I am driving my 18-year-old son to the cannabis dispensary on a winter night when the streets of Portland, Oregon, are too slippery for him to bike. “Would you ever let me write a story about why you use marijuana?”
I am sure he will say no. He smokes in the backyard, where no one can see, self-conscious about his use. But that evening he says, “Sure.”
“The problem is,” I tell him, “I don’t know how to talk about the marijuana without talking about mental health, and I don’t want you to feel badly.”
He is in a helpful mood for someone who is usually surly by 7 p.m. “What about ‘big feelings’?” he offers.
We didn’t know the phrase “big feelings” on that trip to Mexico, when we first sensed something wasn’t right. It was a language-learning trek, with three children ― 11, 9, and 7 ― in tow. (I don’t know what we were thinking.)
My youngest son had tantrums daily, bolting from us in a crowded mercado or arguing loudly in restaurants. The only food he ate, if he ate, was quesadillas: “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, after only a few years in language immersion schooling ― I was certain of one thing: The quesadilla would disappoint.
Unable to get familiar foods, he mostly refused to eat. Every day was a battle with low blood sugar. Every day he stormed about the day’s plan.
After we returned, his first therapist used the phrase “big feelings.” His daily enraged complaints, concerning the failings of whichever family member bothered him, included hitting or throwing things. She encouraged us to be compassionate, but when my son had big feelings, everybody ducked.
On a forest hike when he was 8, I separated him, mid-tantrum, from the family. 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. What were we doing wrong?
After the yelling came the apology. On my desk I have 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. This letter isn’t for pity or to shorten my consequence. This is just so I can say I’m sorry. I hate to put you through this.”
To have challenges with mental health ― challenges that hurt the people you love ― and to have a conscience is a miserable combination: a recipe for shame.
We did what parents who love their children, who have resources, do. We sought out experts: behavioral pediatricians, naturopaths, herbalists, allergists. My wife and I had copies of a book called “The Explosive Child.” I cannot imagine how the sight of two copies affected him. We saw his suffering, but it was filtered through our own desperation to find him help.
We started with naturopathic supplements, which worked briefly. We then moved to antidepressants, then medications to address hyperactivity, although his doctor said nothing was a perfect match. As he got older, we realized his challenges connected to an eating disorder ― his taste buds did not communicate correctly with his brain, and most food tasted bitter. We took him to a nutritionist.
In spite of their authority, none of the experts helped with big feelings. No one was sure of his diagnosis. He had a little of this, a little of that; features of this, features of that. My son begrudgingly cooperated with supplements and medications, though he didn’t like the side effects, especially the loss of appetite.
We are about half a mile from his favorite dispensary, on Portland’s Green Mile, the endless strip of marijuana shops. It is 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 went with you. It was a Family Problem.”
“Family Problem” is the other phrase we used. Big feelings spilled over, a crushing wave that robbed us all of breath.
“You said it was a Family Problem, but only I went into the therapist’s office,” he says dejectedly. “Not really a Family Problem at all, Dad.”
“We were trying our best, Buddy.”
Big feelings are not always bad. When he and his friends learned that a notoriously homophobic archbishop planned to visit their school, they planned a protest in solidarity with their LGBTQ classmates. When my son 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, a frequent request. “I’ve never been sent to the office before!”
“But who’s right in this situation?”
“I am,” he said, sobbing.
“Tell him why those symbols are important, Buddy,” I said. “Tell him what you believe, but be respectful.”
So the dean of students got a dose of big feelings, and the boy with the rainbow on the back of his hand did not get detention.
When he was 14, he tried marijuana. His mom and I tried to talk through the hazards, 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 OK in those areas, she said, weed is not the worst problem.
He got his supplies from the underground market patronized by youth. He was not allowed to smoke at home, but he would hang out in a dugout at the neighborhood park. We weren’t comfortable with it, and watched closely. He used it judiciously: CBD on weekday mornings, to help with waking-up anxiety; some marijuana in the evening, after homework.
When he was 15, he announced he was writing a manifesto, to be ready by the end of summer. He was marshaling his arguments and it had to be perfect. “Oh my God,” we whispered to each other. I thought he was going to drop out of school. My wife suspected he planned to live with a friend because we were so uncool. We were wrong.
He delivered a five-page typewritten letter explaining to us and his psychiatrist, whom he loved, that he was stopping his medications, with their bothersome side effects. He would use marijuana to manage big feelings. He liked that it was a plant produced in the ground, not a chemical.
He knew all the arguments. Weed is bad for developing brains. It can lead to poor school performance and addiction. He wasn’t taking those warnings lightly, but he had tried to right his emotional life and not found anything that worked as well. Just as there is research about teen marijuana users who become addicted, he wrote, there are warnings on bottles of antidepressants that for some kids they can lead to suicide. In a sea of imperfect options, he needed to steer the ship. “It’s my body and my feelings.”
It’s hard to disentangle marijuana’s true value from its legacy as an illicit drug and its intersections with American racism. As parents, we are not immune to its stigma. But weed, we had to admit, worked better than anything else.
We arrive at the dispensary, where everyone knows his name because he is the lanky, boyish-looking customer with strong opinions and a medical card.
“Should I come in with you?” I ask. I don’t like marijuana myself ― even though I’m from the Northwest, I’ve never tried it; this is as bad as saying I’ve never tried beer, which is also true ― but I want to support him.
“Oh, God, no,” he says, smiling, shutting the door.
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 spiked again. He cursed at us. His frustration with friends for breaking COVID guidelines made him reluctant to hang out, leading to tearful bouts of frustration and loneliness.
After one explosive argument, we went walking. “What is going on?” I asked, exasperated. “You were doing so well.”
Crying, he confessed that, since the pandemic with its apocalyptic anxieties, his tolerance for weed had increased, he needed more to get the same effect, cannabis was in shorter supply, and the cost was mounting. Even though we had doubled his allowance, he couldn’t afford the right dose.
That’s when it struck me: Though we said it was a Family Problem, we had left him to his own resources. Out of discomfort, we’d looked the other way.
“Shouldn’t we buy marijuana like any other prescription?” I asked. “Could we get you a medical card?”
“I don’t have a covered medical condition,” he said. “I already researched this on Reddit.”
We talked to his psychiatrist, a great ally, and his pediatrician, a family friend, but this request was outside their scope. For weeks I called other parents, general practitioners, and psychiatrists, 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 that would do anything for this boy who was suffering, and the white male privilege that I leveraged 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 startled 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 since marijuana had been helpful. It has been better for his eating disorder, not reducing his appetite. She agreed to sign the form to authorize it, and to monitor him upon approval. There is no guarantee, she cautioned. But it was one thing during the pandemic that worked out.
After he returns, purchases tucked in his backpack, we talk about the reasons I want to write something. I’m a social worker, I tell him, so I’m interested in stories about patients being in 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. My son stares into space, the generous moment passed. He has a date with a friend to play video games. He needs me to shut up and drive.
But the bigger reason, which he won’t know 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. He said boldly, “This is what works.” In a world that makes young people with big feelings feel lost and ashamed and left out, I want him to be the hero of the story.
Wayne Scott is a writer and psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter: @wain_scotting.