I don’t have a problem

12 13*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

His friend found him in the bedroom, bleeding from his mouth.

I don’t have a problem.

Last summer, 17-year-old Michael Hernandez drove over to a friend’s house for a barbeque. Throughout the party, Michael took almost two dozen shots, exceeding three to four times the legal blood alcohol content limit. At first, his friend David Salazar insisted that Michael let him drive. After what David says was a very convincing argument, Michael put the car in drive (by shifting to the unfamiliar “R” on the gearshift) and drove off — right into a neighboring lawn.

I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem.

David and his friend Gabriel Hernandez forced a drowsy Michael into the backseat of the car and headed to Starbucks, where Mrs. Hernandez was waiting for her son to take her home from work. After his mother got in the car, Michael woke up to feelings of frustration — Why am I in the backseat of the car? Why am I drunk on a Thursday afternoon? — and began violently punching the windows. David stopped the car in a parking lot. When they stepped out, Michael punched and shattered his car windshield; his friends forced him back inside and drove him home.

Michael rushed to the kitchen looking for a knife. Gabriel and David tackled him to the floor of his room and tried to hold him down, but he pushed them off and began throwing punches — at two of his closest friends. Everyone, he says, was the enemy. Michael bruised his knuckles and bumped his head on a wall, causing blood to trickle out of his mouth. Their friend Frank Noto entered the room.

I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem.

Mrs. Hernandez called the police. Officers arrived and handcuffed a still-fighting Michael, who, after initially resisting arrest, was dragged outside and forced to sit on the curb. He remembers pain in his arms from the tightly-binding handcuffs and being vaguely damp from stumbling into his friend’s pool. His friends give him worried looks from afar; in the corner of his eye Michael saw his mother looking away from him, sobbing.

“When I saw her crying, it hurt. That’s my mom, that’s the one who loves you unconditionally and stuff. To see her crying, not being able to look at me and turning her head and stuff, it’s kinda like being abandoned but you’re not, y’know? It’s like, ‘Is she still gonna love me after this?’”

I have a problem. 

Please, no more parties in Walnut.

Not for Ryan*, at least. Although his Halloween party last October attracted around 500 people and earned him over $2,000 in entrance fees, the 17-year-old was also robbed of his mom’s jewelry, an Xbox and some Jordans — over $3,000 worth of personal possessions.

“Take this from here to the end of this hallway,” Ryan said, gesturing at the 25-foot-long walkway on the Pierre-side of the E building. “This is my house. You couldn’t walk through it, there’s so many people, there’s smoke everywhere, balloons everywhere. It’s wild.”

“Wild” might be an understatement. The party featured multi-colored lights flashing on the roof, a man dancing in a six-foot teddy bear costume and music by a DJ who commonly makes appearances at parties in the Walnut and Diamond Bar area. A coffee table breaking under Ryan’s feet as he danced on it, cocaine lined up single-file on the backyard countertop. By the time police officers arrived, someone had passed out on nitrous oxide and a car had been broken into. Ryan discovered a bag of methamphetamine stowed away in his fireplace the next morning.

Parties and party drugs are not uncommon in the high school scene. With events being thrown almost every weekend, students have wide access to a variety of controlled substances. But for some, chasing parties at the end of each week leads to bringing drugs to school — eating an edible in class, smoking after school, taking Xanax on campus.

“I think it’s just ‘cause they get addicted. They feel like they need it just to have fun,” Frank said. “But coming to school messed up really isn’t that cool. I mean, you’re at school. They’re on something every single second they’re awake — that’s too much.”

On an average high school campus, cannabis sells at $12 a gram and medical marijuana passes, sometimes referred to as “med cards,” can be purchased for between $40 and $50. Xanax sells for around $5, cocaine for $50 to $60 a gram and ecstasy for around $20.

The high school drug scene runs deep. With relatively low prices and high accessibility for controlled substances, it doesn’t come as a surprise that 17-year-old Jason* had his first experience smoking marijuana at 16 and tried his first psychedelic at 17.

“It was fun, we didn’t have a bad time at all. It was funny,” Jason said.

That, he says, was the start of it. Jason eventually began smoking with a few other friends, although there were mixed sentiments about drug usage within their group. He and the people he smoked with were often called out for being “potheads” in the communal group message, where he says his friends who didn’t do drugs shared an underlyingholier than thou attitude and largely looked down on drug use.

“Some of them had tried it and they used to bag on me for doing it, like ‘You’re a pothead blah blah.’ I didn’t really like it but I just ignored it ‘cause they were ignorant. I’ll see you guys doing this crap in a few years,” Jason said.

During the second semester of his junior year, Jason found himself slipping. Smoking now and then grew into a couple days a week, until eventually getting high became part of the daily routine. By then, he had been off the school athletic program for two years, due partly to a lack of motivation of which smoking held a fraction of the blame. That semester, his grade point average dropped to a 2.7 and he began noticing a general  lack of energy that made it all the more difficult to complete schoolwork.

He witnessed many of his friends become addicted to drugs and took it as a sign. Jason heard of students at other schools who could not go a day at school without being on something. He cut smoking down to weekends and eventually reached a point during which he rarely smoked at all. He now has a 3.2 GPA and has rejoined the sports team for his senior season.

For a period of months, 17-year-old Amber* did not go a day without getting high. School, she says, was just a hurdle she had to make over in order to smoke afterwards. Like Jason, her academic performance slowed down.

But something about her less-than-stellar report card seemed to ring a bell. Amber says her lack of motivation reminded her of her father, who also found himself in an academic rut in high school because of excessive drinking and drug use.

After graduating, Amber’s father attended university for a year, where he frequently went to parties and developed a drug habit before dropping out.

A young Amber used to watch her father leave for his “AA” meetings (what that stood for, she had no idea) and noted muscle spasms in his face — a long term effect of acid abuse. She remembers sitting in the backseat of the car while her intoxicated father, tears streaming down his face, apologized for his addictive behavior and asked the 9-year-old for forgiveness.

Though Amber didn’t fully understand the circumstances then, she looks back on her dad’s experiences as a cautionary tale. His warning resounds loudly in her mind: “The drugs will take over, it did in my high school years.”

“I thought about it and it’s kind of the same thing that happened to my dad during his junior year of high school because he was drinking and smoking all day. I looked at it like, ‘Aw, that’s happening right now.’ I didn’t realize it but now I realize it,” Amber said. “I was just like ‘I don’t want this happening to me, I want to go to school, I want to get an education.’ I don’t want to live to survive, I want to live to live. I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck, I want to go out and experience.”

Neighbors peep through half-open windows, three to four police cars  flashing  red and blue swarm the area. A fire truck rolls onto the block but promptly backs out.

“They put me in handcuffs, they sat me down outside. Then all of a sudden I remember I just went from super drunk,” Michael snapped his fingers. “To super, Oh s— this is real.’ Like f—, I’m in handcuffs right now, sitting down. There’s like four, three cop cars. I’m just sitting down in handcuffs and my mom’s looking at me crying like damn, this is real.”

Paramedics arrived at the scene and loaded Hernandez onto a gurney, strapping his hands down on the sides. David, Gabriel, Frank and Mrs. Hernandez tailed the ambulance to Pomona hospital, where he was taken into the emergency room.

Michael woke up the next day still a bit intoxicated, dressed in nothing but a hospital gown. Police officers issued him a mandatory 72-hour stay at the Citrus College psychiatric ward, where he shared a room with a schizophrenic patient and a man with anger management issues who had been tranquilized the night before for fighting with security guards. Michael was released after 32 hours for good behavior.

“I was sober and I was like, these guys are crazy. I’m not crazy. I’m just a regular kid and I didn’t deserve to be there,” Michael said.

After Michael was released, his friends made sure to keep him out of trouble. The group went to a party the same weekend he left the ward and Michael, thinking he could exercise self control and gradually lessen his alcohol consumption, grabbed a drink. Frank took it away from him; this went on for weeks. A week later, Frank, David and Gabriel formed a group message with Michael, in which they wholeheartedly urged him to cut off his drinking habit — and followed up the sentimental comments with a series of roasts. Talk about tough love.

“I thought they’re not gonna want to be my friends anymore. And they said, ‘No that’s not gonna happen. You’re still our friend, you’re still our brother,’” Hernandez said. “I even told my parents, ‘You know they’re not letting me drink,’ and they were like, ‘Well good, those friends right there, those ones that you fought, those ones who were there and know what happened, you can’t let them go. Those are some good friends.’ We’re just a big family.”

Michael has hardly touched any alcohol since his hospitalization. To conclude the interview, I asked him where he is now with drinking and his relationships with his family and friends.

I don’t have a problem.


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