Choices and consequences
Venerable Thubten Chodron and an inmate discuss intoxicants.
Venerable Thubten Chodron: One of my Dharma students, who is in high school, asked me what to say to a friend who was into taking drugs. I referred the request to B. F., because he’s currently serving a 20-year sentence for drug possession and dealing. The following is his advice to young people in high school who are into drugs.
B. F.: Even though I graduated 29 years ago this June, I remember high school very well. I went from being a jock as a freshman to being a “stoner” as a sophomore. I started smoking weed and doing speed and downers when I was 13.
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I haven’t developed a selective memory of those days as I have aged. I never married and settled down or had children. I partied pretty hard almost all the way up to the time I was arrested at age 32. Drugs, booze, and partying were a big part of my life because I was in the drug business. I grew up in the drug culture of Southern California in the late 60s and early 70s, and it was a wild time. Interestingly, I had been clean for five or six months when I got busted. I made the decision to get straight and sober before I was arrested and sent to prison. So prison wasn’t the reason I quit, although it did reinforce the decision that I had made before I ended up in jail.
I don’t claim to be an expert on drug addiction and alcoholism. But I am knowledgeable because I have experienced it first-hand and, in recent years, have studied it in college. I have literally spent years in thought and reflection, actively studying the things I did, the motivations behind them, and their results. I’m not interested in judging anyone else and don’t want to dictate how others should live their lives, but hope my story may help in some way.
I started smoking dope and eating pills at 13. Coming from an alcoholic family, I had already been drinking for three years by then. By the time I turned 15, I was already doing large amounts of LSD, mescaline, and peyote. We were using a lot of downers and booze back then, too. We took barbiturates like Seconal and Phenobarbital as well as Thorazine and Methaqualone, etc. When I was 16, I started using heroin and opium, including pharmaceutical morphine that we used to score from a guy that worked at a hospital and Tussinex which is a synthetic opiate in cough syrup. By the time I was 18, I was using anything and everything. We were doing PCP, synthetic cannabis, THC, cocaine, crystal meth, Dilaudid, quaaludes, etc, etc, etc. We smoked, snorted, shot up, and drank, whatever. All the time we were using drugs, we were drinking too—whisky, vodka, beer, tequila, Bacardi rum, anything. My point is that I have been there and done that.
Personally, I hate it when someone who doesn’t have first-hand knowledge tries to give me advice. Sure, you can learn a lot from a book about many things, but when it comes to booze and drugs, the best advice comes from those who have been there.
I remember very well the time in my life around 18 or 19 years old. I think more than anything I wanted to be accepted by the group. I wanted to be popular and “cool.” Trying to fit in, be accepted, and be cool is still probably the biggest thing for most young people. For guys, that time in life is also really crazy because there’s all this testosterone running around in our veins making us crazy with overwhelming sexual libido. From 15 or 16 on up, we guys aren’t really thinking very smart; we’re thinking about sex. That’s one of the biggest reasons we need to be accepted and need to be cool. Cool dudes always seem to get the chicks.
Depending on the crowd that you run with, booze and drugs come into play in varying degrees. Booze is more prevalent than drugs in some circles, like the jocks and the goody-goody kids. Drugs and booze are the thing for the stoners, surfers, and partiers. Even in the partying crowd, there were the people that took it to the extreme, the party animals.
To those of you using, I won’t say “Stop!” or “Don’t do that!” You are young adult human beings who must make your own decisions. Let me tell you something much more important though, a concept that you may not have considered yet. It’s what I like to call the “truth of choices and consequences.” It is a very simple yet often overlooked truth. For example, if you choose the stay up all night, what happens? You usually wake up late and are late for school or work. Or you might not get enough sleep and be tired and irritable the next day. Or you might be late for an appointment and get a speeding ticket because you were in a hurry. Or a million different things could happen as a result of you staying up late.
Choices and consequences: I would like to stress that you start to take an inventory of your past decisions, to pinpoint and recognize them, and then look at what the decisions led to. Especially the “seemingly unimportant decisions” or “SUDS” of the past and present. Examine and try to understand the powerful consequences of the SUDS. When you choose to use drugs and booze, you are making a choice. This choice is a SUDS although at the time it may not seem like it. The choice to use drugs and alcohol may have consequences that follow you throughout the rest of your life. The decision I made at 13 to smoke dope made all my subsequent decisions about drugs pretty much a foregone conclusion. That decision that I made 33 years ago still affects my life every day. When I look around and see the bars, the concrete, and the razor wire, when I miss my home, my family, and my freedom, I know that SUDS I made over the years all contribute to my being here. I know now that this prison that I have been locked up in these last 14 years is partly a consequence of that decision I made when I was 13.
I think the thing you need to understand more than anything is that the decisions you are making right now—good ones, bad ones, whatever—will lead to more decisions in the future. They will color and flavor those future decisions. These decisions in the aggregate will determine who you are and what your life will be. Simply stated, life is the end result of the choices we make. Period! Yes, sometimes outside influences and chance happenings will inexorably change your life, but your decisions are what place you in the position. Your decisions are an integral part of your karma. The better your decisions, the better your karma.
The decisions you are making right now as high school students or young adults will affect you for the rest of your life. They will affect the people you choose to have in your life, and those people will affect what you do, where you go, and what you experience. You are currently writing the opening chapters in the book known as your adult life. You are making the decisions that will determine your life. Dad and Mom used to make decisions for you, but it’s no longer up to them. You are becoming adults and with adulthood come many responsibilities. Good decision making is crucial at this point in your life. However, as teenagers we usually aren’t qualified or experienced enough to make good decisions yet. I certainly wasn’t. That’s part of the irony of teenage—we’re adults physically and sexually, but we’re not adults mentally and emotionally. But we think we are! We think we know what it’s all about. But we don’t. When I was 16 I knew everything. I’m 46 now, and I clearly see that it’s taken me 30 years to figure out that I don’t know anything!
As teenagers most of us don’t look at life as choices and consequences. We don’t look in the long-term. Teenage is synonymous with spontaneous. Long-term is next week or next year, not 30 years.
The stupidest things I’ve done in my life were done when I was shit-faced drunk or loaded out of my brain. In the beginning, it was fun to drink and drug, but as I aged, it became less and less fun. Drugs turned from fun, to subtle addiction, and then to obvious addiction. Booze turned from being cool and part of the crowd, to unbelievably horrible hangovers, drunk driving tickets, and regrettable actions. It went from being one of the most seemingly innocuous social activities, right up there with cigarettes, to one of the most damaging habits a person can acquire.
There were many adverse health affects from drinking and drugging—some are subtle and insignificant short-term. Others are powerful and negative. Do too much coke and see how fast cocaine-psychosis turns you into a paranoid schizophrenic. Shoot heroin a few times, get that monkey on your back, and you’ll sell everything you own and steal anything of value to get that next fix so that you won’t get dope-sick. Snort or crystal meth hard-core for a couple of years and watch your teeth fall out and your complexion turn to sores, scabs, and leather. Eat LSD for a couple of years and you won’t even be able to remember your Grandma’s phone number that you’ve known by heart your whole life. Drink to excess and sooner or later you’ll get a drunk driving charge and an overnight visit to the pokey, if you’re lucky! And if you’re not? Drunk driving is the biggest killer of young people under 30 years old. Every substance you use has negative health effects of varying degrees. These short-term and long-term implications need to be considered.
Drugs and alcohol are the underlying cause of the deaths of many of my family and friends. If drugs and alcohol didn’t exist, there would literally be dozens of people that I have know throughout my life who would still be alive. Car crashes, suicides, overdoses, degenerative physical conditions, loss of mental acuity, etc., took the lives of many people I knew and cared about. Long and short term, booze and drugs will have an ultimate negative effect on our lives. Take some time to think about what you’re doing to yourself.
Before you get drunk, smoke greenbud, or snort crystal, think about what you’re doing to yourself, your body, mind, health, relationships, goals, and dreams. Make a list of your long-term goals and then think about what it’s going to take to get your life to where you want to be. Choices and consequences—think about it.
I won’t tell anyone to quit using drugs and booze. That’s not my decision to make. But I will talk about choices and consequences. If I told you to quit using drugs and drinking, that would make me a bit of a hypocrite because when I was that age, I was a hard-core party animal. But I will tell you that if I had it to do over again, it’d be very different. I have many regrets about decisions I made in the past. I know now the importance of doing what is good and honorable, of doing things that are necessary to point our lives in a direction necessary to find a lifetime of happiness, contentment, purpose, and satisfaction. My life is now so much better without drugs, booze, and tobacco, and I plan to stay clean and sober for the rest of my life.
One month later
I hope the advice I gave the two young men does some good, but I have my doubts. Why? Because I remember when I was that age. Most of the time, I didn’t listen to anyone older than me because I thought I knew a lot. I’m smiling right now, remembering that brash, energetic young man that I once was. Boy! Was I really dumb or what? I was ignorant of many things and too arrogant and full of myself to have a clue. It seems funny now, in a bittersweet sort of way. Lots and lots of SUDs and poor choices/decisions. Yet here I am, still alive at 46 and in reasonably good physical and mental shape.
One thing that I’m really cool with at this point in my life is that I know that now my choices/decisions are much more sound. They are not made impulsively. I’m not the spontaneous youngster of 20-30 years ago. Now I’m a pragmatic middle-aged man. Peer pressure, hormones, and material wealth no longer influence me like they once did. The result is that my decisions are based on right and wrong, good and bad, and where I want to be 20 years from now instead of 20 minutes. My decision-making process now considers one thing I seldom used to think about: How will this affect other people? It used to be all about Me, but now that doesn’t wash. I like being this age, I sort of wish I could stay in my 40s for another 10 or 20 years. It’s a good stage in life because you finally have some sense, and the sexual pressures and fitting-in dilemmas of the teens and 20s are long gone.
You asked me what made me decide to quit using drugs. There were several reasons, but I think the most important one was that I was terribly unhappy with who I had become. I had gotten to a point in my life and in a relationship with a woman where I was just so screwed up, it seemed I couldn’t do anything right. My life had become a revolving carousel of money, lust/love, material possessions, and drugs. I was miserable and was slowly killing myself. I made the decision to get straight Thanksgiving Day, 1989, and quit using drugs, but it took me months to extricate myself from the relationship.
The choice to quit using drugs and booze was one that I had to re-make almost every day until I got busted. If I hadn’t had gotten in trouble with the law, I might have “broke-weak” and gone back to using. To get from where I was at with drugs to where I’m at now, where I have no interest in them whatsoever, has been a long road. I feel for those young people, because peer pressure and wanting to fit in are so strong and as a teenager one’s “base of wisdom” has not yet been well formed. That comes with the accumulation of years and of life experiences. That’s the screwed-up part of the teens and 20s: You are making life-long decisions—or decisions with life-long consequences—at a time in your life when you are ill-qualified to do so. With a bit of luck, hopefully they’ll figure it out sooner than I did. Part of my problem was all my authority figures and role models were screwed up too, so I lacked examples of how I could be different than them. I hope these young people can see the example of adults who are together people.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.