Graphic by Dakota Cox.

The last day of school came much faster than expected

Growing up is easier said than done

I don’t remember my last day of school, because at the time, I didn’t know it was my last day. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in our lives and the rest is history.

I never knew as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, but learning came naturally. When high school came to a close, I chose to attend the local junior college because I didn’t know what to do with my life. Looking back on it now, however, the decision was mainly driven by a fear of the unknown and a compulsive instinct to seek comfort in the only place I’ve ever called home.

Again, when graduation arrived, I found myself clueless and afraid regarding my future. As I’d done three years before, acting on an instinctual impulse, I changed my college plans and sought comfort in familiar surroundings.

My first semester at Humboldt State was the most I’ve ever struggled to pass my classes. Living for the first time with roommates who were not in school was enough of a distraction, but our frequent and plentiful house guests that eventually all but moved in ensured I never needed to create a reason to focus away from my studies. The true cause of my struggle, however, was self-inflicted.

I was fifteen years old when I began smoking marijuana. It didn’t take long for the practice to become a habit with the access even children have in Humboldt County. It pains me to admit that over the years, my relationship with the sticky flower has become one of the strongest in my life.

After spending the entire summer with my dad’s side of the family in Colorado, sobering up, I returned home to a rude awakening: Mary Jane’s call was just as strong as ever – I had become an addict. In addition, my tolerance had disappeared, which meant every time I smoked, my brain became useless. For almost an entire semester, I treaded water with my head just above the surface, then somehow managed to emerge, escaping any consequences for my poor decision making.

In life you either sink or swim until you find somewhere you can walk on water. I didn’t know it my first semester at HSU, but I had found my frozen ocean.

Rolling blackouts and global pandemics aside, for the first time, I genuinely began to enjoy my education. I had chosen to major in journalism on a whim, and it wasn’t until I began to put the tools I’d been learning to use, as a reporter for the Lumberjack, that a switch flipped in my brain. In a single moment, when I first saw my work printed in our newspaper, I knew I’d stumbled upon my purpose.

By the time my second semester at HSU began, my bloodstream had absorbed enough THC to allow me a reasonable degree of brain function after smoking, and as a result, my consumption increased. Then, the pandemic began.

Time moves differently inside the walls. Some days, it feels as if the sun will never set, while I struggle to muster every ounce of my energy, to make it through another day without taking a nap. Most days, however, pass in a blur, and when I lay down for bed, I wonder where all the hours went – the mussel shell I use as an ashtray usually answers my question when I empty it in the morning.

Marijuana is not alcohol or cocaine. The effects of THC are extremely more likely to inspire actions of laziness and snacking than violence. For an everyday user, the effects are dramatically reduced to a state that simply takes the edge off – making generally everything about life a bit more enjoyable. But, this pleasure comes at a cost, beyond the price of a dime bag and the sacrifice of social stigma. For the past year, since shelter-in-place began – or for just about all of college, if I’m being honest with myself – I’ve been sleepwalking through my life.

Any stoner will tell you the worst part of the habit is the effect it has on your memory and, more importantly, your ability to focus. While under the influence of marijuana, you’re never entirely present in any given moment. It’s completely possible to accomplish a single task in an inebriated state, though many will take longer than they normally would, with wider margins of error. It’s when you begin to attempt multiple tasks at once, however, that these inconveniences become real issues. Unfortunately, this concept applies, on a larger scale, to the management skills of our lives, as well.

Despite the constant fog in my head, driven purely by a newfound passion, I set my mind to becoming a journalist. I learned to see the world through the lens of a photographer. I learned to perfect my work in the context of videography, where there’s no room for error. I learned to create illustrations, to better represent my ideas. I learned how to package my work as a member of the Lumberjack’s layout gang. And most important of all, I learned how to properly tell a story – all within four unorthodox semesters that took place mostly on a screen full of empty boxes. I became a journalist, but at a cost.

Ever since joining the Lumberjack, I’ve given the overwhelming majority of my energy to the newspaper, because it has created undeniable purpose in my life for the first time – I’m finally giving something back to the world that I’ve taken so much from. Doing something well often isn’t easy, however, because of the sacrifices required to arrive there. There’s only so much time in a day and as a result, aspects of our lives begin to become neglected or altogether abandoned. While the newspaper provides the oxygen that fills my lungs, in the chaos of this pandemic, a healthy diet and exercise have become concerns for a future Dakota. Meanwhile, with the separation of isolation added to the self-centered lifestyle I’ve adopted since leaving my parent’s home, most of my relationships with friends and family have noticeably deteriorated.

In a world with seemingly limitless possibilities, most of us gravitate to our comfort zones, and I am no different. With graduation once again looming over the horizon, I’m faced with a familiar fear regarding the uncertainty of the future, but for a completely different reason this time. I’ve lived almost my entire life inside the invisible boundaries of Humboldt County. Now, with my bachelor’s degree practically in hand, I know it’s time to move on.

In many ways, my early experiences with marijuana inspired growth in my character in ways that can only be understood by someone who’s stood in the shoes. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made. I’m also aware, however, that those days have long since disappeared into distant memories. Every breath of smoke I take into my lungs is an attack on my own potential to become a well-rounded human being. And everyone knows the path of self-destruction is not an honorable one.

Having grown up in Southern Humboldt with the friends and family I have, free bud is never more than a phone call away. I could spend the rest of my life inside of the fog, and I would if I stayed here. If it means I have to walk away from everything I’ve ever known in order to realize the person I could potentially become, then I suppose that’s the price I have to pay for the choices I’ve made.

It’s easy to seek comfort, even, and perhaps especially, when life appears to be at its lowest. A life of happiness, however, requires genuine, sustained dedication and sacrifice. It’s never too late to become the person you want to be, if you’re willing to do the work – because, what’s the point of living if you don’t love yourself?

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