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I stood in the hallway of my high school watching as the popular couples walked by, hand in hand, and felt as out of place as a foreigner in a strange country.
At the age of 16, I was asking myself some tough questions: why am I here? Is it worth it to be alive? Is it always going to be like this?
Like so many other alienated teens, I slogged along because I was scared to do anything else. I went through the motions. I applied to college. I tried to make friends and I battled the incessant noise in my head. The noise made it difficult to think and to read and to enjoy even the slightest moment of serenity. One day just bled into the next and I wasn’t sure if anything was ever going to change.
Then, someone gave me a hit of my first joint.
The chemical change that took place in my head is truly difficult to convey, and I don’t say this lightly. I am quite adept at expressing myself with words, but any attempt at trying to describe that moment always seems to fall short. It was as if I had spent my first 17 years of life dragging around a heavy, ponderous chain and it was finally removed with that first hit.
What’s even more interesting is that after that experience, I paid no mind to the possibility of addiction. I did not fool myself into believing that I would stop with weed. I began to fantasize about trying anything and everything I could get my hands on.
Let’s be honest: up to that point, if suicide was a proposition that could be attained simply by pressing a button on the back of my neck, I would have pressed it in seventh grade. The only thing that had kept me alive that long was the fear of how much violence death typically requires. Given this foundation, I had no fear of popping whatever pill I could find or snorting whatever I could put up my nose.
Any eventuality was a better option than the reality I lived up to that point.
For anyone who recognizes this sort of behavior, they likely recognize it for what it was: self-medicating. I was suffering from pretty profound depression as a kid and any change in brain chemistry, regardless of how ineffectual or detrimental, felt like a better option.
The reason why addiction, especially in the United States, is so rampant and ubiquitous is that most of the time, whether young people realize it or not, they too are self-medicating. And it’s not just for depression.
Here are a few other maladies people inadvertently try to address with illicit substances:
Anxiety: I have a friend from high school who used to worry about everything. Everything. What the other girls were saying behind her back. If she was going to get pregnant. If her boyfriend was cheating. If she’d get into college. It was truly the worst anxiety I ever witnessed. Of course, we became smoking buddies. In retrospect, we were not doing the evil deeds we were led to believe. We were both looking for relief. Other misused substances to handle anxiety can include benzodiazepine (Xanax), alcohol, and opiates.
ADHD: The odd thing about attention deficit disorder is that many times, in high schools all over the country, the kids with diagnosed ADHD are selling their legally obtained meds (like Adderall) to the other kids who are typically undiagnosed. As someone who has taken it legally with a prescription and illegally through illicit means, I can say—at least for me—there are more effective avenues. Like many things though, it’s in wide use because we live in a pill-positive society. There is effort involved in addressing ADHD naturally, and pills are a lot quicker and easier.
Trauma: Again, one only needs to read Gabor Maté’s eponymous book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, to see that, historically, young people and old people alike address childhood trauma with anything and everything. Whether it’s weed, pills, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol—it doesn’t matter. The object of the game is to change the state of one’s reality when reality is just too painful. The saddest part of this story is that it’s the most vicious of all cycles. Tragic childhoods often lead to tragic adulthoods, incarceration, destitution, and misery. And though great work is being done to expose these issues, not too much has been accomplished to abolish it.
Schizophrenia: There are no hard and fast rules about what people use to address schizophrenia, but anecdotally, I did know someone quite intimately who fell into severe alcoholism because of it. He got to the point where only obscene amounts of liquor would quiet the scary voices he was hearing in his head. Unfortunately, he needed to be cared for and observed for months to get detoxed, and the pharmaceuticals they prescribed for him to replace the relief he was able to get with alcohol left him with some depressing sexual side effects. Oftentimes, these side effects are why sufferers will abandon their meds.
As someone in recovery, I will always make a pitch for the benefits of one-on-one talk therapy. Twelve-step facilitation, when it takes, can be excellent at helping a person decide to put the substances down. And it can be a priceless resource for assisting the very isolated in finding a network of community support and love, but to drill down to the root of what we are self-medicating (and why), we are much better off in a one-on-one setting with an empathic and competent psychologist.
At least this is what I have been finding on my journey.