By Shania Pagan
“How does anyone expect a teen or 20-something-year-old to handle a 16 credit semester, work part-time, and maintain some type of a college experience, without a little help?” said a University of Tampa senior, who has requested anonymity and be referred to as Eliza.
Eliza is a self-declared addict of Vyvanse, a medication used to treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug, which is comparable to Adderall, helps a user remain alert if they have difficulty focusing for long periods of time.
“I started taking it at 12 years old, which is around the time I was diagnosed with ADHD,” said Eliza, who is closing in on a decade of substance dependency. “Now I’m in my last year of undergrad and I can’t go a day without it. Believe me, I have tried.”
Along with the intended effect of intense focus, Vyvanse also has the side effects of decreased appetite, increased blood pressure and symptoms of psychosis such as anxiety, irritability and suspiciousness.
In a study done by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it was discovered that 18 to 25-year-olds make up the largest percentage of people who are inappropriately taking substances without a prescription, primarily getting the medication from peers.
Eliza, an honors student, credits her success in school to the drug, as well as the reason why she has had the energy for all of the extra-curricular activities she’s accomplished in her four years of college. Without disclosing the names of organizations, Eliza expressed that she has participated in the Panhellenic community, religious groups, and women’s groups on campus.
“My resume is like, ideal. Yet I feel almost as if it’s the evidence of my addiction to this thing,” said Eliza. “It’s like, boohoo, you’re excelling in school. Why are you complaining? How do I even get help for something that was doctor prescribed?”
Eliza is fortunate in the sense that her addiction is regulated by physician guidance. There are students whose choice of drug is controlled only by their substance’s availability.
Nathaniel, who has chosen to exclude his actual last name for anonymity, is a 23-year-old graduate of Hillsborough Community College. Nathaniel has a history of substance abuse that led him to attend a 30-day program at a Florida rehab center in 2017, which he did not complete.
“It started with weed in high school. I was about 17 or 18, and my parents freaked out and made me do a program that I hated,” said Nathaniel, whose preferred drug is now LSD. “I feel like they villainized me from the start so I just didn’t listen after that. I felt attacked and that pushed me to do more.”
Cannabis usage is arguably the most common among students, but that does not mean that it is worry free. With the “attractive” effects of the munchies, the giggles, and other relatively short-term symptoms, it’s easier to overlook any dangers.
“One time I smoked maybe two or three joints by myself before class,” said Nathaniel, who boasts his notable tolerance at the time. “But my stomach started to hurt not long after, and I was in class absolutely smacked when out of nowhere my vision went black. I couldn’t see a thing even though I was awake.”
Nathaniel credits that specific high as the reason for why he stopped smoking so frequently. However, his craving for the high feeling was not something he was willing to go without.
Rave culture, specifically among college students has contributed to the growing popularity of hallucinogens and similarly affecting drugs. Nathaniel credits raves and festivals for his discovery of certain substances.
“[Marijuana] is rare for me to do now. I prefer acid and all of its effects, especially for festivals,” said Nathaniel, who has proudly attended these events yearly. “With the lights, and the music, the acid just opens me up in a good way. I feel like weed shuts me in.”
What is it about these drugs that draw young people in? Considering the fact that 75% of U.S schools have students participate in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E), it’s not due to the fact that users are unaware of the possible dangers that come with drug use.
“It’s the escape for me, and it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t tried or refuse to try it,” said Nathaniel. “Acid, it’s just a tab on your tongue and 30 minutes later you feel a tiny ball in your stomach that’s the equivalent of putting a virtual reality headset on. You see things differently, it’s almost like an awakening, and who would say no to that?”
The struggle to say no is one of the root causes behind the issue of drug dependency. Christopher Haney, a 50-year-old former drug user who is now 15 years sober and a consultant for in-patient rehabilitation programs, knows firsthand how hard it is to turn away from addiction.
“I lost my brother to an overdose when I was still in high school, and that drove me to using as well, even though I was very aware of the danger. It was my way of dealing with the loss,” said Haney. “For years my brother’s life, and my own story, I believe I have been inspiring to people I speak to. It’s kind of like, ‘hey I did it and I’m not some special case, so anyone can do it too.’”
Regarding teenage and college student drug usage, as well as the culture of popularizing abuse, Haney said that it’s a difficult concept for young people to understand, even with all his years of experience.
“When I was young and first started using, I didn’t want to listen to anyone, I did what I felt like doing. Especially when there aren’t any major changes right away. It feels good to get that, however brief it may be, break from real life problems,” said Haney. “The advice I always go with is this: you control your life and that’s your power. When you have power, you enjoy it and for the most part, you do try and maintain it, but sometimes maintenance can get a little confusing, which is okay. It’s okay to have moments of confusion, but you are in control, not the joint or the pill or the powder, it’s always been you. You have that power alone.”