Denial. The hospital social worker must have thought that I typified the word as we sat uncomfortably staring at one another in her office. I knew she was searching for her next words even as I was searching for a way to refute them … whatever they might be.
Neither my mind nor my heart could make sense of what I had just heard her say, “Mrs. McGuire, we need to talk about your son’s marijuana use.” My immediate response of, “My son doesn’t use marijuana” is what led up to our awkward moment. She took a deep breath and sympathetically said, “Well according to him, he’s using a lot.” To which I replied, “He’s lying.”
Looking back on this scene, I am embarrassed that I didn’t see it, know it, couldn’t even begin to accept it, recognize it, or understand it. Most of all, I had no way of realizing the long-term implications of what she was describing to me as marijuana induced psychosis.
Because on that day, just a few hours before sitting in her office, I was asleep in my bed in the wee hours of Saturday morning when my oldest son gently placed his hand on my shoulder, waking me and whispering, “I need to talk to you downstairs.” I noted the time, 3:15 a.m. and stepped into the hall. His quiet but urgent pronouncement of, “I just found [my brother] hanging in our closet” shook me to the core.
I rushed to the basement and leapt onto my son’s bed where he lay facing the wall. I turned him toward me, seeing deep purple ligature marks on his throat, all I could do was utter his name. His stony reply was, “What.” Relief flooded me when I heard his voice. But I didn’t have time to focus on that moment of gratitude as I fought to clear my mind of panic and think through next steps.
A short time later, I found myself moving numbly through the surreal conversation with the hospital social worker and desperately trying to understand her words, “His prescription for Adderall combined with his heavy marijuana use caused a psychotic break. It is actually a common outcome.”
I was so naïve about marijuana and so certain that my 17 year old
was not a heavy drug user that even as I look back at my conversations with friends and family members in the weeks following the suicide attempt, I did not mention the marijuana use. It horrified me. We were a Christian family. We had a structured home life. I was an involved parent. My son was active in youth group. He was a gifted student, creative writer, and talented musician with an amazing sense of humor. How could he be a drug user?
When he began having trouble in school a few years earlier, I worked through plans with his teachers when it seemed like stress was overcoming him, I kept regular appointments with our pediatrician to have him assessed and keep a watchful eye on his needs.
Were there obvious signs? Oh yes. There certainly were. But having no experience with this issue, I had no idea that the glaring truth was staring me in the face daily.
Sadly, in-patient treatment was not successful, nor was out-patient treatment. Our lives began to revolve around our son’s addiction and the never-ending appointments, meetings, confrontations, stress and bizarre drama that we never imagined we would experience.
It was both frustrating and heartbreaking to listen as my son frequently described his commitment to marijuana and observe his inability to see how negatively it impacted – even controlled him. We learned we were not fighting a behavior but a mind-set that was cemented into his belief system. Marijuana had become his life, his religion, his identity.
In 2012, just as Colorado was gearing up to vote on Amendment 64 which legalized recreational marijuana, my son’s involvement in drug use escalated to a point where he had to leave our home. For 15 months he chose to live as a street person, travelling up and down the west coast, looking for food in garbage cans and searching for a safe place to sleep at night.
Imagine looking into the faces of every young, homeless person and wondering if you will recognize your own child. Each time I would remember that he was thousands of miles away, whispering a prayer that he would be safe and choose to live sober. He was robbed repeatedly, lost his identification, and experimented with harder drugs.
One day he called me to excitedly report that he was able to obtain food at a “Bum Feed”. Within a heartbeat I was elated to hear his voice and devastated at the realization of what his life had become. Eventually he decided to try the east coast and I was able to see him for a few minutes in a bus station depot when he passed through our state. Joy and grief. The face of my son on a vagrant.
No longer afforded the luxury of denial, my passion is to help other parents realize the warning signs, to encourage those who share similar stories, to keep hope in my heart for my son and to vigilantly educate people that marijuana is NOT harmless, NOT safe and NOT for kids. It is an addictive drug that causes particular harm to youth who are being targeted as new consumers. It’s time to get real about the truth of marijuana. Please join me and be a voice for our kids.