I went to him for help, he treated me like an adult and took the necessary precautions that every parent should. He bought a $50 urine test and screened me for various drugs; I passed everything but marijuana, which relieved his worries about me experimenting with anything else.
“What were you escaping from?” he asked. I didn’t know how to respond, but we eventually traced it to fear of failure and stress, specifically about college, student debt, and the choices I would be making later in life.
Together, my dad and I developed a plan to prevent stress from overwhelming me. Now, I play basketball, run, and occasionally meditate to deal with my stress instead of escaping with drugs. Whenever I get anxious, I remind myself that I am on the right path and have a supportive family. I’m so grateful to have an understanding dad who helped me identify the cause of my drug problem, gave me the courage and support to quit, and helped me create a plan to avoid future mistakes. Knowing I can go to my dad with any problem trumps any high.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the January 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.