Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Marijuana No Big Deal? It Was For Him.

“It’s just weed!”

“It’s no big deal! It’s not like it’s crack or heroin.”

“It makes you all spacey, makes you laugh [cos it’s fun lol]! Go for it!”

Every day, thousands of teens pick up their first marijuana joint, because this is what they hear. They’re just looking for a good time. They’re curious. They think it won’t do any long term harm. Mike was one of those kids. He heard those things, too. But for him, marijuana became a very big deal. In fact, it became a trap that took ten years to get out of.

Mike started smoking weed at 16. For years, he used it just to relax, and no harm came of it. That soon changed. His grades started to suffer in college, and he dropped out. He drifted from job to job. He began selling drugs, was arrested for heroin possession, and did one year in jail. He continued to smoke pot with his friends and to deal with stress in his life. All the while, life’s opportunities were passing him by, but he was okay with that. He didn’t think much of it.

Things may have continued in a downward direction, had his probation officer not intervened in 2008. After a marijuana-positive drug screen, Mike was referred to treatment at Brandywine Counseling Alpha. His was one of 1613 admissions that year funded by the State of Delaware where marijuana was the primary drug of choice. He’d never tried to quit before, but he was open to the idea. It turned out to be much harder than he expected.

Mike’s counselor, Sara DeHoyos, worked with him to address his triggers for marijuana use. He tried other strategies to cope with stress. “I did other things like write music and play basketball,” he recalls. “I would let go of things I couldn’t control.” Sometimes, it worked, but sometimes it didn’t. He had to deal with the arrest and incarceration of his girlfriend, and a cutback in his hours at his job. When it became too much, it was just easier to pick up weed again. Marijuana was in his circle of friends, his mindset, and his thought processes.

Sara tried different exercises with Mike to increase his motivation to quit. They role-played, with him as the counselor and her as the client. He wrote a goodbye letter to marijuana. They talked about marijuana’s health effects: impairing the brain’s ability to form memories, exposing the lungs to more cancer-causing tar than a cigarette, and slowing coordination. Still, Mike struggled to stop using.

“Writing the goodbye letter would’ve helped if I was 100% sure about quitting,” Mike admits. “I did it to please my counselor instead of helping myself.” He wasn’t attending his required groups either. He had few options left: Transfer to a new counselor? Go to an inpatient program? Move to Florida to live with his father? None of those options was attractive.

One day, trying to make up his mind what to do, Mike asked his counselor a question. He asked her to make him a list. “Where will I end up if I keep using?” he asked. “What would happen?” Sara wrote down a long list and handed to him. Mike read it over. At the bottom, the last item caught his attention. It said, “Michael will be another statistic.”

That sentence hit him hard, and made him think. “Being ‘another statistic’ made me realize how serious addiction is, and that I’m not exempt from what it leads to. I didn’t want to be labeled in a negative way, and wanted people to remember me for something special before I’m gone.”

Around the same time, his probation officer violated him for continued drug use, and recommended a higher level of care. Mike’s mother suggested the same thing. Mike agreed with them. In May 2009, he agreed to enter inpatient treatment at Gateway Foundation for 4 ½ months. “I went to Gateway because I knew I couldn’t do this on my own, and I needed more intense treatment.”

He realized that drug use had caused him to settle for less in his life. He saw the opportunities he was missing out on. More intense and structured treatment was something he needed, and he even looked forward to it. “It was one of the best decisions of my life,” he says today. “I’m glad I went because I found out a lot about myself.”

Mike’s stay at Gateway was difficult, but it worked. He was finally able to quit marijuana. After his successful discharge from Gateway in October, he returned to Alpha for aftercare. He now has five months clean and continues to work with Sara on coping with anxiety and resisting peer pressure from friends to smoke weed. He knows staying clean will be a challenge, but he’s committed to his recovery, and also to sharing his story to help others.

“I wish people knew that marijuana can cause cancer and it ruins your brain cells,” he says. “It also takes away your determination to do more in life. Marijuana gets downplayed a lot because it’s not as harmful as other drugs, but it’s still a drug. People [who continue to use marijuana] will become content with life and may develop a non-caring attitude. They also are vulnerable to other drug use and severe health problems.”

The State of Delaware is working to reduce marijuana use from 16% to 12% among 8th graders, and from 28% to 21% among 11th graders, as part of the Healthy Delaware 2010 Plan. The goal is to prevent today’s kids from going down the road that Mike did. Because just like them, Mike never expected that picking up weed at 16 would someday land him in a drug treatment program.

He’s grateful to have found the help he needed at Brandywine and Gateway. It enabled him to avoid more jail time and is helping him rebuild his life. He looks forward to finishing his business degree, and continuing to pursue his music. “I feel motivated to do good things and take control of my life,” he says. “I think I can help a lot of people if I stay on the right track.”

BCI Alpha is funded by and is part of the system of public services offered by Delaware Health and Social Services, Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. For more information, please call 302-472-0381.

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