“I was more about nine when I smoked weed for the first time. I don’t remember my first sucker, or bike ride… but I remember the first time that I did drugs…”
That’s Bobby’s personal testimony. Bobby is soft-spoken, carrot-topped young man who sought help from Maryhaven.
His is a story I heard repeatedly from a number of young people and it rocked me to ponder it.
Most of us remember our childhood through a very rosy lens. School absorbed much of life. Our buddies and family defined our boundaries and experience. When summer came, we ran to our favorite fields and courts, rode bikes and lounged at the local pool with friends. We slept like rocks all night. We caught fireflies in old jelly jars and threw frisbees for the nearly inseparable appendage that was our dog.
Daily life looked a lot more like the movie Stand by Me than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or, if you prefer more contemporary flicks, think Toy Story 4 versus Beautiful Boy.
Even if your memories of age nine vary widely from my own, I am fairly confident we share one constant: we were sober. The most dizzying buzz I recall came from eating a double-decker chocolate/vanilla swirl waffle cone.
But for so many kids like Bobby, their experiments with marijuana and alcohol and other addictive substances and behaviors quickly led them down a very different path. Bobby, like Passion, a young woman I came to know, began thinking it normal to smoke pot and drink every day. The consequences of daily abuse create a list that is as lengthy as it is troubling – arrested brain development, failure in school, early sexual activity – and let’s never forget the eventual graduation to heroin or crystal meth.
As noted by Robert L. DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and first director the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of heroin users used marijuana (and many other drugs) not only long before they used heroin but while they used heroin… There is ample evidence that early initiation of drug use primes the brain for enhanced later responses to other drugs.”
Research conducted by a team from the University of Washington nearly 30 years ago found that: “For the developing young adult, drug and alcohol abuse undermines motivation, interferes with cognitive processes, contributes to debilitating mood disorders, and increases risk of accidental injury or death. For society at large, adolescent substance abuse extracts a high cost in health care, educational failure, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, and juvenile crime.”
And here’s an even harder thing for many of us to understand. Both Bobby and Passion first started using with relatives; older siblings, aunts, uncles and even parents. Kelsey, started drinking with his grandfather and he considered his grandparents to be the most stable people in his life growing up. Michael’s father, perhaps taking a page from the old song about the “hair of the dog,” pushed him to shoot up with heroin at 12.
We can blame these parents and adults, most of whom are likely addicted themselves. And it certainly is illegal to expose minors to these risks. That said, blame alone doesn’t solve the problem.
One of the ways to break this negative cycle is to ensure that kids get the treatment and support they need, that they find the tools and hope necessary to crawl out of the generational downward spiral into which they were born.
Another step calls us to educate people of all ages and income levels to the core biological realities. Neuroscience proves that young people, especially young men under the age of 25, are especially vulnerable to the massive dopamine rushes induced by a variety of addiction-prone behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and pornography. We know that young minds literally cannot factor long-term consequences into their decision-making. And we can prove that the earlier a youngster starts a potentially addictive behavior, the more likely he or she is to develop a full-blown brain disorder.
Remember the old commercial, “this is your brain on drugs,” when an egg hits a hot pan and begins frying? For youth, picture the eggs as scrambled because that’s what happens when a nine-year-old smokes pot for the first time. And it’s why 18-year-olds blow their college tuition money on gambling and 19-year-old homeless girls with an infant find themselves hooked on crystal meth.
And it’s why you and I have to move past judgement and find proactive ways to help. Support Maryhaven and other treatment providers, learn more about the issues and educate others. Bobby made it to the other side of sobriety. More could do the same.