“Would you ever let me write a story about why you use marijuana
?” I ask my 18-year-old son as I drive him to a cannabis
dispensary on a winter night in Portland, Oregon
, because the streets are too icy for him to bike.
I'm sure he'll say no; he smokes in the backyard, where no one can see him, and is self-conscious about his habit, but that evening he says, "Sure."
“The problem is,” I explain, “I don’t know how to talk about marijuana without discussing mental health
, and I don’t want you to feel bad.”
He's in a good mood for someone who is normally grumpy by 7 p.m. "How about 'big feelings?'" he suggests.
When we first sensed something wasn't right on that trip to Mexico
, we didn't know the phrase "big feelings." It was a language-learning trip, with three children
ages 11, 9, and 7. (I'm not sure what we were thinking.)
My youngest son threw tantrums on a daily basis, bolting from us in a crowded mercado or arguing loudly in restaurants
; the only food
he ate, if he ate at all, was quesadillas with "solo un poquito de queso" (only a tiny bit of cheese) and "absolutamente nada encima" (absolutely no garnish).
As amused as I was by the authority of his opinions and his Spanish fluency, full of colorful inflections and excited gestures, I was certain of one thing after only a few years in language immersion schooling: the quesadilla would disappoint.
He mostly refused to eat because he couldn't get familiar foods; every day was a battle
with low blood sugar, and every day he stormed about the day's plans.
When we returned, his first therapist used the phrase "big feelings." His daily enraged complaints about the failings of whichever family
member bothered him included hitting or throwing things, and she encouraged us to be compassionate, but when my son had big feelings, everybody ducked.
When he was 8, I separated him from the family in the middle of a tantrum. I had learned not to rationalize, cajole, direct, or discipline him, but to let him talk for as long as he needed. That day, I set a stopwatch. Even after yelling for 50 minutes, he was still furious, struggling to calm himself. Despite my best efforts to listen, I was spent. Big feelings were a faucet on full blast.
After the yelling came the apology
. On my desk is a file labeled "Apology Letters." At 10, he wrote: "I don't know why I am this way. I wish I understood." At 12, he wrote: "Sometimes I find myself in a time of struggle and I am in a lack of control. In those moments I hate myself. I will try to fix this in time to come.
Having mental health issues that affect the people
you care about, combined with having a conscience, is a miserable combination: a recipe for shame.
We did what any parent who loves their child and has resources would do: we sought out experts: behavioral pediatricians, naturopaths, herbalists, allergists. I can't imagine how the sight of two copies of "The Explosive Child" affected him. We saw his suffering, but it was filtered through our own desperation to help him.
We began with naturopathic supplements, which worked briefly, and then moved on to antidepressants, then medications to address hyperactivity, though his doctor said nothing was a perfect match. As he grew older, we realized his problems were related to an eating disorder, as his taste buds did not communicate correctly with his brain
, and most food tasted bitter, so we took him to a nutritionist.
Despite their authority, none of the experts were sure of his diagnosis; he had a little of this, a little of that; features of this, features of that. My son reluctantly cooperated with supplements and medications, though he didn't like the side effects, especially the loss of appetite.
We're about half a mile from his favorite dispensary on Portland's Green
Mile, the never-ending strip of marijuana shops, and it's one of those rare moments when a teenage boy speaks his heart. "Do you remember all those trips to the therapist? Do you know how bad that made me feel about myself?"
“I accompanied you because it was a family issue.”
Big feelings spilled over, a crushing wave that robbed us all of our breath, as we used the phrase "family problem."
“You said it was a Family Problem, but only I went into the therapist’s office,” he laments, “Not really a Family Problem at all, Dad.”
“Boy, we were doing our best.”
When he and his friends
learned that a notoriously homophobic archbishop
was going to visit their school, they planned a protest
in solidarity with their LGBTQ
classmates. When he was caught before Mass drawing rainbows on the backs of his friends' hands, he was sent to the dean of students. He called, begging me to pick him up, which he did frequently.
“But, in this case, who is correct?”
He sobbed, "I am."
“Tell him why those symbols are important, Buddy,” I advised, “and tell him what you believe while remaining respectful.”
So the dean of students received a dose of big feelings, while the boy with the rainbow on the back of his hand did not receive detention.
When he was 14, he experimented with marijuana, and his mother and I tried to talk him through the risks, but he rolled his eyes. A friend who is a social worker and parent advised us to focus on his progress at school and with friends; if he's doing well in those areas, weed
isn't the worst problem, she said.
He got his supplies from a youth-oriented underground market; he wasn't allowed to smoke at home, but he would hang out in a dugout at the neighborhood park; we weren't comfortable with it, so we kept an eye on him. He used it sparingly: CBD on weekday mornings to help with waking-up anxiety; marijuana in the evening, after homework.
When he was 15, he announced that he was writing a manifesto and that it had to be perfect by the end of the summer. He was marshaling his arguments and it had to be perfect. “Oh my God,” we whispered to each other. I assumed he was going to drop out of school, and my wife
assumed he was going to live with a friend because we were so uncool. We were both wrong.
He handed us a five-page typewritten letter in which he explained to us and his psychiatrist, whom he adored, that he was discontinuing his medications, which had unpleasant side effects, and that he would use marijuana to deal
with big emotions; he liked that it was a plant grown in the ground rather than a chemical.
He knew all the arguments: marijuana is bad for developing
brains, it can lead to poor school performance, and it can lead to addiction
. He wasn't dismissing those warnings, but he had tried everything else and hadn't found anything that worked as well. Just as there is research
about teen marijuana users becoming addicted, he wrote, there are warnings on bottles of antidepressants that for some kids th
It's difficult to separate marijuana's true value from its history
as an illegal drug and its intersections with American racism
; as parents, we are not immune to the stigma, but weed worked better than anything else.
We arrive at the dispensary, where everyone knows him as the lanky, boyish-looking customer with strong opinions and a medical card.
“Should I come in with you?” I ask, even though I don’t like marijuana and, despite being from the Northwest, I’ve never tried it; this is the same as saying I’ve never tried beer, which is also true, but I want to support him.
“Oh, God, no,” he says as he closes the door with a smile.
Five months into the pandemic
, after having one of his best years, including graduating early from high school
and publishing an op-ed in our state's newspaper, big feelings flared up again. He cursed at us. His frustration with friends for breaking COVID guidelines made him reluctant to hang out, resulting in tearful bouts of frustration and loneliness.
We went for a walk after one particularly heated argument. “What is going on?” I exclaimed, frustrated. “You were doing so well.”
Crying, he admitted that, since the pandemic and its apocalyptic fears, his tolerance for weed had increased, he needed more to get the same effect, cannabis was in short supply, and the cost was rising; even though we had doubled his allowance, he couldn't afford the correct dose.
That's when it hit me: despite the fact that we'd said it was a family problem, we'd left him to his own devices, and we'd turned a blind eye out of discomfort.
“Shouldn't we be able to buy marijuana like any other prescription?” I inquired, "Could we get you a medical card?"
“I don't have a covered medical condition,” he explained, adding that he had already researched the topic on Reddit.
We talked to his psychiatrist, a great ally, and his pediatrician, a family friend, but this request was outside their scope. I called other parents, general practitioners, and psychiatrists for weeks, trying to find someone. Our pediatrician found another doctor, someone who saw adults, who thought she could help.
Sometimes I can't tell where the line is: between my fatherly love for this suffering boy and the white male privilege
I used to get him what he needed, knowing that a parent with darker skin would be looked at suspiciously for the same fierce advocacy. I know my skin color opened doors for us unfairly; I wish it wasn't this way.
On that first virtual call, the doctor was taken aback to see her patient flanked by two parents. She and our son discussed the fact that he does not have a covered condition but decided to make a case for a medical card because marijuana had been helpful, not reducing his appetite. She agreed to sign the form to authorize it and to monitor him once approved.
I tell him I'm a social worker, so I'm interested in stories about patients taking charge of their own lives and health care
providers listening differently, free from the stranglehold of diagnoses and expertise. I want others to have the options that have worked for him.
But the more important reason, which he won't realize until he reads this, is that after everything he's been through opinionated adults with degrees and white jackets; so much room to feel like a misfit in a world with narrow definitions of what's normal my heart swells.
He stood up to his parents and other authority figures and boldly stated, "This is what works." In a world that makes young people with big feelings feel lost, ashamed, and left out, I want him to be the story's hero.
Wayne Scott, a writer
and psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, can be found on Twitter