Long Journey Home

Getting wasted can be a real waste

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jan 22, 2014

I have to talk to you about drugs again. Specifically, pot and alcohol. You see, those are the ones kids are most likely to use, and use in significant quantity.

Enough to mess up their lives.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services' “Substance Abuse Trends in Maine: State Epidemiological Profile 2013,” in 2011, 28 percent of high school students reported using alcohol in the past month; 22 percent said they had used pot in the past month. Furthermore, the report said 70 percent of students who had ever used pot did so between the ages of 13 and 16.

My nephew, I'll call him Luke, has schizophrenia. His DNA profile shows a marker for the illness, but he didn't know that when he smoked a lot of dope in his teens; he also consumed a fair amount of alcohol during that time. Alcohol got him arrested at least once. The mental illness only declared itself within the last two to three years, and he wasn't diagnosed until last summer.

According to the website schizophrenia.com, numerous studies have shown that when teenagers smoke pot regularly, they are more likely to develop schizophrenia, especially if they have an innate vulnerability to it.

Even before he started having psychotic symptoms, Luke's behavior was sometimes irrational. On a Latin American work/study program in high school, he used alcohol and was disciplined; he got a scholarship to college, started off well, and then did so poorly he was asked to withdraw for a year. I suspect this was also related to his use of drugs and alcohol.

Now, at 26, Luke lives with his parents when he's not in the hospital, and he hopes someday to be able to hold a job, have a girlfriend, live on his own like a regular young adult. He has been hospitalized three times since last July. Besides the hallucinations, which are controlled with medication, he has difficulty focusing, problems with his memory, does not sleep well, and feels apathetic. These symptoms are not constant, but they are chronic.

In between stints in the psych ward, he has been making progress: taking his medication (this alone is a huge issue for many people with his diagnosis), attending his day program, going to therapy and working on his relationships with his immediate family. He even attended an orientation so he could volunteer to read to elementary school students. His family is working hard to support him and to understand his illness. It is a frustrating, sometimes agonizing journey.

Luke and I talk a lot on the phone, and I have come to know a reflective, sensitive young man whom I hope will be able to share his wonderful gifts with the world. I used to care about him as my brother's son; now I love him for himself.

Two things many young adults do Luke cannot share: he can't smoke pot and he can't drink alcohol. The first brings on a psychotic episode and the second does not mix with his medications. Medications he will almost certainly need for the rest of his life.

He smoked again recently, became psychotic and in a short time was back in the hospital, after he told his parents he had a suicide plan. Suicidal feelings are not unusual among people with mental illness.

Many, many teenagers use alcohol and pot; most grow up, use less or quit, and are fine. All teenagers have brains that are still developing, which is what makes them so vulnerable to the effects of drugs, including pot and alcohol.

I do not want to ban either of these substances. But I would urge anyone with influence in the lives of young people to encourage them, however you can, to wait a few years before trying them.

I'm sure that if Luke could turn the clock back 10 years knowing what he knows now, his choices would be different.

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