16-year-old went to rehab for vaping addiction: 'I was out of control'

"Whenever I was awake, I was vaping. It was just such a habit that I didn’t even understand how much I was doing it."
Luka Kinard
Luka Kinard was part of what federal health officials are calling an epidemic of e-cigarette use.Courtesy Kelly Kinard

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/ Source: TODAY
By Luka Kinard and A. Pawlowski

Luka Kinard, 16, started vaping in high school. His habit grew so out of control that he began selling his clothes to be able to keep buying e-cigarette pods. When the teen, who lives in High Point, North Carolina, suffered a seizure a year ago, his parents sent him to an addiction rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. Luka now speaks at schools about his experience. He shared his story with TODAY.

I was absolutely addicted to vaping.

It started my freshman year of high school when I was introduced to it at a Friday night football game. It was just a way to fit in — the older crowd was telling me that if I were to do this, then I could sit in the front row section of our football games.

Prior to that, I had used chewing tobacco and cigarettes. Smoking is very taboo in our culture so at the time, I was thinking vaping would be more convenient. I used a number of different e-cigarettes. Juul was my favorite and my favorite Juul flavor was cucumber or menthol.

Whenever I was awake, I was vaping. It was just such a habit that I didn’t even understand how much I was doing it. If I had to say, it was probably every minute.

I’m underage, but it was really easy to get. You just pay somebody who legally can get it a few extra bucks. Or I know in my area, you can simply walk into a tobacco and vape shop or even some gas stations and they wouldn’t ID people. I started to sell my clothes and shoes to afford it.

I vaped for 15 months, give or take, before I stopped. I went from being a straight-A student to a failing student. I quit sports, I stopped going to Boy Scouts. I was very explosive at home and my behavior was very aggressive. I was very isolated and always irritated. I always had anxiety. I was so hyper-focused on getting that buzz that all my attention went to that. I became really selfish. I was out of control.

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At the time, I didn’t recognize it, but my body definitely changed. I was a lot skinnier, my face was sunken in. Prior to my seizure, for about three or four weeks, I had intense chest pain, insomnia and cold sweats, shakiness. I felt really weak.

I was actually so freaked out that I was looking up signs of an early heart attack, but I didn’t think it was related to the vaping. I didn’t want to believe that because that would have been a reason for me to stop and I didn’t want that.

I had a seizure in September of 2018. I was in a friend’s room when it happened. I fell off their bed. Other people said I just hit my head really hard and I was foaming at the mouth, my lips turned blue and purple. It was a six-minute grand mal seizure. I believe it was caused by the vaping. A cardiologist did say that my chest inflammation was definitely from vaping.

My parents forced me to stop. They sent me to rehab in October 2018. I did not want to go at all. I was upset. I was there for 39 days.

It was very, very lonely in rehab. You’re very restricted in what you can and cannot do. You go through a lot of groups: Groups on sobriety, on self-awareness and on how to interact with other people. It’s a lot of useful information, but it was definitely not a fun experience. I wouldn’t want to do it again.

Ask them, “How do you feel with this? How do you feel without it? Why do you use it? Is it for stress?”

For two weeks, I had pretty intense withdrawal. I was very nauseous, had a lot of insomnia and anxiety, headaches. At the rehab, they had a psychiatrist who was able to get me anti-anxiety medicine and a sleeping medication. That definitely helped ease the withdrawal.

When I came back home after rehab, I had every opportunity to, but I decided that it wasn’t for me.

I would tell parents who are worried about their teens vaping to be really accepting and supportive. That’s the biggest thing. If your child is vaping and they are addicted to it, they’re going through a lot of shame. If you punish them, if you shame them, it’s just going to add on to their shame. They’re just going to isolate and pull away from you even more.

Ask them, “How do you feel with this? How do you feel without it? Why do you use it? Is it for stress?” Help them recognize they’re the same person with or without it. They’re going to have the same amount of stress levels after using it.

It’s very overwhelming to be a teenager now. We have so many things thrown in our face, especially through social media. Being accepted is one of the biggest things we want to do. Parents and adults oftentimes forget that, but we’re still trying to figure everything out. Vaping is absolutely a way to fit in, but it’s not a healthy way at all.

What do we do with all these addicted people? We just need to continue to educate them about the dangers and give them the facts. I’ve collaborated with the Truth Initiative, which has a really good quit line just for vaping.

I was not surprised at all by this sudden spike in vaping-related illnesses. It’s definitely very unfortunate to see.

My health is pretty good now, but there’s no way I’m fully recovered. I haven’t even had a year of sobriety yet. Every day, I’m still in recovery. That’s how it’s going to be the rest of my life.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.