My Gateway Drug Could Have Been Anything

My Gateway Drug Could Have Been Anything

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The Myth of the Gateway Drug

This post was originally posted on February 3, 2016.

As a kid, when adults warned me about the dangers of “gateway drugs,” I imagined the pearly gates of heaven manned by a skeleton in a black robe beckoning me with a bony finger. If I dared to take just one puff of pot, I would find myself locked out of heaven and hooked on heroin. I would never be normal again—instead, becoming one of those terrifying creatures they spoke of in hushed tones, a “drug addict.” Never mind that the adults imparting this wisdom probably held martinis in their hands and slowly exhaled Winston cigarette smoke as they spoke.

Little did I know, before I hit the age of 10, I would already be hooked on my gateway drug: food. When I ate (and ate and ate) the anxiety and sadness that plagued me as a kid melted away for a little while. I had no idea why. I just knew it worked. So, despite becoming an overweight kid who was teased regularly, I couldn’t get my hand out of the cookie jar. I also discovered young that sips of cocktails I furtively snuck at my parents’ parties afforded me the same relief from the noise in my head as chocolate glazed doughnuts. At the time, I considered that a good thing, even though I knew only adults were supposed to drink.

I never thought I needed to worry about my massive consumption of ice cream or my indulgence in the occasional half-empty vodka tonic. Any mention of drugs and the importance of staying away from a dangerous “gateway,” focused solely on marijuana. By the time I ignored the warnings and smoked pot, I was already well-versed in the ways a giant sugar hit, several long swigs from a jug of wine, or even a couple of Marlboro Reds could alter my mood. Looking back, it seems curious that marijuana, a substance that made me sleepy, hungry and paranoid, was the one so forcefully vilified.

The reasons behind singling out marijuana or any one specific substance may not matter. A recent article in The Washington Post cited studies showing that the important factor determining whether young people turn to harder drugs is the age at which they first use illicit drugs—not the substance. The earlier kids start using anything, including the most common drug, alcohol, the more likely they are to move on to harder stuff.

This made perfect sense to me. I believe what doctors have been telling me since I got sober in 2004: I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes me depressed and anxious. I first started self-medicating it as a kid with food, then moved on to alcohol, pot and cocaine—in that order. Each one provided a bit of relief in one form or another. It was never a question of, “Well, since I already smoked pot, I might as well shoot some heroin.” It was just a matter of grabbing whatever was handy to get me out of my head. Drinking and drugs made me feel better, less uncomfortable in my own skin. The substances I chose were less relevant than the effect I was chasing—shutting up my negative and anxiety-ridden thoughts.

Now in recovery, I treat my chemical imbalance with antidepressants and a 12-step program that keeps me from needing other substances for relief. I’m perfectly happy accepting this is how it will be for me and I’ll stay on medication for the rest of my life. To me, it is no different than taking any other medication I need for a chronic condition.

For me, the concept of a specific gateway drug doesn’t fit. I don’t believe that because I experimented with alcohol and marijuana, I went on to become a cocaine addict. I think I had a predisposition toward addiction, thanks to my brain chemistry. I ended up in an environment that exacerbated it and allowed it to flourish. I have plenty of friends who experimented for years with alcohol and drugs, yet never became addicts. I, on the other hand, was an accident waiting to happen.

I think my “gateway” could have been anything. Without addressing my underlying issues, it would have inevitably led me down the road to full blown addiction. That’s one of the many reasons that I know I can never drink safely. Complete abstinence is the only route for me. I have to remember that I never had one drink. I had three, then called my coke dealer and then had ten more along with all the coke I could consume. If I were to pick up a drink today, I have no doubt that the slogan I heard in a meeting several years ago, “ABC: Alcohol Becomes Cocaine,” would apply. I would see that little sign at the bottom of my third drink that says, “Call your dealer.”

When I bottomed out, I was drinking and using coke around the clock. Somehow, I was fortunate enough to get help that allows me to live a great life without drugs and alcohol, one day at a time. The substances themselves were never at the root of my particular problem, though. My brain was. Whether I was using booze or coke to get relief made no difference. But they both had to be eliminated in order for me to treat my underlying issue, major depressive disorder, in a healthy way. Any substance or behavior I would have picked up as a kid to escape from my head was destined to be my gateway drug. And just to be on the safe side, I’m still very careful around chocolate glazed doughnuts.

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2 Comments

  1. Robert Evans Houston on

    Excellent article! I loved it! As a person with co-occuring disorder I know your story well. Grateful for nearly 5 years of recovery from my addictions. I’ve been in treatment for my mental health since my Recovery started and I have NEVER been more stable in my life!
    Thank you for sharing.

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About Author

Lisa Smith is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Girl Walks Out of a Bar, which recounts her experiences as a high-functioning alcoholic and drug addict. She is also the co-host of the podcast, Recovery Rocks.