Fighting for Their Lives: Telling Kids the Truth About Addiction

Talking to kids about addiction is never easy. In all honesty, talking to anyone about addiction isn’t easy. If we wait for “the right time,” it’ll never come. But having this conversation is imperative.

I often wonder if anyone (or anything) could have prevented my struggle with substance abuse and addiction. You know, “if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?”

I like to think that there is one crucial piece of advice, in inspirational and profound nugget of wisdom that I could offer to a young teen, or perhaps my own children one day, that could save them from the life of despair that I created for myself when I was too young to know better.

But the truth is, I don’t know.

I know that drug education in schools is failing. And it’s been failing for years. I graduated DARE in elementary school. In 8th grade I overdosed during DARE week, covered in “Just Say No” stickers. (They insisted that it was a suicide attempt, and looking back I’m sure it was because the alternative would mean that their program was a failure).

Lately I’ve seen posts of “wacky dress code” days in schools as a method of educating children on the reality of addiction? I haven’t yet found an answer to what they’re actually teaching, but hopefully it’s something.

We need better drug education programs. And for a long time I had this dream of creating that better program. Teaching kids the reality. Telling them, “yeah, drugs feel good. And you may be able to use them and have zero consequences. But there’s a chance you’ll ruin your life before you even have a chance to live it–is it really worth the risk?” And in my dream, they listen. They understand. Their lives change forever, for the better, because of me.

But what’s the reality? Kids don’t listen. I never did. I was told that drugs would kill me and I still immediately left to get high with my friends. And I didn’t start with weed. I went straight for those pain pills. (Maybe that’s the problem? Did they teach kids about prescription drugs back then?)

My point is, having lived the majority of my life in active addiction and now finally having the clarity of sobriety–I don’t know that I have the answers. I don’t know that I have any answers.

What advice would I give my younger self? Beats the fuck out of me.

But I like to think that I would have listened. Maybe I could have said, “I know you want so badly to fit in and I know that these kids you think are your friends feel like your whole world right now, but in six months you’ll stop talking and even though you’ll continue to go to the same schools and you’ll still live two blocks from each other, you won’t speak again until you’re almost thirty years old.”

Maybe I could have said, “Do you know that that’s synthetic heroin? Did you know that it’s just as addictive and that any doctor who prescribes it to a 12-year-old should lose his license? Would you believe that if you take that pill you’ll lose what little sense you have and in a couple years you’ll steal money from your parents, get kicked out of the house, overdose, flunk out of college twice and you won’t have a moment of serenity and self-love until you’re 28 years old with 3 kids?”

I know I can’t say anything to my younger self, and I can’t do anything to change my past. And the truth is, I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t made the terrible decisions I made, and I might not have my three wonderful, perfect, pain-in-the-ass kids.

But if I could find the perfect piece of advice–maybe I could keep them from making the same mistakes I made. Maybe I can keep them from following in my footsteps.

What will I say to my children to keep them from experimenting with drugs?

Because let’s face it, addiction is genetic and boy do I have that gene. What about my grandkids? What can I say to the people that I love the most to guide them in making the right decisions? To put an end to the cycle of substance abuse that’s in my DNA?

I think the only thing we can do is be honest. Start having open conversations with our children and our future generations about what addiction did to us, and where it led us.

I think we need to put an end to police-led lectures on their experiences with the people they’ve arrested and start opening the floor to real testimonials from real people who have been through addiction and survived–and the family members whose loved ones didn’t.

The only way to beat a disease as cunning, baffling, and powerful as addiction is with truth and honesty and love.

Love them until they love themselves so much that they wouldn’t do anything to risk changing who they are.

Be so honest with them that it makes everyone uncomfortable–and then walk through the discomfort until they see that being uncomfortable is the only way to grow and get better.

Tell the truth in such a way that they start to see through all the lies in the world around them. The lies in the media, from their friends, in their schools, in politics and textbooks and video games and TV shows. Tell it in such a way that they won’t ever want to lie to you.

We have to get comfortable with the idea of being honest with children. Sheltering them never did anyone any good. Kids catch on to more than we realize, and they know more than we think, and when we lie to them we’re teaching them to lie to us. When we omit pieces of the truth, they pick up those pieces from other sources. Sources that don’t love them the way we do. Sources that don’t have the most reliable information.

Talking to kids about addiction, being honest, it’s the best we can do. It’s the only thing we can do. We can’t save them and we can’t make decisions for them. But we can be honest about the decisions we made. And we can love them through even their worst decisions.

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