The Student News Site of Henry M. Gunn High School


The Student News Site of Henry M. Gunn High School


The Student News Site of Henry M. Gunn High School


Stories of Substance: Understanding substance use disorder humanizes addiction, eases recovery

Jesse Li

鈥淭he odds of recovery are against you,鈥 said a former Gunn student, who wished to remain anonymous. 鈥淚t kills you and everything around you. It鈥檚 such a black hole, and it鈥檚 hard to find any way out of that. Most people don鈥檛 make it to the decision of recovery before they鈥檙e in jail or dead.鈥

The former student was diagnosed with substance use disorder 鈥 specifically alcohol use disorder 鈥 as a sophomore at Gunn. After they completed a rehabilitative inpatient program, they transferred out of Gunn and are currently in early sustained remission. According to the 鈥淒iagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision,鈥 a patient is in early sustained remission if, within a year, they have not had symptoms of alcohol use disorder other than the urge to drink alcohol.

Throughout their years at Gunn, the former student struggled with the early stages of their addiction, which gave way to active addiction, or active substance use disorder, defined by the DSM-5-TR as 鈥減atterns of symptoms caused by using a substance that an individual continues taking despite its negative effects.鈥 鈥淧eople who aren鈥檛 affected by substance use disorder 鈥 people who aren鈥檛 addicts 鈥 are going to break their heads trying to understand what it鈥檚 like,鈥 they said.

To many, 鈥淒on鈥檛 do drugs鈥 sounds simple enough 鈥 it鈥檚 as easy as just saying no. Students are often taught the street names and psychological and physiological effects of various substances in middle school so they know exactly what to avoid and why. They encounter YouTube thumbnails with jarring before-and-after images of heroin addicts. These scare tactics should discourage young adults from future drug use, but ultimately don鈥檛: An anonymous Paly senior who also struggled with alcohol use disorder emphasizes that addiction is often unexpected, and not a conscious choice. 鈥淧eople think it鈥檚 the life someone wanted to live, but it鈥檚 not,鈥 they said.

The stakes of substance abuse disorder have become especially clear in recent years. According to the California Department of Education, fentanyl deaths accounted for more than 80% of all drug-related deaths among California鈥檚 youth in 2021, and the annual crude mortality rate for opioid overdoses in Santa Clara County in 2021 increased by 73% from 2019. In response, PAUSD has implemented staff opioid trainings and fentanyl overdose prevention and harm reduction strategies. Although the district doesn鈥檛 condone substance use, its response reflects knowledge of student use, according to Assistant Principal Harvey Newland. 鈥淚t鈥檚 na茂ve to assume that students do not engage in any substance use over the course of their time at Gunn,鈥 he said.

The American Addiction Centers cite 鈥減roximity to substances鈥 as a risk factor for addiction, alongside aggressive behavior in childhood, parental neglect, poverty and peer pressure. However, the Paly senior says it鈥檚 not that simple. 鈥淎 lot of people who use substances never become addicted,鈥 they said. 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 know you鈥檙e going to be an addict until you are an addict.鈥

After completing a recovery program in an inpatient treatment center this past summer, the Paly senior is now five months sober. 鈥淚 have a good set of therapists, my parents have been supportive and my friends have been supportive,鈥 they said. 鈥淏ut at the end of the day, sobriety is one of those things where it has to come from within. Nobody can force anyone else to get sober.鈥

Mental health complexities

Many explanations of addiction fail to address it with appropriate complexity or confuse addiction with misuse. 鈥淪ubstance misuse and irresponsible use of substances is common and well-understood, but treatment for actual substance use disorders is completely misunderstood,鈥 the former Gunn student said. 鈥淎 lot of high school students misuse substances, but not a lot have substance use disorders, which is why people don鈥檛 understand them fully.鈥

Often, addiction is framed as a result of bad choices. Although the former Gunn student acknowledges the detrimental choices they made while struggling with alcohol use disorder, they explained that such choices were a result of the addiction, not the other way around. 鈥淥n one hand, I put myself into a spot where I was severely addicted to alcohol, and I could鈥檝e chosen to stop and put actual effort into recovery earlier on,鈥 they said. 鈥淚t was my fault, but when I was in a state of active addiction, I had no control over myself. I didn鈥檛 even know myself. I was barely a person.鈥

Psychology teacher Warren Collier explains that addiction at its most fundamental level is a product of repeated and regular drug use. 鈥淯sually, a person is using some kind of drug to achieve some kind of high or some pleasurable experience, and they enjoy it,鈥 he said. 鈥淭hey go back and try it again because they want more of that experience, and if that happens over a short period of time, they will start to develop a tolerance and use more.鈥

Many substances, such as opioids, cocaine and nicotine, cause dopamine to flood the brain鈥檚 reward pathway. The brain remembers this flood and associates it with the substance. According to Collier, after a significant period of consistent drug use, students鈥 brains are no longer able to achieve the emotions or high without external assistance 鈥 the drug.

The Paly senior鈥檚 experiences with alcohol use disorder reflect this phenomenon. 鈥淚 started drinking because it was a good time,鈥 they said. 鈥淚t was something to make the bad thoughts go away. Then, it ramped up, and I would think to myself, 鈥業 can make it more fun if I drink more.鈥 And that鈥檚 when I became dependent on it, so I couldn鈥檛 stop having fun, even if I wanted to. And then it stopped being fun.鈥

The Paly senior also began using cocaine at the end of their sophomore year. What began as an experiment with some friends turned into addiction. 鈥淚 was spending a couple hundred dollars a week on it,鈥 they said. 鈥淚 accidentally detoxed at work one time because I miscalculated how much coke I had that day. I was throwing up in the bathroom at work. And after that day, I said, 鈥楽crew this. I can鈥檛 do it anymore.鈥 So I told my friends, 鈥榊ou need to keep me in check, I鈥檓 not doing this anymore.鈥欌

When I was in a state of active addiction, I had no control over myself. I didn’t even know myself. I was barely a person.”

— Anonymous former Gunn student

Individuals are sometimes able to pull themselves out of addiction on their first try. Sometimes, they aren鈥檛. The former Gunn student went to an inpatient rehabilitation center twice before exiting active addiction. Either way, both the Paly senior and the former Gunn student were supported by empathetic people around them who encouraged them on their distinctive paths to recovery.

Sometimes, mental-health struggles can lead to substance abuse. The Paly senior explains that their addiction developed partially due to depression. 鈥淚 didn鈥檛 think I was going to have a future,鈥 they said. 鈥淚f you want to have the best year of your life and nothing past that, you should do a whole bunch of drugs. But if you want more than a year 鈥 you want a life 鈥 then drugs aren鈥檛 an option.鈥

The former Gunn student used substances as a coping mechanism for mental-health struggles as well. 鈥淚 was at the worst point in my life with my mental health, and I found that being intoxicated distracted me from the reality of my situation,鈥 they said.

A 2005 research paper published in the National Library of Medicine explored the comorbidity of substance use disorder and mood disorders. The researchers ultimately pointed to psychiatric treatment, which tackles both substance use disorder alongside the mental health issues that commonly occur simultaneously or are the root cause of addiction. 鈥淣obody says they鈥檙e going to be an addict for fun,鈥 the former Gunn student said. 鈥淯sually, they have an outside problem that they want to cover up. A lot of people鈥檚 way of coping is with drugs.鈥

Supporting students

According to Newland, the Gunn administration has no standardized protocol for supporting students with substance use disorder. In general, administrators first try to holistically assess the student鈥檚 situation and the factors contributing to their substance use through a Student Success Team meeting involving families, counselors, administrators and teachers. 鈥淚t鈥檚 really up to them in terms of what they want to share with us,鈥 Newland said. 鈥淲e need to work with whatever we are given and come up with support and resources that we can provide.鈥

He explained, however, that situations which place students in urgent harm must be dealt with immediately under mandated-reporting rules for staff. 鈥淚f something comes up that falls under the guidelines set for Gunn teachers and administrators, we have to report it and follow that exact protocol,鈥 he said. 鈥淎dministrators are not required to intervene beyond the protocol.鈥

The former Gunn student noted that, in their case, these protocols were not always helpful. 鈥淚 appreciate that (Gunn administration) has been understanding and tried to see it as a mental health condition,鈥 they said. 鈥淏ut aside from one counselor, I have not received any support or outreach from them 鈥 not when I was in active addiction, nor when I came back from rehab.鈥

The severity of addiction also informs staff response. 鈥淎re you calling paramedics?鈥 Newland said. 鈥淗ow immediate is the situation? Those types of questions guide us in how we provide resources and move forward in supporting the student.鈥


I was lucky to have that one counselor who empathized with me.”

— Anonymous former Gunn student

Regardless of the level of severity of a student鈥檚 substance use, both the Paly senior and the former Gunn student believe that schools should intervene with empathy. 鈥淚 was lucky to have that one counselor who really empathized with me,鈥 the former Gunn student said. 鈥淗e was in contact with my (parents) a lot and understood the mental health aspect of (addiction). But if he wasn鈥檛 there and the Gunn administration didn鈥檛 have his input, I think the administration would鈥檝e thought I was just a lost cause.鈥

Sometimes, this means repeated check-ins with students. 鈥淚f someone was caught with a (wax) pen in their hand, the administration would confiscate it, send a letter home and maybe enforce disciplinary action,鈥 the former Gunn student said. 鈥淏ut also make them meet with the counselor. Make them meet with one of the school therapists. (Students) should be able to see that it鈥檚 not normal to feel the need to be intoxicated at 11 a.m. More times than not, substance use is about mental health.鈥

According to the Wellness Outreach Worker Rossana Castillo, the Wellness Team鈥檚 first step when supporting a student suffering from addiction is to identify the origin of their substance abuse, whether it鈥檚 emotional or mental. While Gunn Wellness can provide immediate and short-term support, in situations where students require specialized treatment, the team works to connect the student and their family to long-term specialized resources.

The Wellness Team also highly encourages students to notify the wellness staff or any trusted adult when a friend may be struggling with substance abuse disorder. They will connect the struggling student to resources as well as connect with their friend to ensure that they don鈥檛 carry the load of supporting their friend on their own.

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Annabel Honigstein, Forum Editor
Senior Annabel Honigstein is a forum editor for 麻豆放映免费. She enjoys reading outdoors, drinking absurd amounts of coffee and traveling.
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Senior Becca Wu is an editor of In-Depth, 麻豆放映免费's newest section. Outside of staff, she enjoys dancing with the Gunn Titanettes and watching horrible reality dating TV shows.
Jesse Li, Graphics artist
Junior Jesse Li is a freelance graphic artist for 麻豆放映免费. He enjoys cross country, coding and oil painting.
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