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Hitching a Ride on the Highway to Hell

The role of poverty, trauma, and peer pressure in drug addiction

Photo: Mikail Duran

As I sit waiting for a high school drug assembly to start, pen and pad in hand, my eyes wander to the girl next to me. Nothing about her is particularly notable except for one thing: her shoes, a pair of maroon Converse. They're ripped between the rubber lining of the sole and the cloth of the shoe, torn open so I can see her socks. I can't make out much else about her because she's wearing a face mask and a hoodie, but it does make me wonder: is she hiding more frayed patches under that hood?

The kids around me are fidgety and restless, eager for the presentation to begin—but only so it can be over. I seem to be the only one sitting at attention, waiting to see if the two men before us have anything of note to say. At first, they don't. There's a whole lot of the usual, their words uselessly imploring and boringly bombastic. I'm beginning to think my time here will be wasted, and then I hear some noteworthy phrases that encourage me to tune back in.

"We're the lucky ones to be standing up here alive, because I buried more of my friends than I've been to weddings of my friends. Like, I've put more of my friends in the ground than I've seen other ones build families."

"I spent nineteen years in active addiction, so I spent more years in active addiction than everybody in here's been alive." 

"I was an IV meth, heroin, and fentanyl user. That's how bad it got. So I was an athlete at Bridgeport High School, went on to college to play baseball, and seventeen, eighteen years later I'm sitting under a bridge, shooting meth and heroin with creek water."

In less than thirty minutes, these men have told us their stories. With conviction and hints of guilt, they describe how they went from promising athletes, boys with heart and passion, to shells of themselves living only for the rush of their next hit. By the end of the assembly, I'm surprised to realize that I've developed an intense respect for the two of them. I know they both have more to say—it's clear in their eyes, almost stereotypically haunted, and the way they speak, like they'd keep talking forever if it meant they could save these kids from what they themselves went through. 

Afterwards, as students rush out of the auditorium, I'm the only one moving forward. I shake their hands and take their business cards, thanking them. I let them know I'm a writer, conveying in a few short sentences that what they've said is impactful and that I'd like to write about it. With their permission, I promise to send a follow-up email as soon as I have time. When I finally get around to it, their responses to my questions—inevitably invasive, but I try to be as gentle about it as possible—are illuminating.

The first man that spoke, Jason, tells me about how he grew up in a tight-knit and nurturing family. He had childhood friends he was still close to, and adults he felt were supportive of him, until he started using. He talks about how he pushed away everyone who wouldn't use with him; by the end, he says, every one of his relationships was purely transactional, focused only on what he could get out of the person and how he could benefit from their "friendship." 

It pains me vicariously when Jason describes what led him deeper into this hole. In the same six-month period, he says, his cousin died of an overdose and his best friend, a deputy marshal, was shot and killed serving a warrant. This helped what little resolve was left regarding drugs to fall away, as the trauma of such sudden and painful deaths fed the fire of his growing addiction.

I ask him to elaborate on his thoughts about the role trauma played in his life. "I dealt with a lot of death from a young age and never really tagged that as trauma in my head," he says. "In my mind, it was just a part of life that I needed to accept and deal with internally. I wasn't raised to talk about my feelings." When he says this, the psychologist in me senses a clear correlation—when you can't talk about what you've been through, or don't realize it's something you need to talk about, your susceptibility to things like addiction grows that much bigger.

"A large percentage of people I used with in active addiction had experienced a lot of trauma," Jason continues. "A lot of them used substances to cope and developed substance use disorder as a result. In my opinion, accessing mental health care and talking about what's going on with another person is key." I'm not about to argue with that, especially given that he's seen firsthand what happens when this doesn't occur.

Additionally, he says, poverty and indigence tend to play a big part in addiction. Low-income communities are more prone to addiction in the same way they're more likely to develop mental illness and health complications—and in many ways, these susceptibilities are cyclical, because being mentally ill or in pain won't help with staying clean either. Sometimes, a person has had so many disadvantages stacked against them that it becomes a chicken-or-egg situation for those that try to help. In other words, it can be difficult to treat impoverished people who are addicted to drugs because doctors and psychologists can't pinpoint the origin of their problem. 

What about peer pressure? For kids who are well-off or haven't experienced harsh traumas, peer pressure is often the thing that gets them. Jason tells me that for him, the desire to fit in was the "initial motivating factor" for drinking and smoking weed as a kid. Once he got to college, he started selling because he enjoyed the feeling of being wanted—even if it wasn't actually him that his clients desired. "At our core as humans," Jason said, "we want to feel needed, wanted, and loved. As delusional as it is, I got that feeling when I was selling marijuana—or eventually heroin and meth." 

While we have little control over these three things—the circumstances we're born into, the traumatic events we experience, and the desire to fit in even when others are making poor choices—we do, as people often say, have influence over the way we react to them. Young people especially have difficulty controlling or suppressing their feelings, so instead of telling teenagers to just not feel the way they feel, a more effective approach might be to advise alternatives to easy-access drugs: listening to metal music all the way up, wrestling or boxing with friends, busting shit up at a junkyard. Tiny interventions like this can be the difference between life and death for those who are likely to start using, and tragedy or peace for those that protect them.

Drug addiction is a problem no matter which way you cut it, and it's also an issue worldwide. Though certain people are more likely to develop an addiction, situations like the one that Jason found himself in can genuinely happen to anyone. There's no shame in having a problem like this, and as anyone who works in the addiction field will tell you, there's hope for you if you do—no matter how far along the path you are. Remember, there’s only no hope if you believe there isn't, and as long as people have faith in the process, recovery is possible—for everyone.