By Katherine Ketcham
Faith is looking for her brain. She finds it on the right side of the 16-by-20 inch poster titled, “Which Brain Do You Want?”
“Oh gross,” she says, pointing to the brain in the top corner labeled “2 years marijuana, age 16.”
It does look gross. Compared to the healthy brains in the middle of the poster, which have smooth surfaces and rounded curves, this brain looks like someone used it for target practice.
Two gaping holes on the top of the brain appear to let you see right through, clear to the other side. The middle of the brain is eaten away in smaller chunks.
While they look like actual craters in the brain, the “holes” actually represent areas of decreased blood flow and metabolic activity. Regular drug use disrupts normal brain patterns, eroding the brain’s ability to feel pleasure or make wise decisions. Under the influence of drugs, the brain creates new pathways that trigger destructive behavior and intense craving for the drug.
“Hey, this is my brain, too,” Faith says, wrinkling her nose. She points to the brain labeled “3 years of smoking, age 16.”
The smoker’s brain looks like the marijuana-user’s brain, only lumpier. It reminds me of pancake batter bubbling up on the griddle.
“What about this one?” I ask, pointing to the brain that belongs to a 21-year-old who used alcohol for 4 years. This brain looks like our Halloween pumpkin, still sitting on the front porch at
Thanksgiving time and beginning to cave in on itself.
“Naw,” she says, shaking her head for emphasis. “That brain belongs to a 21-year-old. I’m only 17, so that’s not my brain.
A moment passes. "Yet,” she adds.
Faith has 2 favorite drugs — marijuana and alcohol. She’s also used cocaine and methamphetamines. She admits she is “probably” an alcoholic, although she insists she can quit whenever she wants.
This is our last visit for a while. She gets out of detention in a few days. She's been in Juvie for 30 days, picked up for a parole violation. This is her fourth stay in four months.
I ask what she plans to do when she’s released.
“I’m gonna get a job,” she says, smoothing back her short blonde hair. Her nose is sprinkled with freckles, which appear to stand out when she smiles. “My probation officer is helping me fill out the applications. I’m going back to school, too.”
She smiles, head tilted, looking at me. It’s a smile that says, “I know I’ve screwed up, but hey─I’m trying.”
She tells me that she should be a senior this year, but she has only a few credits. She’s missed a lot of school and will be starting over as a freshman.
“Drugs, you know,” she says, shrugging her shoulders, looking defeated.
Suddenly she brightens. “Hey when I get out, I’m gonna take care of my friend. She’s 14, and she’s using all the time, alcohol, weed, meth. I’m worried about her.”
Faith opens her eyes wide. “I have a great idea!” she says. She points to the poster and asks if I can order one for her. She wants to put it on her bedroom door, so she and her friends will see it every day.
Will it help her think twice before using?
“Maybe.” She gives me that sideways smile. “Maybe not.”
I have this sudden urge to take her by the shoulders and shake her. Not so gently. I want to lock her up in a safe place for a few years, throw away the key. I don’t want drugs to chomp off any more pieces of brain tissue. I fear for her safety, her sanity, her life.
But she’s 17, and she thinks she’s invulnerable. I remember the feeling.
She also thinks she’s still in control. “I don’t have to use to feel good,” she says. “I use because I want to use, because it’s fun.”
Still, she wants to cut down and she hopes someday she can quit. “But you want me to be honest, right? I know I’ll drink again — how can I quit at age 18? All my friends drink. If there’s a party or something on a Friday night, I know I’m gonna relapse.”
Her eyes drift to the poster again. We sit together in silence for a few minutes.
I wonder what she’s thinking. I think I can guess. I think she’s looking for an escape hatch. She’s studying that 21-year-old brain, doing some quick math. She’s thinking that she has 3 or 4 years left before she can claim that brain as her own.
Still a little time left for partying.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Research shows the human brain continues to develop until age 21. The adolescent’s developing brain is extremely vulnerable to addiction and irreversible brain damage. Early age of onset (starting to use before age 15) and multiple drug use dramatically increase the risks of addiction and permanent brain damage.
The images on the “Which Brain Do You Want?” poster were taken by Dr. Daniel Amen, author of "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” (Harmony, 2015). To order a poster visit https://www.brainmdhealth.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=poster