C4 Innovations

Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change

Alcohol, Substance Use & Mental Health Challenges: A Youth’s Experiences

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Jami Eckols-Leonard shares her experiences as a youth with alcohol and substance use, trauma, and mental health challenges with hosts Nate Batiste and Nastacia’ Moore. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp. Trigger warning: alcohol and stimulant use, mood disorders

September 27, 2021

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Erika Simon, Producer (00:01): This episode is sponsored by Project Amp. Visit projectamp4youth.com to learn more.

Nastacia’ Moore, Host (00:07): Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Nastacia Moore. I serve as the training and technical assistance support for C4’s Race Equity, Design, and Implementation Team, as well as providing leadership and support to Project Amp’s youth advisory board. With me today, my co-host, C4’s intern and former youth advisory board member, Nate Batiste. Hey Nate, how are you? So glad to be co-hosting this podcast with you today. How’s it going?

Nate Batiste, Co-Host (00:40): Hey Nastacia’. It is going great today. I’m so glad to be back recording here today with you.

Nastacia’ (00:46): Exciting man. You know, our topic today is talking about the experience of how reoccurring trauma has led to substance use, and one’s journey to resiliency in recovery. It’s a absolute pleasure to introduce our guest today. Jami Eckols-Leonard, calling all the way in from Houston, Texas. Jami. She’s a recent graduate from the University of Houston and a member of Project Amp’s youth advisory board. She also is a person in long-term recovery from alcohol, from stimulants and codependency behavior. Jami welcome and thank you for joining us today.

Jami Eckols-Leonard, Guest (01:28): Hi Nastacia’. Hi Nate. It’s great to be here.

Nastacia’ (01:31): Absolutely. I would like to give our listeners some context before we get into some deeper conversation. There are many risk factors that can trigger addiction, especially within young people. And one of them is early exposure to drugs, to alcohol, and there’s a lot of other factors that may increase the risk of addiction, that may increase the risk of dependency behaviors. This includes genetics, this includes economic status, traumatic life events which we’ll talk about a little bit more with Jami today. Poor academic performance, lack of adult supervision. What about lack of support from formal supports, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. This has a lot to do with coping skills within family structures. And it’s hard for youth and young adults to have those healthy coping skills without having observed them from others around them. And so Jami, why was it and how was it that you became dependent on drugs and alcohol?

Jami (02:43): Pulling from my own experience, I think exactly what you were saying. The coping skills. I didn’t have the proper coping skills. My parents didn’t… I didn’t observe from them the skills that I needed in order to move forward. You talked about the genetics and being in a family that was not capable of doing and showing the proper skills to move forward from traumatic events. I think it also had to do with the lack of surrounding myself with people that were “good” and “healthy.” I tended to move towards the relationships that really stood out to me, that reminded me of my family. And my family was, I think broken is a really rude word to use, but I think we were all suffering from a lack of understanding of how to move forward from things. And so, I think I needed to surround myself with people that were capable of being healthy. And I just wasn’t able to see yet who to go to.

Nastacia’ (03:57): Absolutely. So, it sounds like there was a lack of familial support. It sounds like some of those supports that we consider keep us company, they weren’t as good supports. Tell us a little bit about the influence of what those not so good supports look like, and how that influenced the use of drugs or the use of alcohol.

Jami (04:26): I want to be very clear about the good support. Everybody was doing exactly what they could. And I think that’s really a major thing. Like my parents are part of the LGBTQ community, and they were doing the absolute best that they could while also suffering from their own traumatic events and trying to navigate a world that didn’t really accept them with a child. And we all grew up in a family that drank heavily, always. And so, I think that all pushed us towards people that would allow us to continue drinking, and to continue those behaviors. And it’s very hard to move away from what you know, and what you are aware of. And I mean, even as a kid, like you go over to someone else’s house and you see something different, and it’s mind blowing. Because you’re like, “No, this spaghetti doesn’t go with the sauce. You’re supposed to have them separate and you’re supposed to do it this way.” It’s just little things about life that kind of trip you up.

Nate (05:38): Jami, I love your metaphor that you use, because when thinking about this, a lot of folks seem to overlook the little minute details. So, is it possible for you to give us a little bit more on the influence that your mothers had on you with their own substance use problems?

Jami (06:03): I have two moms that were my “original parents,” and then they split and brought in two new parents. And so, I have four moms in total. And if I were to characterize their drinking, I think on the DSM-5, there is a scale of substance abuse disorder. And so, I think all of them are on that scale in some way. So, there’s like a mild, and then moderate, and severe. And I think that we’ve come a long way in the present. They use alcohol in a better way. But when I was younger, alcohol was definitely used as a coping mechanism, as a way to dampen emotions, and as a way to just forget things, and as a way to go to sleep. Like come home from a hard day at work and immediately start drinking, and just not allow the world to get to you. Just so that you could have that moment of peace and come home.

Jami (07:15): And that was how I saw alcohol used. There was always beer in the fridge. There was always liquor in the cabinets. Like there was never a moment where there wasn’t anything in the house, and that was my norm. And so going into young adulthood, that was my norm. Just like I said, the spaghetti, that was my house. Like I had to come home from a hard day at school. And how do I get rid of all of those anxiety and those hardships that I just went through and, oh my God, I failed a test. How am I going to cope with this? I can just have a drink, and I can also just go and be social with friends and drink. And it was just a part of my culture and my surroundings.

Nastacia’ (08:09): Jami, you know what we never asked you, because we’re talking about young people here. How old were you when you first picked up a drink?
Jami (08:16): So, I went like all in one day. I was 15 years old, and I snuck out of my house for the first time that day, I smoked weed for the first time that day, I also drank for the first time. And like I said, all in. Had 14 shots of vodka. And that just started the whole shebang.

Nastacia’ (08:45): Let’s talk about it. I know that being dependent on alcohol, being dependent on any type of substance, especially for young people, it’s extremely dangerous. There are research out there that suggests that getting drunk when you’re younger puts you in vulnerable situations when it comes to making decisions and handling alcohol-related issues. There’s also really huge factors for young people who are dependent on alcohol. I’m talking about physical injury, I’m talking about death. And so, I’m thinking about you at 15 years old. Did you ever consider the dangers behind drinking, and the decisions that you had to make being intoxicated or under the influence? Were you aware that your dependency to alcohol was this dangerous?

Jami (09:43): I was more than aware. Very aware. I had a friend that was killed by a drunk driver. I had step siblings that were in multiple accidents. I had seen suicidality due to substance use. I had occurrences where I was in a drunk driving accident where I hit a pole. I had many things that happened. The thing about substance use disorder is that that doesn’t matter. I think that’s a huge thing people don’t think about. I feel like there’s a view where people are immoral for using substances, and it’s like a choice, but in reality, it’s not. It wasn’t like I was trying to go and do the wrong thing, or trying to be that an immoral person. I was just trying to survive, survive the emotional roller coasters that were happening in my life. And those physical and harmful actions that could occur didn’t matter to me.

Nate (11:04): I love how you bring that into how you seeing friends and family members. Because I remember being in high school and going out drinking with friends and not really caring about the consequences that I was seeing. But for you, someone in recovery, what were those unintended or intended consequences to your substance use?

Jami (11:30): I was incredibly lucky. I had many friends that were in trouble with the law. I had many friends that got kicked out of school. And I mean, if you were to think about the stereotypical “user,” for lack of a better word, and to bring in that negative context, I didn’t become homeless. I didn’t lose my friends. I didn’t lose my family. I didn’t go into extreme debt. I was incredibly lucky, and I know that I was almost one step away from losing it all. I had been in a car fire because my friend drove drunk home. And there were so many instances where I could have experienced sexual assault while drunk or while using. My mom used to tell me that I was one bad choice away from a bad incident, and that luck would run out at some point. And it never did for me. And I’m incredibly grateful that I found recovery, because I was one step away.

Nastacia’ (12:49): Absolutely. You were 15 when you first started drinking, what were some of the results that came after that? For example, were you able to successfully finish school? Were you able to keep a job when you got a job? Was one of the consequences going into a treatment facility?

Jami (13:12): In high school, so I started drinking at 15, and I also started using other substances around that time. I didn’t have any negative consequences. You could describe me as a teenager who didn’t like to follow the rules. And so, I played around with different things, but it was not a substance use disorder at that time. I graduated on time. I had a, I think a 3.6 GPA. Everything was good. I upheld my jobs. I even moved up in ranks at my camp counseling job. Everything was good. And then I moved away to Colorado from Texas for college. And the week that I left, we found out that my best friend’s mother was diagnosed with incurable cancer. My stepmother was diagnosed at the same time with breast cancer. And my grandfather went into the hospital and was diagnosed with dementia. I was in a long distance relationship as well.

Jami (14:32): And I mean, that’s just such a crazy and chaotic time for any individual, but for all of that to occur, really it was very difficult. And that was when I saw the turning point of I can either go this way or that way. And I isolated myself in school. I stayed in my dorm. I continued to get really good grades, but then I started drinking heavily. And I didn’t know anybody that I was surrounded by. Didn’t have my family. I didn’t have any way to support myself other than my own personal self. And it was a lot to put on the boyfriend that I had at the time, especially in a long distance relationship. And it was a lot to put on my family because I tried to like run away and start college. And it was a very difficult time.

Jami (15:42): I had my long distance boyfriend come to visit me at Colorado. And there was a fire drill that occurred. And neither of us were 21, and we had, I’d say like 40 beers in my dorm room. And the RAs had to go check every room to make sure everybody was out. And they found all the beer and so that caused me to have to go into an alcohol… I don’t know what you would call it, but it was like a class on how to use alcohol properly or like what is alcohol in relation to college students? And that was, I think the day that I was like, “I’m going back home. I have to go back home. I’m not okay.” And I decided that I would have to transfer back to a Texas school. That was a really great move, but I also didn’t go back to my actual family. I went about an hour away. And if anybody knows Texas A&M, I went to the community college there called Blinn College to save up some money.

Jami (16:55): And it was a party town. I definitely chose this for a reason. I started drinking heavily every weekend. I had a 4.0 GPA that I maintained, but I was blacking out every weekend, and driving drunk, and using substances to keep myself awake in order to keep that 4.0. And going home and isolating, and then not being around anybody. And that was the semester that I had three deaths. One was the best friend’s mom, one was my grandfather, and one was my other very close friend due to the drunk driving incident. And so that was the semester that I decided to move back home to Houston, to be with my family and to be surrounded by people that truly cared. And that caused me to push away from them. And thinking back, I didn’t have any of the horrible consequences that I mentioned prior, but it really tarnished the potential to create beautiful relationships with people I pushed away. And I kept pushing.

Nastacia’ (18:22): I want to go back off of your being able to hold this 4.0 in college, but at the same time being heavily influenced under the use of alcohol. Was there an instance where you had to enter a more structured treatment?

Jami (18:41): Coming home to Houston, I found myself getting into a group of people that would go out every weekend, and we would use stimulants to continue doing well in school. And that came to a head, I believe my junior year of college at the University of Houston, where I was experiencing horrible anxiety, where I would fail tests that I would never have failed prior. I remember, I was taking a chemistry test once, and I was sitting there, and I just stared at the questions the entire time and started crying because I had studied for days, and I didn’t know a single answer. And I walked out of that test, and that was the moment that I told my parents that I had to withdraw from school and find out what was going on, because this is not me. This is not the person that I am. I was capable of so much more. Maybe this isn’t the right path for me, but something’s wrong.

Jami (19:48): And I withdrew from school, and I quit my job. And then, I think it was about a week after all of that, that I was just lost. And I called a mood disorder clinic, where I told them my whole story. I told them about my traumas and about the severe anxiety and my substance use. And they got me admitted into a PHP program, which is a partial hospitalization program. And it was a mood-based disorder treatment center. That included eight hours a day, seven days a week of programs and group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy. I got there, and I was still using. I was still using stimulants, and they were not aware of this. In fact, one of my goals in therapy was to learn to have a better relationship with substances, specifically alcohol. I mean, looking back, it’s funny now because I was just not aware what the actual deep down problem was, and how substances were affecting my life.

Nastacia’ (21:08): Jami, it’s been a long time since some of us were in college, including myself, I will admit. Tell us a little bit about these stimulants that you’re referring to. What were these stimulants? What did they do for you? What were they used for?

Jami (21:22): I include caffeine as one, the heavily like C4 pre-workout caffeine type of situation, as well as Adderall and Vyvanse on Ritalin, substances that are usually used for individuals with ADHD.

Nastacia’ (21:44): Then you mentioned going into the PHP program. When you got there, did they diagnose you with something?

Jami (21:54): I was having severe trauma flashbacks at the time, that were causing a lot of anxiety and a lot of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms. They diagnosed me with PTSD as well as generalized anxiety disorder. The purpose of my being in the program was to find a way to move through those. And it’s based on dialectical behavior therapy.

Nastacia’ (22:21): I would like our listeners to get an understanding about treatment and process to treatment. And so, when you went into the PHP program, was the treatment centered on your use, or was your treatment centered on something else that didn’t have anything to do with your use?

Jami (22:39): This program was a mood disorder program. And so, it was not surrounding substance use at all. I went in purely based on my behaviors, and the anxiety, and the… I want to say depression, but it’s not what everybody thinks depression is. For me, my depression shows up as just a lack of hope. And it’s not about not getting out of bed for me. It’s just this existential dread of just not being able to move forward, especially having just left work and school. I had absolutely no identity anymore. It was me and my anxiety and my trauma flashbacks and the nightmares that I had. I was not safe when I was asleep. I was not safe when I was awake. And so that’s what caused the substance use during that time. And so, I entered the program thinking that those were the problems and not my substance use.

Nastacia’ (23:48): I know you mentioned the PHP program was centered on mood disorders and mood behaviors, but still, they were still a treatment facility catering to young people. And so, it’s mind blowing to me that they wouldn’t see other factors that contributed to your mood and behavior that you were displaying at the time. And because I’m sure that this has not only happened to you, I’m sure that a lot of young people go into these treatment programs and experience the same thing, and maybe skate up under the surface. Like how did that happen?

Jami (24:22): I’m really glad that you brought this up, because I think this is incredibly important. I think there were multiple factors to this. I think I was not willing to see that I had any sort of substance use disorder. And so, I wouldn’t say that I lied to them about it, but I omitted for sure. I also had this pattern of surrounding myself with people that were “worse than me” and were using to the point where they were seeing those bad consequences happening. And so, seeing as that I wasn’t having those consequences, I was surrounding myself with people that were, so therefore I wasn’t the problem. I would definitely enhance that during therapy sessions, where I would point fingers at others and say like my boyfriend at the time was having psychotic episodes because of his using. And I would point to that figure so that I would have the light off of me. I also think that it wasn’t the main symptom of all of my other diagnoses. I was also diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and that has a very high comorbidity with substance use disorder. And so, they were more focused on that and my anxiety than they were with the substance use disorder.

Nastacia’ (26:06): Jami, tell us if going into the PHP program actually worked for you. Tell me if the resources and the treatment and the education that they provided to you, did that help you in any way, shape or form?

Jami (26:25): If I were to look at this as a black and white answer, I would say no, that they didn’t help me. But if I am allowing myself to find that gradient, the program most definitely helped me find my way out of mental health struggles. It took me longer than it should have to find out that I had a substance use disorder. I think that had, they approached that and looked into it more with me, I think I would’ve seen it faster. But the dialectical behavior terms and coping skills that I did learn there allowed me to get to where I am now with my recovery.

Nastacia’ (27:09): Absolutely. Which is why I believe that better screening processes are still essential. Tell us what would have worked for you in regards to the substance use piece?

Jami (27:23): As I mentioned before, I was already aware that my substance use was a problem. And I had mentioned that in my individual therapy sessions. It was a giant jumble of PTSD anxiety, borderline personality disorder, family issues. There were so many things going on, that I think substance use got pushed aside. Had they looked into my substance use and sat down with me and talked about how much I was using, what substances I was using, I really believe that I would have had a better idea of what to do to move forward. And then they would’ve had a better idea of what to point me towards.

Nate (28:06): I truly see how resilient you are. And can you tell us how that role of resiliency plays into your long-term recovery?

Jami (28:18): Having gone through treatment and having made it to where I am today and almost being two years sober, I believe truly that the resiliency that I was able to find and to hold on to was because I saw the changes in my family. A lot of treatment programs talk about the circle, and how it goes from—you have to take care of yourself in order to take care of the people that are closer to you. And then the people that are close to them. And it goes out from there. And I saw that happen, and I saw my parents start to learn about their own behaviors that were hurting me and how they changed because of that. And so, it really wasn’t about my own resilience. It was more about my family being in a healthier and happier place and being able to have really beautiful connections with everybody that allowed me to continue.

Nastacia’ (29:16): Jami, it was a pleasure talking with you, and I look forward to some continued conversation. Thank you for joining us today.

Nate (29:22): From one previous youth advisory board member to a current, I just want to thank you so much for the work that you do and that you’re going to continue to do over these years. And thank you for sharing your story with us today.

Jami (29:36): Thank you both so much. It’s great to be here.

Nastacia’ (29:39): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika (29:44): Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

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