❗ Content warning: The following article contains mentions of drug use. RoguePsych does not endorse the consumption of illicit substances. This article is intended for educational and harm reduction purposes only.
“Drugs have the ability to be pretty awful – but the bad experiences would happen less often if we could talk about them more.”
Jack discusses the effects of illegal drugs upon mental health, their normalisation at university, the line between use and addiction – and the resources that helped him.
“Drugs are bad, kids.”
I’m sure this is the only advice, if any, that most of us got about drugs while growing up.
It isn’t useful advice, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done quite so many drugs if someone had a more honest conversation with me.
Being the child of someone with substance use issues, you’d think this would have been slightly more pressing in my case. It definitely should have been more pressing: I now have my own complicated relationship with drugs.
I’m hardly surprised; I was a depressed teenager who mainly struggled with anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure – and covered it up with a healthy dose of anxiety-fuelled extraversion.
It’s not like I was drunk or high all, or even a lot of, the time before I came to university.
But every time I was exposed to any kind of psychoactive substance, I would take them with the speed and carelessness that you would expect of a depressed teenager with a void to fill.
If I drank, I would usually drink myself sick.
If I got stoned, I usually whited out. I fell asleep or, on one occasion, got so paranoid I threatened my friend’s dad with a chair.
When I discovered MDMA, I must have taken somewhere between 4 and 6 grams of the stuff over only 4 days.
When I say any psychoactive substance, I really do mean any. I even got high off nutmeg a couple of times. (Don’t do it. It’s like weed but much more paranoia.)
These would have been noticed warning signs, if talking about problematic drug use wasn’t such a taboo. This kind of behaviour – sensation-seeking – falls under a set of behaviours categorised as neurobehavioral disinhibition, and are accepted as good predictors of mental health problems, including substance use disorders .
I’ve since had three or four fairly heavy episodes of drug abuse, precluded by 3 years of overdoing it on nights out, which is more on the side of use than abuse. I think. The line between use and abuse is a fuzzy, grey area.
Although 12-step programmes work for some, I don’t think they are the answer for everyone. I’m pretty sure the Christianity-laced ‘help’ fed by Alcoholics Anonymous contributed to my dad’s early death.
Making him believe that he was powerless against drugs, combined with his heavily Catholic upbringing, stopped him from being able to explore what his triggers were, or when and why his drug use was a problem. He never got any real help—I suspect mostly through his own doing—but the lack of understanding of problematic drug use in the medical community definitely contributed to that.
In terms of my own experience, you have to make a judgement call as to whether the psychiatrist or therapist you are talking to will still help you effectively if you are honest about your drug use. I tend to be sparing with the truth and then gauge their reaction. By this: I mean I would only admit to casual use, unless I thought it might actually be useful to tell the truth.
It’s not necessarily about how qualified they are. The only time I’ve been referred to a psychiatrist, I opened up about my drug use, my family history of mental illness, and they looked me dead in the face and told me they didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. At all. I don’t think they believed I’d ever struggled with depression after I admitted I was a frequent drug user. You’d have thought that historical struggles with mental health within most of my extended family would have tipped off a person who went to medical school.
Stigma can cloud the judgement of those you would expect to be reliable. The therapist I had in second year of university, however, was very understanding. I’ve had more positive outcomes than negative ones when opening up, but you do have to tread lightly sometimes.
When does use become abuse?
Especially in a university environment, where drug use is often normalised, it’s incredibly hard to tell. I’m sure a good chunk of the university population could be considered to have a drinking problem.
What I’ve learned through my own experience is that there are several things you need to keep an eye on or try to avoid. Here is a checklist of red flags to look out for:
- Avoid relying on drugs to cope with whatever it is that you’re finding difficult. Whether it was taking modafinil to the point I needed it to function during exam season, or weed to cope with, well, everything, this is how it started every time for me. Using a drug consecutively for weeks or more without taking a break reinforced the idea that I couldn’t study/sleep/socialise without drugs. It very quickly spiralled from there.
- Consider your tolerance. If double the amount of whatever you’re taking barely makes a difference to how you feel, that’s a bad sign. I’d encourage you to tone it down. By tone, I mean taper, as going cold turkey with most drugs can be unpleasant or even dangerous.
- Keep an eye on your finances. If you’re spending more than you’re taking home, and drugs are one of your bigger expenditures, you’re likely to have an addiction or dependency.
- If you start to feel off when you’re not using. Alarm bells should be ringing.
- If you get incredibly anxious or frustrated when you run out or lose your stash. Another red flag you’re overly reliant on a drug to function.
Of course, I can only write from my own subjective experience. If you’re looking for further advice about drugs, it can be hard to know which sources to trust.
Here are a few resources that I found helpful in handling my own drug abuse:
- Talk to Frank @ talktofrank.com. I’ve seen a few posts on the Student Room saying it’s terrible, but it’s still good for quickly accessible advice on how to tell whether your friend has overdosed and needs an ambulance. Talk to Frank has information on where to get support near you if you’re in the UK.
- If you’re unsure whether you or someone else has overdosed, please call an ambulance. Tell the crew everything you know—you might save your friend’s life. In the U.K, medical staff will not pass this information along to the police. Don’t let your friend die out of unfounded fear. There’s more information on what to do in a drug-related / overdose emergency here.
- erowid.org is the most comprehensive and reliable source on drugs I’ve come across. If they don’t have the information you’re looking for themselves, they usually provide links to better sources for it.
Drugs have the ability to be pretty awful. But, undoubtedly, the bad experiences would happen less frequently if we were able to talk about drugs more.
By that, I don’t mean telling all your uni friends how much K you smashed last night—I mean open, honest conversations about drugs. I hope this piece can contribute to that conversation.
If your drug use is seriously impacting your health, relationships, education, job or finances: get medical help. It may not be easy, and you may not find the right help the first time, but you do definitely need it. If you try and get help through drug-use-specific centres and organisations, you’ll probably have better luck than I did with that psychiatrist.
🧠 Note: Upon the writer’s request, this piece was published with RoguePsych using a psuedonym. Have your own mental health story to share? Send your pitch or draft to firstname.lastname@example.org.