Invisible Illness: The Realities of Student Addiction

Teen substance abuse is no new phenomenon. It’s not a new crisis that birthed overnight; instead, it’s been an ugly friendship, a dirty peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that’s had generational impacts. Yet, gone are the days of old, the days where substances was harmless and just a rite of passage. Films like ‘Dazed and Confused’ previously captured the burnout psyche accurately, while others like ‘The Breakfast Club’ showed the communal, innocent qualities of lighting up together. While there is relevance to a subset of students and their experiences in these time capsules, times have changed, and bitterly, they’ve become more dangerous.

According to the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, less Ontario students are abusing prominent substances, with 36%, 24% and 6% decreases existing within the percentages of 7-12th graders using alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana over the last 40 years, respectively. This is, of course, fantastic and a sign of shifting tides. But, just as prominent in today’s society is the world of prescription drug abuse; Codeine, Xanax and Fentanyl, all violent and all emerging favourites among groups of students. The Canadian Government itself states that pharmaceuticals were the third most commonly used substance among teens. With Codeine alone, there’s been nearly a 3% increase in Ontario student use from 2017 to 2018, going from 6.4% to 9.3%, a monumental leap in a single calendar cycle. The opioid crisis has latched onto Ontario teens, and at times, it seemingly has no solution.

OSDUHS chart on grades 7-12, long term substance abuse

And while it may seem that stastics tell the story well, there’s still the perspective of those previously, and currently, intertwined with the vines of addiction. Their memories and experiences paint a picture deeper than any number can.

 Gratefully, Grayson Tucker, a fifth year student, has offered his story with addiction in the hopes that even one student may change their ways. What he’s felt and seen bears the landscape of teenage substance abuse openly, with unflinching honesty. Eyes like Grayson’s can also answer the confusion as to where solutions may lie, knowing full well the origins to such situations. In listening, and learning, there can be a grasping of the crisis’ severity, a realization of what it takes to truly see change.

Grayson Tucker, 5th year student.

To begin, what have been your experiences with drug use? How did you find yourself within that part of life, and where do you stand now?

So, I probably would say the hard drug abuse started in grade 12 after a really low point in mental health, it ended with me in at the hospital around December. The main encounter I first had with substance abuse revolved around alcohol. I was drunk all the time, coming to school drunk, that was just what I did. Then I reached out because my parents found out, I was very sick every day and my health was just declining. Basically, they got me some help and I’ve been seeing a councillor for that. I see substance abuse as a situation where you need to solve the underlying problem first, like mental health. I never was able to do that, and when a few more stressors came, I didn’t know how to handle it. A few months ago, I turned to Xanax and became heavily dependant and addicted to it, I essentially was a zombie and don’t remember a month of my life. I was also abusing cocaine at the time. It was pretty much the worst time of them all, I was just drained, couldn’t focus in school and was only focused on the next ‘fix’. Of course, school wasn’t going well, so I had to drop calculus. As of right now, I’m at a very stable state, and I’m on some medication, which is helping me stabilize my mood.

What were you finding within the experience that you couldn’t in reality? Was it a calmness and peace that was almost unattainable at times?

I’d more say it was just to numb the pain. With the Xanax and alcohol especially, it was just to numb and help me take away my internal pain. I was essentially trying to numb all sensation, as I couldn’t handle the pain.

In terms of the underlying mental health, which seems to be a constant for many going through substance abuse, do you think it could’ve been prevented or steps could’ve been taken to help you cope without substance abuse?

I was afraid to tell my parents and really come forward with what was going on, as it just felt it was on another level than it should’ve been. I was nervous, and had I talked to them when the initial stressor came on, I think that would’ve helped. I have systems in place now, which are important. But had I had been able to reach out; I feel they could’ve been prevented and coped with in a healthier way. I was finding that whenever I was at a low point, I would just turn to substances instead.

That’s due in part to them being so readily available, isn’t it?

Oh yeah, it’s a text away.

How did you find yourself face to face with those hard substances for the first time?

The first time I tried Xanax, I didn’t like it, I just kind of went to sleep. Due to people I was with at the time, I tried a lot of other drugs, but I never clicked with Xanax. Cocaine was just at a party and I thought I would never use either again. Though, I woke the next morning just dying for more. When I was alone, it was a totally different story, I really had to go seek it out and make a point to get it. Needing to ask a friend where to get it and who could get it for me.

Did you find there was a shifting moment within that month of Xanax that kind of triggered the change in mind-set for you?

I’d say there were two shifting moments; one of them was that I had just bought 120mg of Xanax, which costs about 150 dollars. Basically, I had taken 20mg, and then the next morning my mom couldn’t wake me up and she found everything. The other was just a night or two before. I had enough of the drug lifestyle and I took 24 mg of Xanax and drank a whole bottle of wine. I was surprised I woke the next day. That changed something within me, I had no regard for my life yet somehow made it.

As a student who’s been through this and is now recovering, do you believe its part of the school’s responsibility to help students deal with this or is it not in their jurisdiction?

The problem is when you’re going through this, you feel completely isolated because you’re a zombie. It just makes you feel like you can’t converse with someone and it makes it near impossible to reach out. The school does a good job with the amount of services they offer, but they could always add more child and youth workers, because one cannot handle a thousand students. It’s just unrealistic. Apart from that, the first place always to turn to is friends and parents, as they’ll be supportive.

Grayson’s insights are key to realizing much of what’s been missing in modern teen drug treatment, the understanding that they’re unable to seek help, unable to break from the shells built around them. The Canadian Government recommends “admission to an institution” and “Councilling and treatment at an institution” to combat addiction; student support schools like Ray of Hope as well offer the change for struggling students to “Learn to find alternative ways to cope with cravings, triggers and personal challenges”. Their efforts are valuable, and in many ways the correct path, but the fact remains that students are unable to take that first step alone. There exists a stigma and a steryotype that follows them daily, making it seem like reaching a hand out is the most impossible task imaginable.

Here at WCI even, there’s that smoker’s pit culture and in many ways it’s just laughed at. But, do you think there’s a better way to approach such people and their addiction struggles?

Well, smokers pit isn’t always hard drugs, but I remember being there and meeting people on meth and whatnot. The fact is, those are such scary drugs and no one has experience with them because they’re rare. That makes people laugh at it, because let’s be honest, it can be funny to see someone trip out of their mind. It’s just interesting. The point is that because of those stereotypes that make people think of it as a terrible thing, which it is don’t get me wrong, they are ignoring the deeper issues that occur.

Did you find when you were coming forward that it was a positive response or did you see many people not accepting you, maybe seeing you in a negative light?

In the beginning, lots of people were thinking it was whatever, but then they realized by the end it was of serious concern. I didn’t talk to them a lot as I didn’t want to admit it to myself and I wanted to be able to manage it on my own. But once I did tell them what was going on, even my drug dealer, they were healthy and positive.

Looking into next year, as a fifth year student, do you find these experiences have changed your plans and paths for the years coming forward?

Oh yeah, grade 11 and 12 I wanted to go into engineering, but after the episodes, my marks dropped too much and I never would be able to make it into those top choices, forcing me to make a new path. I’m thinking agriculture now and my brain definitely feels fuzzier and it kinda hindered my ability to remember a lot of stuff, which makes it really difficult to remember and work through stuff right now. Hopefully, by the end, I’ll find more clearance and be able to go where I want to, wherever that may be.

Now that you’re doing a lot better, when you look back, do you at all have a feeling of: I’m glad I went through that and I know the experience and I can move on?

I’m glad to have had this Xanax phase, as I would’ve never been able to cope with my emotions in a positive way, and you need that forever. At least I’m learning it now and not at university, its unfortunate at my marks mattered last year, but it’s been for the better. But drugs, in general, have changed and shifted the way I look at things as well.

To some, this may all feel like stupid teenagers being stupid teenagers, just look at the fact that 20% of senior high schoolers are still choosing to drive under the influence. In those eyes, they’re just running the same cycle with new and old drugs all the same. But that simply isn’t the case, that simply cannot become the narrative. For too long has addiction in youth become a sign of a future lazy and immature adult, instead of being seen as an individual crying for help, crying for change within their lives.

As the world moves towards accepting and positively treating mental health, it must be ensured that those whose struggles have led them down such a dark path are given the same respect, void of judgment. Grayson himself has seen the ignoring of addicted student’s deeper lying issues, all at a time where mental health has taken center stage.

A man injecting Heroin at a clean injection site (Huff Post)

In truth, there are positive movements being floated around; the concept of safe injection sites, the fact mental health is getting attention and the newfound care for overall student wellbeing that felt lacklustre in the past. But, all this will be in vain if the perception of teen addicts isn’t changed within the eyes of all. No longer can films like ‘Dazed and Confused’ paint the image of fun-loving hippie teen, there must be a listening to the harsh truths that exist within teen culture, the dangers the current drug market holds, the loss of innocence and opportunity happening daily. It’s not an issue that can be changed overnight, yet, if there is an effort from every individual to listen and support those struggling, non-judgementally, then there can be a cultural shift with life-saving ramifications. Struggling teens don’t feel this cnviorment has been cultivated just yet, Grayson himself didn’t when at his lowest points, but if never given up on, reaching out will no longer feel breaking an industrictible shell, but instead, like walking through an open door towards recovery.

Works Cited

Canada, Health. “About Problematic Prescription Drug Use.” Canada.ca, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 15 Nov. 2017, www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/about-prescription-drug-abuse.html.

Cross Canada Report of Student Alcohol and Drug Use. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2011, www.ccdus.ca/Resource Library/2011_CCSA_Cross-Canada_Report_on_Student_Alcohol_and_Drug_Use_Report_in_Short_en.pdf. “Drug Use Among Ontario Students.”

OSDUHS Mental Health and Well-Being 2017, www.camhx.ca/Publications/OSDUHS/2017/index.html.

Veiligheid, Ministerie van Justitie en. “Drug Use and Addiction Care.” Food | Government.nl, Ministerie Van Algemene Zaken, 5 Oct. 2016, www.government.nl/topics/drugs/drug-use-and-addiction-care. “Youth Addiction.”

Ray of Hope, www.rayofhope.net/need-help/youth-addiction/.