Drug abuse can be as much a social addiction as anything else. A young woman delves into the social undercurrents that drove her, and advises parents on how to handle a potentially dangerous situation.
‘I started smoking marijuana at 13. I was taking hard drugs when I was 14. For about two years, I was taking either LSD or ecstasy every weekend.
‘By 15 I was asked to leave my school, had been arrested three times and had attempted to take my own life, amongst other events I would rather not relive because I am still dealing with the shame surrounding them.
‘At 16 I realised I had become dependent, and I started fighting it.
‘Now, about a decade later, I look back at that period of my life and mourn the handful of friends who never fully returned, or in whom the effects of those drugs can be seen today.
‘But I can also tell you that there are more of us who are perfectly functional individuals.’
Who wins, and who gets lost?
Jade Schmiere* says she never went to rehab, and went only to two Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. ‘I pulled myself through. I often reflect on what the difference is between some of my friends and me, as many of them came from socially more acceptable and perceptively “stronger” family units than I did. But they were not able to pull themselves together again.
‘The question that everyone always asks is why? I suppose I have fallen into the mould of saying it how everyone else says it: that the events were a consequence of weed. But there are many contributing and inter-related factors, so it's not that simple.
‘My mother and father were divorced when I was two. At the age of six my mother got involved with a woman, a relationship that lasted 14 years. This relationship was not easy for me to deal with. My relationship with my father was never a smooth one as he has psychopathic tendencies. There was a lack of respect and trust between us, and I soon became the adult in the relationship, learning how to handle every situation so as to not cause pain.
‘So yes, there were family factors, but I was a healthy, happy child up to the age of 13.
‘Then something switched.
‘My first contact with anything drug-related was at 13 with slimming tablets called Dragees. I still remember the green and white label that became my little escape, a bottle I thought was my key to becoming worthy of being loved, and that no one ever knew about. I started increasing the dosage, taking them at breakfast, lunch and supper. I also started bringing up my food whenever I could.
‘I strongly connected with a group of friends outside of my school. Something along the lines of "falling in with the wrong crowd”. We would enjoy the good things in life, and that included music, butane, cigarettes, alcohol, weed, cocaine, opium, LSD and anything else that we could lay our hands on.
‘I had a strong connection to a guy who was six years older than I was, and lost my virginity at 14. To this day I don’t regret it as it was a very conscious decision.
‘My friends became my life and we were inseparable. I found a sense of loyalty, acceptance and trust. With hindsight, it was not something I had at home. My mother had started to sense problems and I was seeing a psychologist. Trust was lost between my mother and I when the psychologist told my mother what I was doing.
‘Later in that year there was a conflict in the group that pushed me to swallowing an entire bottle of the slimming pills that I had bought over a counter at a pharmacy (I am very pleased to know that this is no longer legally allowed). I was hospitalised, and my stomach was pumped.
A new group of friends
‘I slowly moved away from that group of friends as they started doing heroin and crack, a route that I never went down, and soon found another group of friends who were as adventurous as I was. We would go to house parties, and I was just never stimulated by the conversation. I always found myself on the outskirts, with the smokers, seeking the next adventure.
The trance scene
‘It was with a group of Rondebosch boys that I started exploring the trance scene. We went to the very first Vortex, on an ostrich farm, and I was blown away by the experience. Open air, the music was incredible and the colours and people were bursting with friendliness and fun. It was a real adventure and something completely new that I grew to love. It appealed to every aspect of my heart, mind and spirit. It was a way to get out of the city and form a connection with nature that I still rely on today. It was a place where there were no names and only a sense of tribal togetherness. We all spoke the same language, wore new types of clothes and in general shared a sort of sub-culture.
‘When I was offered LSD I accepted it without reservation since I had done it before, and now - instead of walking on the top of the parking lot in Cavendish Square - I was dancing to the sunrise and seeing things that I had never thought were humanly possible.
‘I still think it was not as much to the drugs that I became addicted as to the trance scene. Very few people managed to party without the drugs, but I always sought the ultimate experience and it was just such fun.
‘I started living for the parties. My weeks revolved around getting enough money together for the weekend, and missing a party was never an option. I would steal and do anything I could to be able to afford my social life.
‘To this day I believe that some of the greatest and most creative minds of my generation were part of the trance sub-culture. Limits were expanded and new realities bravely awakened. People were asking huge questions about life and with the combination of the music, the drugs and the tribe, the answers were not only fun to obtain, but never static in embrace as creativity flowed, and one moment was never the same as another.
‘I was part of something that felt revolutionary, and I think that is what I became addicted to. The psychedelics that I was experimenting with at the parties were not physiologically addictive, but rather psychologically addictive. That, coupled with my adventurous spirit and my streaming adolescent hormones, all contributed to my addiction to the new sub-culture.
LSD and ecstasy
‘Every drug had a different effect, but the ones we used most were LSD and ecstasy. I always took a lot less than everyone around me and perhaps that is why I remember the experiences so vividly.
‘Coming down or returning to a “normal” state of mind was not something anyone found easy and the negative effects started with my inability to take my experience of togetherness back into the world. The functional difficulty of taking so many psychedelics came with the rejection of “the other”, being the A-Z world of eating, working, feeding, procreating – better known as the rat race.
‘I started to question why I was part of it and felt I had a choice not to be. So at 16 I told my mom I was dropping out of school – a place I found very difficult because I was constantly seeing circling colours around everyone’s energy fields, and empathising with people to the point of experiencing their conflicts for them.
‘I also didn’t feel respect towards the system I was part of and therefore didn’t want to contribute to it in any way.
‘My solution was to move to the mountains with my boyfriend, and grow and sell marijuana for a living. My mom, who by this stage realised I was not going to be disciplined or suppressed, had opened her home in Observatory to my friends and me. She says that the only thing she felt she could do was hold a safe and loving place for me, and hope that in that way she would at least be able to monitor me, and be there if things went bad, which they did.
‘Many of my friend’s parents used to tell her she was aiding the problem by housing us, but the truth was that if we had not had a home, we most probably would have gotten into some worse situations on the streets. Our house in Burham Road became a second home for all my friends, a place of refuge and love, and it was in that blue Victorian house that many of us managed to turn ourselves around. My mother is not perfect and has her flaws, but we both did a lot of growing up and reflection together.
‘My best friend Claude* experienced drug-induced psychosis and moved in for some time while we gave him a space to come right. I have never been so scared as when I realised he had fallen into a deep psychosis, changed his name to Judah and had a split personality: one a rude, egotistical, almost violent man; the other coupled with a deep loss of ego. He would retract into himself, not uttering a word for days.
‘The final straw was when my immune system crashed and I couldn’t get through a day standing up straight without choking on my own mucus. I was bedridden for months. Antibiotics didn’t work, and neither did homeopathy. It was truly scary, as I was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, and later with an immune deficiency disorder.
‘After months of battling illness, I realised my friends weren’t as loyal as I had thought, which didn’t make the depths of sadness I was experiencing any easier to deal with. Everyone had accessed their own demons and the group started disintegrating. We had always been bound by elated experiences; and getting real with each other and supporting each other under these circumstances was not something that was a familiar way of relating for us.
Re-entering the world
‘I had to take a conscious decision to be part of the world again. But every time I emerged from my bed, I would get tangled into the same friends, because I knew no others, and would naturally fall back into old patterns. As a consequence, I’d start going to parties and taking drugs again.
‘Friends are such an important part of a teenager’s life that not having a group of them is a desperate situation. The only friends I had were part of a life I had to leave behind. It was only through my mother’s respect for my process, and having Claude by my side, that I had the strength to pull myself out of drugs.
‘There was never one moment where I went cold turkey, as I always spiralled back; and there has never been a situation where I have said I will never take drugs again. It was with my experiments with psychedelics that I have explored other realities, and - if anything - my drug experiences have made me a more open-minded, well-rounded individual with a greater empathy and understanding of people. I have flaws, but I am at least conscious of them. It’s not that drugs have made me more conscious, but rather the experiences of my life which happened to include drugs.
‘Everyone responds very differently to drugs. I saw four of my friends succumb to drug-induced psychosis, because if you have a certain predisposition you are more likely to not come back to this reality. Claude, who I feared at times would never return, did come back, and is not only functioning in society again, but is incredibly successful. I have another very close friend whose parents blamed her change in personality on drugs and put her away in a mental hospital which did her more damage than good; and another who developed a Messiah complex during his manic episodes.
Message to parents
‘I have a huge problem when people blame everything that is not going smoothly on drug habits. Yes, it is often necessary to clear out as you sort your energy in order to gain balance. Nothing toxic is ultimately good for you. But often drugs are the cherry on top, and if there is one thing I can share with parents, it is that kids use drugs for fun, attention and escape.
‘Don’t judge and blame the drugs for everything that is wrong; help them get strong enough under the drugs to not need the drugs. If a child has a deep sense of home, belonging and real love, they will return.
‘In the same breath I also have to acknowledge that a friend smoked a joint once at the age of 15, and fell into such a deep psychosis that he has never returned.
‘Another friend says she has never tried drugs because she doesn’t trust what she doesn’t know. That decision was taken because of her nature – nurture is less powerful. Everyone is different. Her brother went to one of the top private schools in Cape Town and experimented many times with drugs (he didn’t get sucked in: today he is an incredibly successful individual).
Threats can be counter-productive
‘In grade 11 we had a drug talk from three woman from a well known drug association. They had never experienced drugs themselves, and told us we should not chase heroin (otherwise known as chasing the dragon) because we would, actually, see a dragon. This just made me trust any kind of organised drug rehabilitation even less. Don’t offer advice to your children that will make them rebel. Become clued up.
‘Drugs are the reality of today’s youth. They go hand in hand with being cool so become familiar with their effects, sit down with your child and speak to them about drugs as you would about sex. Explain the long-term effects on the body (Read more about the effects of magic mushrooms and ecstacy) and be clued up on what you say, to gain respect. This will open a channel of communication between you and your child that they may use when you least expect it.
‘I must also say that I have never experimented with heroin and am not sure what my path would have been if I’d let that darkness in. The only schedule five drug I did use was opium. Luckily I didn’t know at the time what it was, otherwise I would have bashed down every wall to get it again. I have friends that have come through heroin and others that have never returned.
‘For some people tough love may work but for me it was reuniting with my mom that gave me a template to get through. From an early age my mom has always treated me with respect, and her friends reflect on how from an early age she let my opinion be heard, thus allowing my character to be formed.
‘I still occasionally go to the kind of parties I used to when I was 14. The last party I went to, I spent the evening feeding a 16-year-old girl vitamin C, and making sure she remained conscious after she took a bad pill.
‘I spent the next day walking on the outskirts of the party with her, sharing my experiences of drugs, and in her eyes I could see a flame of hope return. Like many people, she probably thought that if you start drugs at an early age you won’t ever be 100% again.
‘As I saw that hope dawn, I realised I had to tell my story.
‘I believe drugs taught me much. I had to find and grasp onto plenty of deep meaning. And the nature of the spirit I am has even questioned my reliance on meaning as a tool to evade the hard truth of the reality we are faced with every day. A truth is that we are all human and humans need meaning. Humans thrive on love, acceptance and trust.
Connect with your heart
‘To any parent I would say: if your child is taking drugs, connect with your heart and be there for them, get into their rhythms, spend time with them, put yourself, your ego and your ideals aside and show you love them for as long as it takes. I want to repeat this: get into their rhythms! Then it’s up to them.
‘They say that when you leave an addiction behind you must find a replacement to fill the gap in your life. Later on when I came off the drugs and was a bit older I replaced my need for divinity with shamanic ritual and Vedic practices. I realised that those places of trance and transcendence could be found through other means that didn’t have the side effects that drugs did.
‘I pulled myself together just in time to get through my matric with a B-aggregate and have continued to study. I now have a diploma in film and broadcasting, a degree, and am currently doing post-graduate studies.
‘Emotionally I am as stable as my peers, and the only occasional repercussion is that I am in many ways wiser than my years and this at times puts a gap between me and my peers. I have been to darker places than I wish to recall and if I had taken the more physiologically addictive drugs, I may have been in a very different place today. It's all a journey.’
* Names have been changed.
(As told to Claire Latouf, Health24, July 2008)