I grew up in a household where I witnessed very little substance use— my mother did not smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or use any other illicit or prescribed substances. I suppose I learned about alcohol and other drugs through D.A.R.E in elementary school, and at that time I thought they were dangerous. My brother, 7 years older, was a recreational user of marijuana and alcohol, and he smoked cigarettes in his teens through mid adulthood. At a young age, I recall “ratting” him out to my mom for having marijuana (found while snooping in his room)… He gave me my first beer as a young teenager. I drank it eagerly, impressed that he would include me in a custom he shared with his friends, though it left the room spinning. As a teenager, I can recall wanting to have the pleasurable altered state of consciousness achieved through substance use. I cannot recall how I heard about these effects. I recall the desire to rebel and to have the experience of being intoxicated more than the desire to fit in with peers. In fact, I had friends that never used any mind-altering substances. I experimented a little, but always feared losing control or jeopardizing my health. These fears deterred me from experimenting with most substances. This interests me because many of my clients coping with substance use report debilitating anxiety, and yet it is not the sort that stops them from taking risks with respect to their use.
My view of substance abuse is somewhat different now. I still understand wanting the experiences of drug experimentation, and I do not have a problem with people who choose to use safely in moderation (not everyone can do this, of course). And actually I sometimes wish I had experimented a little more, so I could relate better to my clients. But fundamentally I realize I don’t need to have matched their highs to understand them. We relate instead through shared feelings and shared human experiences, which for them underlie use.
I take substance use more seriously now. In my work, I have witnessed substances do harm to so many people; use has cost them jobs, homes, friends, family, and their lives. Being confronted with the risks of use daily makes the idea of using and witnessing others use less entertaining. I realize now that many people will use in college or high school, just like their peers, and yet their peers will stop experimenting, stop partying, and these individuals will go on to ruin their lives through use. Many people do not know how they are predisposed to use through learning and genetics, until they are hooked. Even “experimentation” is risky for those who are predisposed. With the exception of occasional instances when I have been surprised by the risks my clients have taken to use, I have never encountered an instance where I have judged my clients for making the choices I did not make. I believe everyone has their own path, there own tasks to learn, and I recognize that I have made many mistakes and not always lived well, despite not having developed a debilitating addiction.
I also truly believe, and always have, that people can live rich lives without any mood-altering substances. Other than school drug education, no one close to me ever advised me about use or pressured me into using. Yet I think advisement can be subtle; people in my family modeled that we could feel feelings safely and that we did need substances to cope, and my social circle modeled that people can enjoy themselves without using. And for these influences I am grateful.