Isolation, boredom leave students desperate for stimulation, turning to substances

December 11, 2020

Five U-High students, each a current or former substance user, agreed to speak with the Midway on the condition that their names be withheld.

Get up. Open Schoology. Attend classes. Log off. Finish homework. Sleep. And again.

For most students, every day, one after the other, has felt like this since school began in September. This routine quickly became dull, leading people to seek excitement.

“Reality was just kind of boring, and that made me want to alter my reality by doing drugs,” one U-High senior said. 

For every student, substance use looks different — the substances, the volume, the context, the reason — and it has only diversified since the March stay-at-home order isolated each user. But months of the pandemic have brought one commonality to many teen users: Substances feel like a remedy to the seemingly endless hours of boredom and loss of a normal teen experience. 

Excited by the unknown and spurred on by boredom, some students are curious about trying drugs and alcohol and having their first experiences alone at home due to the pandemic.

One ninth grader said though she had tasted some wine with her parents, that her first time drinking without the consent of her parents was by herself, in her room as she planned an all-nighter for school work in November. Craving excitement, she went downstairs to her parents’ liquor cabinet. 

“I was bored,” she said about her first time trying vodka. “I was like, ‘Ooh, let me be crazy’ and I’m like, ‘Have some of the vodka.’” 

For students who had been using substances before the pandemic began, their substance usage increased. Junior A’s use escalated dramatically until she decided to stop using pills.

“I’m 17 days clean from pills. So that’s pretty cool,” Junior A said. “I didn’t realize how bad my situation was until I stopped taking them.”

She explained that she even experienced withdrawal symptoms. 

“I felt so sick,” she said. “I couldn’t eat without getting sick, and my body ached so much.”

Prior to the start of distance learning last March, Junior A said she was smoking marijuana and using hallucinogens regularly, but ever since, she’s started drinking alcohol more frequently and using harder drugs like opioids, cocaine and MDMA. Stuck at home, her use escalated because drugs and alcohol became something she could look to for entertainment. 

Eventually, she decided to stop using pills when her friend intervened, and she said she saw how her use of pills was affecting herself and those around her.

“I just saw how much my friends hated seeing me like that, and that hurt me hearing my friends share their concern for me, that made me cry…” she said.

While Junior A’s substance use changed due to intervention from a friend, for some students who drank and smoked in social contexts at parties and with friends, isolation has interrupted their substance use habits.

One sophomore, who said he generally only uses substances in a social context, feels that the constant uncertainty of the pandemic encourages him to make the most of his time with his friends. As a result, on the rare instance they’re together, they use substances more heavily than they might otherwise.

“You don’t know if you’re going to be hanging out with your friends for a while, because you don’t know if cases are going to start getting worse.You don’t know if your parents will make you lock down at home and you won’t be able to go out and see your friends,” he said. “When you’re with your friends, you don’t want to miss that opportunity.”

He said he thinks he would be drinking and smoking more if he was able to be with his friends in person, but because of the pandemic, he has nearly stopped using all substances.

 Meanwhile, other students have found ways to mimic their pre-pandemic habits and still consume with their friends, but from the safety of their own homes. For Junior B, who wants to let loose to escape the monotony of being at home, Zoom calls with her friends have become a way to get drunk, to get high and to have fun.

“It would basically just be bring your choice of substance. Some of my friends would drink,” she said. “Then we would just talk and show up and play games and whatever.”

Having fun with her friends on Zoom may restore a bit of normalcy, but she anticipates that after the pandemic she will use alcohol and marijuana more frequently than before.

“I feel like I spent so much time before quarantine just being stressed out about school,” she said. “Now that I’m in quarantine, I’ve realized school is not everything, and I want to be able to have fun with my friends whenever I can, because it’s important to cherish the moment, and that’s the biggest change.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, refer to resources like Partnership to End Addiction and talk to trusted adults. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.

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