FROM AGE 13 to 16, Peter Skidmore got high three or four times a day, and often stayed high for up to four weeks at a time. His teachers knew, his camp counselor knew, his friends knew. Nobody said anything about it. Like many of his friends, Peter Skidmore sleepwalked through life, confronting the pain and pleasure of adolescence through a haze of marijuana smoke.
His parents--intelligent, upper-middle-class people who thought this sort of nightmare never happened to nice families--finally decided to do something.
Jan. 10, 1981
Home alone, stoned and quite glad to be at home without the 'rents . . . Call Amy. She's not home. How lonely I feel . . . Afraid, because I was not able to reach someone to talk with, to be in touch with the other's lives. And I'm faced with my own life, and being the only one in it. By writing in my journal I am no longer alone, still lonely though . . .
Peter Skidmore was bored.
He put down the ballpoint pen and closed the blue spiral notebook. Then he reached for the plastic bong he hid behind his bookcase, the secret place where he had hidden favorite toys as a kid. He tamped down the marijuana, lit a match, closed his lips over the plastic mouthpiece and inhaled the smoke. He held it for a second or two, deep inside his lungs, then exhaled. He opened the notebook to that day's entry and picked up the pen. I can't figure out why I get high because I don't really enjoy it. I smoke not enough to be escaping life, although to some extent I am . . . I feel so lost in everything. There seems to be nothing I can hang on to. Of great concern to National Academy of Sciences researchers are the statistics: One in 14 high school seniors in America uses marijuana on a near-daily basis. An NAS report released last month found that marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, and that the suspected health hazards justify "serious national concern." The major findings concluded that marijuana use impairs motor coordination, interferes with short-term memory and may produce effects ranging from euphoria to delirium. Dr. Robert L. DuPont, the former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse who eventually treated Peter Skidmore, says the Washington teen-ager is typical of adolescent drug abusers. "In some ways it's worse than heroin ," he says. "It's more insidious. There's a climate of tolerance, of acceptance of marijuana."
What is not typical about Peter Skidmore was his ability to articulate his three-year odyssey in a journal--a sad, revealing diary of a child of the '70s.
Strangers would say Peter Skidmore had it all: good friends, good looks, good grades at a private school, a large house in a quiet Northwest Washington neighborhood. His parents are the kind of people others envy: Bill Skidmore, handsome Ivy League product, successful lawyer with the Commerce Department. Trica Skidmore: involved, intelligent, soft-spoken, training to be a paralegal.
Tall and slim, with soft blue eyes and blond hair that he used to pull back into a ponytail, Peter Skidmore is the youngest of three children and the only boy. As a child, he was so trouble-free that his mother used to worry. We're gonna get it someday, she'd say to her husband, half-joking. This can't last.
In the eighth grade at Alice Deal School, 13-year-old Peter Skidmore tried pot for the first time. It was 1978, the peak year of marijuana use among teen-agers, when one in nine seniors smoked regularly, according to DuPont.
Peter's best friend already had experimented with drugs. But Peter says he felt naive. He didn't know anything about the drug scene. One night, he went to a dance at St. Albans School and met his friend. They went outside, where a group of boys stood in a tight circle, passing a joint. Peter stood outside the group, uneasy at first. When it was his turn, he took the cigarette, puffing a little too hard, trying to impress the other boys. He didn't feel anything at first. He doesn't remember if he got high.
But if he didn't respond immediately to the drug, he did react to something else: the acceptance from the group. For the first time in his life, he felt that he belonged to something. A secret club. After that night, he and the crowd got high often. At first it was weekends and parties, where a joint was always being rolled and bong hits were a rite of teen-age passage.
"It just made some things more fun," he recalls. "We used to go out and play Putt Putt golf at 2 in the morning in the freezing rain. No one's going to have fun doing that unless you're high."
Peter worried about getting caught. He squirted Visine in his eyes to clear the redness, chewed gum and sucked on Lifesavers and breath mints to disguise the smell. Still, his parents suspected he had tried marijuana. When they asked him, Peter said yes. They asked him to stop. His father wasn't worried at the time. He thought it was a phase, that pot was pretty harmless. His mother, though, was becoming more and more anxious. She had been reading articles about the harmful effects of marijuana on teen-agers, especially on their emotional development. Her husband downplayed it. Don't worry, he'd tell her. Relax.
By the ninth grade, Peter was stopping off at his best friend's house on the way to school. The two would share a joint before setting off on their bikes. But the drug never interfered with his grades. In fact, Peter was convinced it helped his concentration. Especially in math. When he was stoned, he could really zero in on one problem.
In 1980, Bill and Trica Skidmore decided to send their son to a private school. They chose Sandy Spring Friends School, a small, relatively progressive oasis of Quaker ideals in suburban Maryland. Peter Skidmore got high three or four times a day. Once before breakfast, once at the break between second and third period, once at lunch and once again when he got home.
"It kept me company," he says now. "Whenever I needed a break from home, or whenever I was sad or lonely, I'd go down to this bridge in Rock Creek Park near the house and get high."
At school, he'd walk outside to a clearing in the woods, where boys would gather to joke and pass a joint or two. Peter says he never had to buy any marijuana. His friends supplied it. Some grew it in their backyards.
His interest in outside activities began to dwindle. He lived in a state of suspended animation, hardly speaking to his parents. He was irritable. He lied constantly. Bill Skidmore still thought it might be normal. Teen-agers always went through a period of estrangement from their parents.
But something else was happening to Peter Skidmore. His memory was becoming hazy. He had a hard time recalling simple things he had done or said. He was exhausted all the time. Since his mother worked three days a week, he was home alone during many afternoons--time he spent smoking pot in his bedroom and writing in his journal.
Bored and listless, he would barely get his homework done before falling asleep. Often, he would spend an entire Sunday in bed.
"I'm sure the teachers knew," he says. "There were a lot of people who smoked pot there. I used to get high a lot because classes were a drag. If I had a test I was worried about, I'd get high so I wouldn't have to think about it. Sometimes, I would fall asleep at my desk."
One night, at a Capital Centre rock concert, he passed out. He says now someone had crushed Quaaludes and mixed them with the marijuana he was smoking. He woke up 45 minutes later in the nurse's station. "I was still dizzy, but I ran back to my seat. It never hit me for awhile how dangerous it was."
Feb. 18, 1981
Life gets depressing. I notice myself getting sucked into smoking . . . my partying is not so often, but it is a problem. My whole life seems to be in a different perspective because of pot. I find it hard to imagine doing anything I enjoy without thinking of partying too. Today, I avoided depression and got high. I feel unhealthy . . . My lifestyle has me trapped in the world of smoke. Why? Why everything?
His parents found drug paraphernalia in his room and took it away. The pipes, the bongs, the rolling papers, the little glass vials of grass. Trica called Peter's best friend's mother to tell her what was up. "I expected some resentment," she says now. "We talked over the whole pot issue. She said, in effect, that she still trusted it would pass."
Feb. 23, 1981.
Life has become so routine and I am somewhat apathetic. I go to school not caring and come home the same. I don't do homework. Don't do anything. It amazes me how I can do nothing for periods of five or so hours. I'm not excited about anything, barely enjoy dreaming about the future. Have no hopes, no desires. Nothing seems to matter.
He underlined the last sentence.
Peter Skidmore's drug problem was putting a strain on his parents' marriage. The arguments, the confrontations were taking their toll. Trica Skidmore had had a malignant tumor taken from her leg a year earlier, which added to the tension.
March 27, 1981
Today was another one of those parents-vs.-me days which has brought our relationship down to its lowest yet. Dad thinks that the problem with us "------- kids these days" is that we've never been told what not to do. He said we're immature -------- who think we can do whatever we want and not care about anything. He and Mom are eternally and without cease in anger toward me for treating them so badly and Dad says I'm not fit to be a camp counselor because I'm a drugged, immature person.
Peter had spent summers at Catoctin Quaker Camp as a camper. That year, he had planned to return as a counselor. It was the one thing he was living for. It became the one thing his parents could take away.
At about this time, Trica Skidmore read an article about a drug program that helped teen-agers on marijuana. "I was determined, while we still had control, to do something," she says. "I was afraid we would lose it."
April 12, 1981.
Things have been so ------ up. School, home, parents, the drug situation, me. I feel that I have lost all touch with life. I can't figure anything out. Mom and Dad are ruining everything I had hoped for. Can that possibly be better for my emotional state? My health, yes, but I think I'm going crazy. Aunt Alice said this weekend, "I think the whole world's going crazy."
The family consulted a psychiatrist who referred them to Dr. Robert L. DuPont, White House drug abuse adviser under presidents Nixon and Ford. DuPont had, in recent years, changed his stance on the issue of marijuana. Once in favor of decriminalization, the 46-year-old psychiatrist had become increasingly concerned about teen-agers' emotional addiction to pot. He began lecturing at high schools, and last year started a Washington drug abuse clinic.
The drug program was to last 12 weeks and cost about $800, with individual therapy, weekly urinalysis and group sessions. The Skidmores gave their son an ultimatum: Give up pot or leave the house.
Peter Skidmore enrolled as the program's first patient.
April 14, 1981
Today was my first appointment with Ron Levin, drug counselor. He's showing me that relationships based on pot are very superficial and that all the friendships I have now are pretty much based on pot . . . One thing I did not like too much was that he feels pot smokers are not worthy friends because the deeper feelings, problems, never surface. I'm psyched to make progress. He is really convincing (even if it may be brainwashing me ) that it is absolutely necessary that life be potless. He's being hard on me and giving me a lot of ---- . . .
Ron Levin, a 31-year-old social worker, remembers the night Peter Skidmore came in for treatment. "He was hesitant, like most of them are. He didn't know what he was getting into." The first thing Levin told him was to get off drugs immediately. The second order was to find new friends.
"I am going to be on your --- if you continue to hang out with dope fiends," Levin told his patient. Peter agreed to stop smoking pot for the duration of the program, but he resisted giving up his friends. They were his only identity. But he soon discovered that when he stopped smoking pot, he no longer spent as much time with them.
April 19, 1981
Four days of completely unstoned, straight, clean fun and happiness. Life is wonderful again. I feel myself growing and experiencing again.
He experienced withdrawal symptoms, which Levin compares to quitting cigarettes: lightheadedness, disorientation, irritability, insomnia. Levin prodded, forcing Peter to "get in touch with his emotions." Often, Peter would cry during these early sessions. After one month, several other boys had joined the program. One weekend, Levin took them hiking--just to show that it was possible to have fun without drugs.
There were topics of discussion each week: the latest medical research on marijuana, how to deal with peer pressure, immediate versus delayed gratification, love, anger, success, positive addictions.
Gradually, the peer pressure Peter Skidmore had experienced at school reversed itself. There was strong support from members of the group to remain drug-free.
"It was a lot easier than I expected," he says. "I think when I was getting high I was emotionally addicted to it, but once I stopped I picked up pretty fast how to deal with the problems. I really started getting into the drug-free life and it was frustrating when I couldn't convince my friends of the same thing. I felt a lot better about everything I was doing. My parents and I still didn't get along that well. I just couldn't admit that I had done something wrong. I think that was the hardest part of the whole program. I always had to retaliate. It had been a long battle and I didn't want to give up."
Summer came and Peter returned to camp. His family picked him up on Mondays and drove him to the sessions with Levin. One night, they found a small vial of white powder in his pack. It was cocaine. Peter insisted he was only bringing it back to camp for a friend. The next Sunday, Bill Skidmore drove to the mountains for a confrontation with his son over the cocaine. They sat under a tree as Peter confided in his father for the first time: how he felt about drugs, how he had just broken up with a girlfriend, his pain and loneliness.
"I feel so bad about what I've done to you," Peter said.
When they stood up to leave, they put their arms around each other and sobbed. "Peter and I have never been real close," says Bill Skidmore. But if the emotional exchange broke down any barriers, it was only a temporary detente.
During the first week of August, Peter attended his last session with Levin. Before the individual meeting, the social worker met with Peter and his parents. It was the culmination of the 12-week session. They sat on the hard chrome and leather chairs, staring at the white walls. Levin asked Peter how he felt. Suddenly, the boy exploded with a torrent of complaints.
"You're not supporting me. Where do you ever help me? Where have you been when I needed you?" he cried. "You don't listen to my dreams enough. You don't take an interest in my life."
Trica Skidmore sat silent, her face ashen. Bill Skidmore wrung his hands, staring at the floor. When he could stand it no longer, he burst into tears.
"You're giving us a bum rap," he shouted at his son, reeling off a list of projects the two had become involved in. At the end of the session, the family had come together, exhausted, and determined to heal the wounds. Bill and Trica Skidmore went home and wrote their son long, "reaching-out" letters.
That night, back at camp, Peter got stoned.
Monday night, bong hits. Tuesday ditto. Wednesday ditto. Monday night was the last drug session, hopefully . . . I feel pretty ------. My problem with the parents is that I have been subconsciously unable or unwilling to accept or return their love. I've been afraid to, in some respects.
Ron Levin says Peter got high that night to test himself. To see what would happen. It's not unusual, Levin says.
But Peter found more and more excuses to get high. "I got back into the whole drug scene," he says. "By September, I was starting to feel bad about it."
When Peter returned from camp, his parents knew he was using drugs again. There were harsh words, bitter exchanges, more threats and confrontations. Trica Skidmore looks back on that time as a "nightmare." "It was worse than the cancer," she says.
Sept. 14, 1981
My pot smoking hasn't diminished since camp and is really a concern now. The relationship with the parents just isn't as wonderful as I thought it was. I'm not getting any of the things which I should do, done. I always get too mellow and stoned and I feel guilty. My whole life just seems to be banking downhill once again. Nothing seems wonderful anymore.
"I realized I needed help," Peter says now, "but I couldn't ask my parents." One night, as the family was finishing dinner, Peter broke down and cried. For the first time in his life, he was able to ask for help.
The family called Ron Levin. He accepted Peter into the program for another 12 weeks. "The first night was really amazing," Peter says. "There were a whole new group of people, and I had been through it all once before. Everything I had accomplished during the first program came back to me. It was a lot easier that time. I was learning from the group, but I was also able to help them. I was giving them encouragement."
One group member Peter couldn't help was a boy who smoked pot two weeks before the end of the program, lied about it and then ran away from home.
But Peter now understands the emotional risk of giving up drugs.
"Everytime I felt I was being real successful, people would notice less. If you don't have a problem, then you're normal and nobody congratulates you for not getting high. That was hard."
"I think smoking dope was Peter's way of getting more attention from his parents. I think he was asking, as most kids do, for them to define his parameters, what he could do and what he couldn't do. I think it was peer pressure. I think he really wanted to be needed, as do most of the kids.
"The kids will lie and manipulate and cheat and steal and totally cut themselves off from their parents," Levin adds. "It's what teen-agers do normally, but it's really accentuated with dope. You learn that you don't have to deal with stress, you don't have to make any decisions, you don't have to deal with the normal daily activities of just getting along with parents, and you get into this pattern. The more you're away, the more you want to be away."
So far, the marijuana program has treated 13 teen-age boys. According to Levin, eight of the 13 are now drug free.
"I've learned to enjoy things without it," Peter says. He plays on a Frisbee team and recently has taken up ballroom dancing. "I don't think pot should be part of my life. I think it's really dangerous. It stunts your emotional growth. I think a lot of parents are overwhelmed by it. They have no idea how to deal with it. I wonder about all my friends who get high so much. I can't imagine them ever making much out of their lives. I worry about them."
It's been easier since he changed schools. He didn't go back to Sandy Spring this year. He enrolled in School Without Walls, an alternative Washington high school that permits students to take courses at different institutions. He's taking college courses in math at George Washington University. Next fall, the 17-year-old is enrolling in a small liberal arts college away from home. He is worried about falling into his old patterns. He knows that drugs and alcohol will be readily available. But he hopes he's learned how to face life without them.
"I feel as if I've grown up," he says. "I had a lot of fun getting high, but I think there's probably a lot that I missed." What he regrets most are the lost years with his parents. "They have told me, literally, that it's been a delight to have me around this year," he says, smiling impishly. "That's nice to hear."
But Peter Skidmore's odyssey isn't over. A week after the program ended last December, a girl he had been dating for several months broke up with him. On New Year's Eve, his parents went out. He was alone and depressed. He knew if he stayed home, he'd "go crazy." He called a few friends and wound up at a party with old friends from Sandy Spring. He was offered a joint. At first, he refused. But then, after a few drinks, he decided to get high.
Jan. 1, 1982
I got high for the first time since September and at the time went through so much self-anger because I failed. Because I was escaping everything bothering me. For every reason, I was bummed about it. Today I feel sure it will not happen again. My worst feelings about it are that I was so stupid to do it after so long. I can no longer say, "since September." Now, it's "yesterday.