He had dug himself a big hole, and no one but Lee alone could dig his way out. At nineteen years old and back home living with his parents, Lee felt pretty shabby about himself. You see, Lee had bombed out of college. He couldn’t keep up with his studies. And when the news got to his coach, the baseball scholarship that was paying his way through school was taken away from him – no grades, no scholarship, no school. And on top of it all, on the night that he got pulled over for a DUI, Lee had also been charged with possession of an illegal substance, marijuana. His life was toast, at least for the time being.
Lee’s parents thought maybe I could help. They called to make an appointment for the family to come for an initial interview; and a few days later I met with the three of them at my counseling office.
“We just want him to see the danger in what he’s doing,” pleaded his mother, a high school guidance counselor herself. As a fellow counselor and parent, I felt a certain pressure to agree with her. But I knew better.
“Do you feel like Lee just doesn’t get it?” I asked. I had learned a long time ago that asking a clarifying question was a great way to stall and deflect.
“We just don’t know where his head is at,” chimed in his father. Lee looked up to his Dad a great deal, and I could sense the pain, not just in his father’s voice but in the relationship itself.
I nodded – a tactic that bought me a few more moments to take in what was happening and to figure out what to say.
“What about you Lee? What do you think? Your parents seem pretty scared.”
Lee sat on one end of the large leather couch, as far as he could sit comfortably from his parents who were huddled together at the other end.
“I don’t know. I just want to go back to college,” Lee said somewhat sheepishly. At that, I noticed his parents rolling their eyes in unison. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to translate their synchronized gesture. But I now had something I thought I could work with.
“Good! Let’s look at the calendar and see when you and I can meet and start working on your goals for your life. I’d like to meet with your Mom and your Dad every other week, too, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. How’s that sound?”
Wide eyed, dubious nods all around, and why not? Marijuana use is synonymous with being a teenager these days. Lee’s parents had provided a nearly idyllic life for him. They had traveled to endless baseball games for many years, and it had paid off. But they had also exhausted themselves trying to motivate Lee academically. Diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactive disorder), Lee just couldn’t get any traction or focus. Why wouldn’t they feel doubtful about yet another attempt to light a fire under Lee? If all of their considerable efforts had failed, how was I going to get through to their wayward son?
Fear naturally grips the hearts and souls of parents whose teenagers abuse marijuana, and they have a right to be afraid. Surgeon General Jerome Adams states categorically that marijuana is “a dangerous drug.” It doesn’t help matters that marijuana is legalized in eleven states, while “Federal law still treats it as a controlled substance akin to opioids.” Why wouldn’t a sane teenager use these inconsistencies to his or her advantage? “What’s the big deal? If we lived in Colorado, none of this would matter.” And in a way, they’re right.
In another way, however, they’re wrong. As Jerome Adams further states, “It’s not your mother’s marijuana.” The concentration of THC in today’s version of marijuana is three times stronger. And research on the effects of regular marijuana use has demonstrated that marijuana is “harmful to the developing brains of teenagers and to the human fetus.”
Trying to get parents and therapists to convince teenagers, though, of what they already know is like a one legged-man trying to climb Mt. Everest. It’s not happening. Driving cars fast is dangerous; binge-drinking is dangerous; and staying out all night and having unprotected sex is dangerous, too. But all of these are typical parts of the lives of many teenagers. They are not so much ignorant about the risks they are taking, as much as they are often just being normal teenagers – teens like to take risks.
My approach, then, with Lee was not to work the fear angle, which would have been to collude with his parents’ paranoia. Instead, I decided, to work with Lee on taking full responsibility for himself: paying for his own therapy, washing his own clothes, getting himself up in the morning for work, and setting goals and strategies to make the grades that he wanted to make. Did he truly love and care about himself for his own sake, and not just to appease his parents or even the law for that matter? What were his desires? What did he want from life?
Essentially, I encouraged Lee to tell the truth about himself to himself and to me, and to his parents – not about his use of marijuana so much as the truth about his identity and his sense of purpose. I believe that every person on the planet is here for some reason, to make a difference, and to matter. Did Lee want to look at himself in a mirror and ask himself, “Who and what do you want to be?” A nineteen year old doesn’t need a map for the rest of his life, but he does need to know that he cares about.
It is no surprise to me that Lee kept right on smoking weed. He liked the way it made him feel, and most of his friends smoked. But after a failed attempt to make passing grades in his first semester at a local community college, Lee tried on his own initiative doing without marijuana for a couple of months. His grades improved, enough in fact that he was accepted into the college of his choice.
Lee had worked his ass off at Target, too, thus earning the respect of his peers – a real boon to his self-esteem. He also made enough money so that he could fund the first six months in an apartment near the college he would be attending – his parents, on my advice, did not give him a dime. They would help Lee financially from time to time, but it was up to Lee to make it pretty much on his own.
Lee’s Mom and Dad were still worried about the marijuana, and they still rode his case about it from time to time. But they had stopped bugging him about other things — things like getting to work on time or making sure he deposited his pay check into his savings account. They treated him like an adult rather than like a child. They had exchanged fear as their primary motivator in favor of tough love. Lee’s failures and mistakes were his, but he was also beginning to rack up quite a few significant successes too.
We all watched and cheered for Lee from the sidelines. And with a sense of awe and a deep sense of appreciation, we became witnesses to this apparent marvel of metamorphosis – a boy becoming a man. It was, at least in my way of thinking, a lot more fun than even baseball.