I watched as my friend, now former, pulled the tobacco out of a half-smoked cigarette before stuffing the hollowed out filter with a bit of marijuana. We had found a secret stash and decided that since we were home alone, we ought to try it out. Really, I was the one trying it for the first time. Being only fifteen, I hadn’t fully dived into drugs yet. She was four years older and, therefore, was quite experienced.
She proudly held up the finished splif (which is the technical term for a pot-stuffed cigarette) and ignited the lighter that she grabbed off the table.
“You ready?” she asked with wide eyes.
I quietly nodded, still crippled with nervousness and paranoia. We were at my house doing this, so if anyone was going to get into major trouble if we were caught it would be me.
I watched her take a big drag; the butt of the cigarette glowed red and I could immediately smell burning grass – pun intended.
Her eyes squinted and her chin seemed to curl towards her chest as she passed the splif to me, “Take a hit”.
Obeying, I took a drag. I had smoked cigarettes before and, therefore, was used to the burn of tobacco smoke. Yet, this was different. The aftertaste was intense and made me feel like I was eating hay. Coughing seemed to be the dead giveaway for amateur to me, but since my friend was also hacking away I figured it was an okay thing to do. We spent the rest of the afternoon smoking that splif and chasing each other around my house with a stuffed tiger.
Whenever I look back on that now I tend to wonder why I let my friend talk me into doing that. I knew I didn’t really want to. The fear of being caught was so overwhelming that I couldn’t even really enjoy getting high. Still, I agreed to do it. The same way that I later agreed to try prescription drugs with her later that year, the same way I drank alcohol with another group of “friends” when I was twelve, and the same way I smoked my first cigarette when I was thirteen. The possibility of having the current traumatic episode blocked from my mind by some kind of pill, drug, or drink seemed to be a godsend. And listening to those around me who insisted that it was an “okay” thing to do, I jumped in headfirst.
Yet my story is not a surprising one. In fact, research states that almost 70% of teens will try alcohol before they are seniors. The same goes for drugs at 50%, 40% will smoke cigarettes, and 20% will abuse prescription drugs. I was just another statistic. Even my fiancé, who is now twenty-six years old, abused alcohol in his adolescence to the point where he developed alcoholism and had to undergo rehab at twenty-four years old.
But what was so wrong will all of us, what was so wrong with me? I grew up with my parents telling me about Nancy Reagan’s plea to the young people to “Just Say No”. So why didn’t I? Why, at thirteen years old, did I take a pair of scissors to my arm and cut them so severely that it looked like I had fallen through several barbed bushes? Why did I continue to cut my arms and legs to the point where I left scars and had to have a towel ready to clean the mass amount of blood I would spill? Cutting myself hurt, it hurt the entire time that I engaged in it. But for three years, I let myself believe that it was the only way that I could release anger. I was ugly, I was worthless, I wasn’t worth loving, and I had to punish myself. I wasn’t alone either; nearly 10% of kids will engage in self-harm. In 2013, the year I graduated high school, nearly 500,000 people went to a hospital due to injuries they sustained from self-harm. My friend did it to herself on her legs mostly. She claimed it was easy to hide. I’ve many a time held my fiancé’s hand, and seen the very visible scar across his wrist. He always tells me though that he wasn’t really trying to kill himself. He nearly did that with the alcoholism.
When I regard my own experiences alongside others’, I see the pattern. I see the decline of self-worth that seems to only be fixable with a knife or a joint. I know I hated myself for a long time. I did anything I could to make myself feel worthy. I let a young man take off my clothes and touch me in high school, because I liked him. I liked him and thought that if he wanted to see me naked that he must like me too. My friend first had sex when she was sixteen. But she was doing what everyone around us was doing. Sex was just a lot like the drugs and the cutting. It was an outlet that our parents didn’t approve of. And of course, with the shroud of youth over our eyes, we can’t really see what all of this behavior could do to us. Drugs don’t want us to grow up and see the error of our ways. Alcohol doesn’t want us to call it a night. Self-harm doesn’t ever want us to see how incredible we truly are.
I realized that fact again a few weeks ago when my fiancé got a call from his sister. His childhood friend whom had been a longtime heroin addict and a victim of depression had committed suicide. Suddenly, the pain from adolescence came rushing back towards me. However, I was lucky that I didn’t let everything overtake me, that I was able to fight it. My fiancé was lucky, my friends were lucky. That young man, however, was not as lucky. He was swallowed up by depression, just like the thousands of young teens who commit suicide every year. Society is a scary world through the eyes of a teen. We are told that we have to fit into so many molds and be successful in so many ways, that it’s no wonder the majority of us can’t handle the pressure. I never felt as smart as the other kids around me, or as pretty. I would try my best to straighten my hair, do my makeup right, wear tight shirts that showed some cleavage, and I still never felt good enough.
Again, as I look back on that first time I smoked marijuana, I realize what I was doing. I also realize why I was doing it. When I take into account just how common that kind of behavior is, it all makes sense. What doesn’t make sense at all is, however, why don’t people try to stop it? Sure, Nancy Reagan didn’t shy away from talking about young people and drugs. And that movement may have actually done a lot of good for someone, but she was only beginning to scratch the surface of a giant mountain of problems. If time has shown us anything, it’s that the problem hasn’t been resolved, but the instruments that are being used are more dangerous.
That fact scares me even more when I look at my younger brother who is only twelve. He has practically walked right up to the door of adolescence. He’s already started asking me about girls, how to get in shape, how to have muscles. I am proud of him for wanting to be healthy, but I’m also worried that it’s not just about being healthy. What if I’m seeing the beginning stages that I went through? What if he’s not far from stealing packs of cigarettes from our parents’ stash, or sneaking away our mother’s box cutter to cut his wrists? What if I can’t save from having the same fate as my fiancé’s friend?
I understand why this is a problem that hasn’t been solved overnight. It’s a problem that can’t have a one-answer solution. But what I do know is that something must be done. Young minds are too easily corruptible and life is too precious to waste.
Author’s Note: This essay was originally written for a Creative Nonfiction class. I was inspired after I heard about a suicide that hit particularly close to home. Naturally, after a moderate amount of research, it evolved into what it is.
- “Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 14 Jan. 2014, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.
- “Teen Suicide Statistics.” Healthychildren.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, July 2011, healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Teen-Suicide-Statistics.aspx. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018