The Myth of the Gateway Drug

Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 4-2-2021

“You don’t tame an addict by forcing them into sobriety. You tame them when you can help them find the proper medicine to treat their underlying wounds.” -EaE

          As people read this blog and get to know me through social media, they would never guess who I was as a child and young adult. Currently I am a heavy advocate for medicinal cannabis and psychedelic use for conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. Five years ago, or more, this was not the case. As a child, I heavily ascribed to the unpopular and unsuccessful D.A.R.E program. Why? My mother had been suffering from alcoholism and a methamphetamine addiction throughout my childhood; it weighed heavily on myself as well as my older brother. These addictions she carried led to heavy neglect, abuse and abandonment that created mental wounds that would follow us for life. I was told (as young as six) by the adults around me “Your mother cannot be with you because of drugs”. My child brain then equated all drugs with “BAD”, selfish, and irresponsible. I did not have many friends in high school or the military because of this. I was firm on my stance, many could not relate to me, I could not relate to many. A high schooler that will not experiment is ‘lame’, and a person in the military that will not drink is an alien. 

Here’s the reality, an addict is an addict. Addiction exists in our mind, and our mind suffers from the addiction. It is not about the drug of choice, and despite popular belief I do not believe in ‘gateway’ drugs. A gateway drug is often described as a drug that leads to an even more ‘dangerous’ or ‘potent’ drug; therefore, we should remain sober from all drugs… right? Wrong. An addict is an addict, and the addict mind will find a way to get high, even if it is happening subconsciously. My mother was an addict, and both biologically and through the process of negligent nurturing, I became an addict too. My addict brain tricked me into thinking I was not an addict, as many can relate to. If I was not drinking or ‘drugging’ I was ‘fine’. My first addiction was sugar/ carbs onset at the age of ten, my second addiction was exercise which onset by the age of 15, my third addiction was codependent relationships onset at the age of 19, and my fourth addiction became cannabis. Cannabis happened when I finally accepted that I have deep mental health struggles and I needed something different… but, naturally, through the course of most of this, I was in denial.

I have worked with many clients that have struggled with substance abuse issues. Yes, some people do have a ‘drug of choice’, but what is also quite common is drug switching. It happens quite frequently. A person struggling with an addiction to alcohol may quit drinking and turn right to smoking, then months later quit smoking and go too heavy on their pain medication and/ or anxiolytics, then months later go sober and start to shop retail constantly to make up for the void. The cycle is endless, because they are not taming the addiction, rather they are drug switching because sobriety, to an addict, feels empty and miserable. This cycle leads many outsiders looking at the less harmful and sometimes beneficial drugs as the ‘gateway’ drugs that will ‘surely’ lead to harsher drugs with more extreme side effects such as: heroine, meth, crack etc. Rest assured I have met an incredible amount of people both socially and in a professional setting that have never extended their usage beyond cannabis and psychedelics, (both in evidenced based trials for treating depression & PTSD). What was alarming, is the amount of people I met that were suffering from an addiction toward a harsher drug that admitted to starting the drug due to ‘nothing else being available to them’ and a ‘lack of education on what could help ease their mental health symptoms.’ A failure and a disservice to all that are suffering from mental illness. I often think about how maybe cannabis and psychedelics with proper mental health care may have been able to save my mother from dying young (back in 2010 at the age of 45). I often think about how it could have saved some of my other relatives from spiraling due to developing various prescribed pill addictions.

     When we demonize a medicine or what could be a healthy coping mechanism due to a lack of understanding it or a lack of willingness to give it a chance, we lose out on access to the good that could come of it. For the third time, an addict is an addict, and sobriety does not cure the addiction (we could only wish it were that easy). Many mental health professionals have now switched to harm reduction strategies vs sobriety expectations due to the fact that relapse is seen as…. almost always… inevitable. I want to see my clients, friends, family and myself with many healthy positive and balanced coping outlets Vs. 1-2 coping outlets that are being used in excess because they have nothing else.  Then in turn, they harm their bodies and minds with it. I have admittedly gone too far like many people, but I have also had many stages of balance in my life. How do we create and sustain this balance of medicines and coping? By being honest with ourselves first. By having a healthy support network, by finding the right treatment to soothe our mental wounds and recognizing that too much of anything will throw us out of balance. 

If you are suffering from a heavy addiction, it is time to get the help for it. We are in a new innovative world where some professionals specialize in exactly that: addiction. We are in a world that recognizes cost/ benefit analysis when it comes to drugs/ medicines and what can give us the best outcomes with the least amount of side effects. We are in a world that is finally decriminalizing one of the best natural medicines on the planet! We are in a world that is starting to recognize that when you strip an addict of their drug(s) of choice and leave them to be alone in a miserable state of sobriety and debilitating symptoms, they are likely to relapse and hit that drug heavier when they get a hold of it! Education is imperative! Not the unrealistic ‘stay away from drugs’ concept, but the education in how to find the right ‘drugs’ and balance them throughout the course of your life so that you can be a happier and more functional human being.

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

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