An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Jack Seymour shares his experiences using substances during high school and college and gaining recovery with hosts Nate Batiste and Nastacia’ Moore. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp. Trigger warning: drug use, mental health challenges
January 10, 2022
Erika Simon, Producer (00:01): This episode is sponsored by Project Amp, visit projectamp4youth.com to learn more.
Nastacia’ Moore, Co-Host (00:07): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. My name is Nastacia’ Moore, and I serve as the program manager for C4 Innovations, as well as providing leadership and support to Project Amp’s youth advisory board. And our topic today is talking about one’s privilege related to substance use and their academic success. With me today, my guest cohost, Nate Batiste. Nate is one of our former youth advisory board members and also serves as C4’s fellow and intern. Welcome, Nate.
Nate Batiste, Co-Host (00:44): Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here again. It is my pleasure to introduce our guest today, Jack Seymour, calling in all the way from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jack is a senior at The University of Alabama and serves as a member of Project Amp’s youth advisory board. He is also an active member of the campus recovery community. Before we dive into our conversation with Jack, I want to take a moment to say how much we appreciate his willingness to share his first person story of substance use and recovery as a young person.
Nate (01:20): We will talk about many of the important topics that C4 Innovations is actively working to address, such as improving substance use prevention and early intervention among children and teens, recognizing and dismantling racism and how that infuses substance use, from racist policing of youth of color, to a lack of treatment and recovery spaces for communities of color, and ensuring that college students have alternatives as part of their campus life, and can find the resources and support they need to live a life of recovery and wellness. Jack, welcome. Thank you for joining us today.
Jack Seymour, Guest (01:57): Yeah. Thank you guys so much for having me.
Nate (01:59): Can you tell us what led you to becoming a youth advisory board member for Project Amp?
Jack (02:06): Well, I got into drugs pretty early in my life, and I’m now kind of in the process in my own recovery where what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced is something that I want to share and kind of give back, if I can, which is a part of recovery.
Nate (02:26): Tell us about what brought you to using substances. What was going on for you? What was going on in your world at that time?
Jack (02:34): Looking back, you get a much clearer picture. While I was using, I always thought I had plenty of reasons to be using, but in reality, it all kind of stemmed from my struggles with my own mental health and kind of just my place in the world. I grew up in Colorado in a town called Monument, which is just right smack dab in the middle, little bit below Denver. And this was around the time that weed legalization was kind of hitting a point where it was going to happen. There was broad support just due to even just a broad culture of marijuana consumption in Colorado.
Jack (03:13): The first time I smoked, I was an eighth grader, so I was I think 13 years old. But when I look back on my story and think about what brought me into drug use, and definitely the later drug use, a lot of the problems stemmed from some early childhood, we’ll call them trauma, but just emotional issues that I was suffering at the time that I was growing up, that at the time when presented with a chemical that causes euphoria, I felt I had found an answer to in that.
Nastacia’ (03:45): If you don’t mind, talk to us a little bit about those traumas and what led to you using weed, it sounds like marijuana at such a young age.
Jack (03:55): I was never abused or anything like that, but emotionally, I came from a very distant family, not to the point where it would’ve rung any bells, or you would see us in a CSI episode. But I kind of grew up in a unique place, a very isolated family from our greater family structure. And by the time I kind of came to understand what my family was and what the different sides of my family were, I realized that I didn’t really fit in, specifically religiously. My parents are both nondenominational Christians. They moved away from a more traditionally institutional Lutheran religion.
Jack (04:41): And so growing up, I kind of just had the sense of there being something expected of me that I didn’t think I had either the capability, or I just didn’t have the perspective that, that kind of allowed me to just sign on and be happy with kind of being the son that my parents wanted. And so as I was growing older, I kind of had this feeling of being different that I was growing up and around. And being a middle child and some other things, I suffer from an autoimmune disease, a bunch of allergies, and that also plays a part in kind of a physical consequence that I at that time in my mind was like, “This is proof that something is different and wrong about me.” And it wasn’t really something I could talk to anyone about because no one really understood. And people, like my parents, didn’t really believe me either about autoimmune disease because I’m allergic to some weird things like chicken and legumes, things that I didn’t even have words for until I was 16, 17, at least for legumes.
Jack (05:46): But by the time I got into middle school, I already had all of these complicated feelings that I had no way to address. And when I was offered from my friends at the time to smoke some our friend’s brother’s weed, I thought it was a great idea. And from there, that summer, I kind of … That’s what became my activity, was going out and smoking weed with my friends. And it all went, I guess you would say downhill from there.
Nate (06:15): What effect did this have on your academic success or your academic progress in general?
Jack (06:23): I was really fortunate I think in my high school experience to be privileged not only in the facilities that I was receiving education in, but also the culture of education I grew up under. My mom was a science teacher, so I was always kind of pushed into education. And I took to it better than some of the people around me, even in my family did. The real consequence of smoking and drug use in this academic setting for me was kind of a feeling of dissociation, or disconnection to my school work. I graduated high school with 3.3 or a 3.4 and was accepted and got a scholarship into college because of a high ACT score. Where it really started to affect me was in college, and it kind of traces back to this feeling of not really seeing the point, and also not really being challenged by education because for me, it came kind of easily, and also I was so focused on kind of just what was wrong in the world that I didn’t see how being good at geometry, or getting an English degree could help.
Jack (07:37): And I also at the time too, I am an English major now, and I kind of internalized some of the more harmful rhetoric around kind of the uselessness of liberal arts degrees, and sociology, psychology, all of those things, to the point that became a part of my negative self image. And I do think that my dabbling in hallucinogens and marijuana throughout this kind of made it impossible for me to come to terms with these emotions and deal with them. I kind of was just running away from them, and in doing so, kind of allowing them to run free.
Nastacia’ (08:15): Jack, when did you realize that your substance use and your choice of different substances affected how you fared in your collegiate space?
Jack (08:27): So I was very much in denial about drugs being the problem. I was it as, it was almost contradictory. I saw it as something that exacerbated, but also helped resolve some of my mental health issues. And so those two things were kind of constantly fighting in my head. But usually, the thing that I would turn to, to stop thinking about that question would be drugs, so I was kind of letting drugs win in that kind of fight that they were having.
Nastacia’ (08:54): It does make sense. And I’m curious to know what supports were available to you at the university. Did that support include prescribing you anything for your mental health that you were experiencing?
Jack (09:07): Well, really, I think a lot of the support that there is out there for addiction and really any mental health issue is attraction instead of promotion aspect to it. And so if you’re not seeking it out, you’re not going to be finding it because getting on campus, there was Get On Board Week, where all of the clubs and smiling faces came out and were giving you free things and trying to get you involved in more healthy coping mechanisms like rock climbing and adventuring, camping. There are plenty of social clubs, which looking back, I wish I would’ve had more interest in at the time. But because I was so self isolating, I didn’t really seek out that kind of help. I sought out the community and support that I was familiar with, which at that time was other drug users.
Jack (10:00): And so by second semester, I had surrounded myself with people with very like minds, all of which who were engaging in drug use. And that became my support system, which really escalated my own drug use. And then I think second semester of my freshman year, I got to a point where my mental health kind of reached a crisis. At first, I went to the student health center, but I opted for the purely medical health intervention, the purely chemical. Counseling is offered from freshman year, but I didn’t think that my problems could be solved by talking about them, which is a pretty common misconception I think.
Jack (10:43): And so I kind of just threw some more chemicals at it. And when they didn’t work because I didn’t change anything else about my lifestyle, I just kind of wrote it off as loss, and impossible to change, all while adding more and more of, let’s say the less therapeutical chemicals like cocaine, or more alcohol, on top of some of the more standard antidepressants that are widely available, and denying counseling service.
Nate (11:15): So Jack, sometimes when we are talking about our stories and drug usage, it can sometimes seem not in the moment, impersonal. And I love how you are bringing that humanity to this. I want to go back to this whole social aspect of it and how it is framed. I was one of those people who were in the fraternities, in the parties, and drug usage was very high. That’s where most teenagers, most college students went to get their drugs, to pay for them, to pass them along. So what is your opinion on that whole culture?
Jack (12:01): It’s a very complex question because I’m not a, I think they like to be referred to as Greek students. But I do go to a university with a pretty overwhelming Greek population. What my experience of that has been, getting into college, especially down here, I wasn’t indoctrinated into this belief of needing to join a Greek society to get the college experience. I mean, at that point I’d already kind of found my way to do similar things, i.e. drugs and parties, without it. But getting on campus, there was this overwhelming pressure to rush, to join, to go out in your first couple of weeks when you should be getting your feet planted on the ground for college, and basically go to six or seven keggers in a weekend, and meet as many faces, shake as many hands, that you can.
Jack (12:55): And so I had a pretty negative perspective of it, especially because on campus, the frats are pretty segregated, and there’s an overwhelming population of let’s just call it what it is, it’s privilege. A lot of money, a lot of campus resources are diverted towards these predominantly white frat houses. And so I had a negative perception of it. And there was a lot of indoctrination that was drawing people away from the event I referenced earlier of Get On Board Day, and pushing them to become a part of this probably the largest single demographic on campus, the Greek life. And then Greek life centers almost entirely, not always, but the major frats center entirely on a privileged and safe place to do privileged and unsafe things like drinking, like smoking, like drugs. And that’s without even getting into the social culture of hazing, because we know that it happens.
Jack (14:03): And so yeah, my experience was kind of seeing this overwhelming pressure for people to pivot the second they get to what should be an educational gateway into your future, into spending their time, resource, and energy into trying to get picked by the best privileged group of people, who have the most money to spend on alcohol and drugs, and the ability to get the biggest bands to play on weekends. And so my experience of it ultimately has been how it takes away from the academic side of college and kind of really props up the idea that we in America I think are kind of culturalized to understand college as this extremely fun, uncontrolled, wild and I don’t know, just excessive lifestyle that I’ve been told many times is the best time of your life.
Nastacia’ (15:03): The best time of our lives, the scariest times of our lives. I know that some are probably wondering. What’s privilege got to do with it? Right? You identify as a white male. And I’m wondering how identifying as a white male and having certain privileges associated with how you identify racially has affected your experience in drug use and your pathways to recovery when it comes to certain supports being a young white man.
Jack (15:39): For me, it’s a multifaceted question. I was made aware at a very young age that I was the most privileged class of social strata in the United States, not only just because my lifestyle when I was younger was very … We were very well off. We suffered a little bit in the recession, but never to the extent that we didn’t have food in our house. I grew up in a place where I was physically safe. And the knowledge of being physically safe when other people weren’t made me feel socially unsafe because I didn’t know how to feel about myself. I was ashamed that other people were suffering. I was ashamed that it wasn’t something that my parents were talking about. It wasn’t something that really was a big deal when I was growing up.
Jack (16:28): And an example of this also that kind of shows a little bit more how I got put at odds against my parents, was I grew up around the time that gay marriage was legalized. I started smoking weed in the year or the year after that gay marriage was legalized in 2012. And in my mind, I look back, and with that feeling of shame that I talked about, and there being something deeply wrong about myself, when I learned that there was this thing called being gay, and that it was something that my parents didn’t support, and that was this huge and polarizing issue going on in America, I just was like, “Well, what if I’m gay? What would that mean?”
Jack (17:09): And so even though I’m a straight white man, I kind of grew up and made myself aware of some of the issues that were facing minorities in the every day that were fatal, whereas what I was going through wasn’t, and I was still mentally suffering so much. And that’s kind of why I got into drugs in the first place, was because it allowed me a space on the margins, even though it was still within a very privileged group, which I’ll get to in a second. I was able to kind of rebel against my parents without really doing anything about it. And in that use, the reason I’ve made it this far, when I look back, privilege has a huge part to play in that.
Jack (17:59): At one point, me and my friends had a … It was not a good looking thing to be driving around in. It’s something that we should’ve gotten pulled over because we were driving. But not only were we driving this around our white suburban neighborhoods, but we were hot boxing it. And we thought we were the coolest people in the world. We literally didn’t have seat belts and stuff in the back. We only had two seat belts, and we had four to six guys in the back. For a while, we had beanbag chairs. And we were smoking in this in broad daylight at parks, in public space. And in my memory, I don’t think we ever had a close call with police.
Jack (18:38): And on the flip side of that coin, what people associate with gangs and gang violence is not all that different from what put me in that place in the first place, is this feeling of no place in society and no opportunity, even though I don’t make a claim that I have any right towards thinking that I was experiencing anything similar because there was an actual threat of violence in the other communities that I’m referencing. And that’s before we even get to talking about how I found a pathway out of addiction, and how I was even able to maintain having an addiction and still make it into college, and still maintain some, I don’t know, façade of normalcy without getting, I don’t know, judged, racialized, whatever you want to say. So the question is one that’s very important to me because when I look back on my experience, it’s very obvious to me how my race of being a Caucasian person has enabled me for so long to get to a space where I could then utilize all of these resources set out that are kind of made, or at least made in mind for people like me, who are white and men.
Nate (20:01): Wow, Jack. That is so much to unpack. I want to go back. Your mental struggles when you were younger, how you were thinking that possibly you were a gay male. Being a pansexual black male, I understand where you were coming from, especially having to prove something that you are not. And there are so many aspects of toxic masculinity that are pushed upon young men, whether it be men of color, or Caucasian men, or gay men, or straight men. What is your experience with having to navigate through what is toxic masculinity versus finding yourself?
Jack (20:48): It’s such an important question, not only toxic masculinity, but just toxic traits in general. And it is something that I’m still navigating through, like: What does it mean to be even like a toxic ally? Or how am I still affected by these kind of things that I was grown up to understand? And kind of just to give some context with my experience, especially growing up, I think one of the reasons that I struggled with this was because I was on the smaller side when I was a kid growing up. That leads into my allergies and kind of explains why I so negatively reflected on them. My dad played football in college, and my brother, my older brother, I’m the middle child, my older brother played football and was kind of a standout in his position. Also, my dad was a coach for my brother’s team.
Jack (21:40): So growing up, I saw sports and the necessity to participate in them as a way to connect with my father and my brother. But I got phased out pretty early when all the other kids hit puberty and I was still I think 80, 90 pounds going into high school. And so from a very young age, I knew what a man was supposed to be, and I knew I didn’t reach that mark. And so I was left in the space where I was pretty sure I was straight. I was pretty sure I was a man. Kind of the conversations we have now in these spaces about transgender identities and stuff like that weren’t so prevalent, so I didn’t have … I didn’t think about it in those terms at the time. There was just all of these dichotomies that I was presented with of being, you’re either a man or you’re a woman. You’re either gay or you’re straight.
Jack (22:32): And so as all of this information came available to me, I just kind of … My mental illness or the sense of me not being what I was supposed to be, would latch onto anything that I perceived as being the wrong alternative. And in doing that, I actually kind of processed a lot of these concepts in a way more complex way than the understanding of toxic masculinity would present of homophobia and stuff. And so at an early age, I kind of came to a point where I was very accepting. And by the end of high school, I knew that I was a straight white man. I wasn’t comfortable with it because I knew of my privilege and stuff. But I knew that I wanted to be more socially engaged in these spaces. And I kind of outgrew toxic masculinity, for myself at least.
Jack (23:30): Toxic masculinity then came back around when I actually went to treatment because out of one of every, I don’t know, seven meetings that we would have weekly, there was one, it was very dumbed down. It was called The Man Rules. And it was kind of clearing space away for this all men treatment, for other men to kind of unlearn some of these things that they’d learned about sharing their feelings, about aggression being the only way that you’re allowed to express them. And for me, it was very instructive in how this is an issue that’s severely affecting the greater population of men. But it wasn’t necessarily one that I didn’t have to work as hard to be able to express my emotions. In fact, by the end, I’m pretty sure I was known for being the crier. And in fact, because I was crying so much, other men around me were crying. So the therapists and stuff said that I was doing a lot of their work for them in kind of addressing that.
Nastacia’ (24:27): Absolutely. I want to circle back. You continue to mention your privilege as it relates to your support. And I want to ask, Jack. What did that look like for you? So what did treatment as it relates to your recovery process look like for you in this privileged state that you held, or in this privilege that you have?
Jack (24:48): First of all, in treatment centers, there are good ones and there are bad ones. There are ones that offer therapeutic services. And their mission is for people to come there to get a leg up on the problems that they’re escaping from for only 30 days. And then there are other treatment centers that are just a white room to sweat out an overdose in. And the one I went to, so luckily, was the first one. And so already, the privilege comes in of having parents with health insurance, I think even given to them by their jobs. And looking around at the people who were there, I’m almost positive that all of them were white men. It was a male only facility, which I think has a place, but again, still the space that I got the most time and energy put into kind of addressing my addiction was a space that was primarily filled with men, almost all of them white.
Jack (25:54): And so that already economically shows that access to these places, there were African American men who later came through and were a part of some of the after care stuff that I was in. But also, the fact that it’s an all white space means that the people who are dealing with these complex issues of race don’t really have the availability or the focus that they might need to address some of the more complex problems that you suffer as a Black man. And so it was very just a middle class, white centric treatment system that I was going through.
Jack (26:33): And for me, it worked out amazing. And really, the people there all have great hearts. It’s all coming from the right place. And at a certain point, the economic necessity of being paid enough to operate these systems to try to give some people a leg up, I don’t blame them, but just it shows how systematically these spaces still advantage only a smaller population of the United States. And that’s before I even get into what the culture of after treatment can look like.
Nastacia’ (27:11): When I listen to you, I think about how might these treatment centers and how might support be more culturally responsive to youth and young adults who have a similar experience to what you have experienced, who are Black and Brown and Indigenous. And so maybe from your lens, Jack, how might treatment be more culturally responsive for folks experiencing substance use?
Jack (27:40): I think the first thing I think of is being run by and for, as you said, Black and Brown folks. Until the, I don’t even, economic … Or until the government even economically incentivizes treatment for Black and Brown folks, making other Black and Brown folks have access to the resources that it takes to make this amazing ranch style treatment center in the middle of the mountains in Colorado, but for Black and Brown folks, I think that it’s kind of … There’s an Audre Lorde quote. It’s, “You’ll never dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” These little changes aren’t enough. There needs to be Black- and Brown-centric focuses to treat Black and Brown perspectives and mental illnesses.
Jack (28:32): And on top of that I think, and I’ve seen this, I think that we live in a very amazing time for this kind of stuff, even in my CRC, which I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so there’s a lot of y’all thrown around. But there is such an overwhelming sense of acceptance and kind of self challenging and growth attitude in these recovery communities that I’m in. And even though they’re pretty white, I can see that they’re a place that is trying to grow towards being more accessible to people whose perspectives differ from the white centric ones that I’ve been talking about.
Nate (29:15): I love that you are so socially aware because when looking at these things, we need to use our equity lenses, which sounds like you have a pretty good pair. What advice do you have for young people who are going through these same struggles that you have? Because you’ve told us you’ve rode around with your friends smoking weed. You’ve used illicit drugs. And you have so much experience and so much knowledge. What can you share to our younger listeners that could help them in their own struggles?
Jack (29:52): I think simply, the advice I have to my friends over and over again has been, find a better narrative. It’s a tough issue because as someone who suffered, the only reason I went to treatment was because I got to a place of complete hopelessness and desperation. And I happened to have parents who could provide me access to the place of privilege that then I started to work through all of these issues. I understand how the addict’s mind is going to be saying and telling you, “Not me, I’m different. This is why I’m different. I might be suicidal, but the weed that I smoke every day isn’t the problem. It’s these issues that I faced before it.”
Jack (30:36): And I can tell you right now that it is worth seeking out help. I feel so much more in control of my life than I ever have before. But I didn’t do that on my own, and that can be kind of paradoxical I think because giving up that control to then get it back doesn’t really make sense to, especially someone who is in complete and total control of waking up, hitting a bong, getting up, eating, and all those things, and doesn’t want to give up that kind of control and that complete sense of this is what my life is.
Jack (31:13): And I think that the greatest resource out there for people who don’t have the privilege that I have and for the people that do have the privilege I have, are the these kind of 12 step meetings. And my advice for you if you’re struggling with addiction is to go to them. And if there’s something that is an issue with the one that you go to, if it’s too, as people will say in the communities, if it’s too God-y, if it’s too whatever, if it’s too toxic masculine, to find another one, or to make your own towards addressing all of these issues that you know that you have because other people have those issues too.
Jack (31:57): And once you start sharing about all of this stuff that you’re going through, that sense of not being able to share and shame, it starts to go away. And all of these things that you’ve suffered through become useful to other people, and so they don’t hurt you anymore. I guess just believe, find hope, because I’ve been to the place where there was none. And I know it sounds radical and also cliché to say, because I felt like it was radical and cliché when I was there, but it’s possible. And honestly, life is so much better on the other side than it was even when you had access to oblivion whenever you wanted it at any one point. Once you start living life on life’s terms, I don’t know. It kind of becomes the adventure that we see in The Hobbit and things like that. It just becomes a different thing and it’s very beautiful.
Nastacia’ (32:53): For sure.
Nate (32:54): What advice can we give parents and adult supporters to help younger generations with substance use and prevention?
Jack (33:03): The advice I would give would be to meet children where they’re at. I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for. And they’re struggling with these complex issues, and at least in my case, there always seems to be an ulterior motive when people tried to help me. I realize now that these people who were providing their belief systems because they’ve worked for them, weren’t trying to convert me, but were trying to express that, that’s how they find hope.
Jack (33:37): And so I would say, is to help children, you can’t infringe on their sense of individuality, and meeting and relating with them where they relate to the world and how they relate to the world is the best chance that you have of establishing the types of connections and trust that I think it takes for a kid to open up about what he’s struggling with, and maybe prevent the evolution of some of the earlier onset of mental health and addiction by basically altering the ways that the kid can understand what’s going on around them, without telling them how to think or why they should think it. They have to come to the conclusion on their own.
Nastacia’ (34:25): Jack, we look forward to your continued leadership on the youth advisory board as you are informing national perspectives and policy as it relates to substance use, substance use prevention, especially in school-based settings and as it relates to academic success. We thank you for your time today. We thank you for your energy. And we thank you for your lens to this work.
Nate (34:50): Thank you so much for being here with us today. And I’m very eager to work with you in the future on different projects and advancing what we know today.
Jack (35:00): Thank you guys so much, Nastacia’ and Nate. It’s been a privilege in all senses of the word.
Nastacia’ (35:04): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika (35:09): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining you. 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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