When my 16-year-old son came into our family room to play a video game, I was delighted. I don’t get a chance to sit and talk with him often, so I quickly turned off the episode of Intervention I’d been watching. He sat down beside me.
“What do you think makes a person try their very first drug?” I asked him.
“Been watching drug addicts again?” he asked in return. I admitted I had.
“After however many years of saying no, they one day say yes. What makes them do it?”
“I have no idea, Mom,” he answered, taking off his sneakers.
“Of course not,” I countered, “but try anyway.”
Tactics I’ve used with middle school students in my classroom for 14 years work just as well on my son. First, acknowledge they may not have an answer, and then demand one nonetheless. I’ve learned you can’t assume to know what’s going on inside a teenage brain.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess they want to escape and feel good.” He chewed at the edge of a fingernail.
“Escape what?” I asked. “Abuse or emotional pain?”
“Yes, or maybe just stress,” he said.
My son’s responsibilities include schoolwork, making his own lunch, walking the dog, doing a random load of laundry now and then and shoveling snow in wintertime. He has everything he needs and much of what he wants. I wondered if he felt such stress.
So I asked, “What stress? You mean grades or girlfriends or something else?”
“Maybe just being alive,” he answered. “Like, just dealing with things.”When I was his age, it was drugs that scared me, not life. Those were the days of frying pans and eggs and “this is your brain on drugs.” I believed the fried eggs.
This alarmed me. When I was his age, it was drugs that scared me, not life. Those were the days of frying pans and eggs and “this is your brain on drugs.” I believed the fried eggs. I also believed the artist my high school brought in to render “The Dance of Addiction” all the way through a funeral, and I believed the inspirational speaker who pulled a handkerchief through his nose where cocaine had stripped away the cartilage. When people who’d lived it said, “Don’t do drugs,” my response was to nod furiously.
But drugs don’t seem to scare my son.
“Do drugs scare you?” I had to ask because I didn’t want to assume.
“Not really, most people act like they’re a lot of fun,” he admitted.
I understood what he meant. Though I hadn’t had much exposure to drugs in high school, in college they were part of the typical scene. My definition of dangerous drugs began to change because people I knew were doing them. And they were good students from good families, whatever that meant. Some were college athletes. I began to see drug use not as a dangerous activity, but as a way to let loose. Still, I didn’t do them.
“What keeps you from doing drugs when some of your friends are experimenting right now?” I asked.
He explained that having a chance to play Division I baseball in college meant more to him. “But don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind,” he added. “I know it’d be a good time.” I nodded.
“Why didn’t you do drugs in school?” he asked, and the spotlight was suddenly on me.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said.
“Of course it is. Do it anyway,” he said, turning my classroom tactic around on me. I met his eye, and we both smiled. I knew I had his attention. The Xbox controller went untouched on the couch beside him.
“Partly, I didn’t want to disappoint my parents,” I said. “When your dad is a police chief, it’s hard to get away with much.” We both laughed. “But mostly, I was scared of what I didn’t know. And that won out over my curiosity.”
“You were curious?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “But in case you missed it, I was also afraid.”
“So you never tried any other drugs?”
“I never did,” I answered honestly. “But let me tell you something: You have to decide that for yourself. The time will come when it will be easy to say yes.”
My boy looked at me. “What would you think if I did that?” he asked.
I turned to face him and put one bent knee up on the couch so I could sit closer. “Listen to me,” I said. “I would never say it’s okay with me if you do drugs. It isn’t. But there’s nothing in this world you could do to make me stop loving you. Do you understand?” He said he did. I ruffled his hair. When he picked up the XBox controller, I knew the conversation was over.
Later, I was in my bedroom reading. My son came in, something he had not done in years. He stood in the doorway, arms above his head grasping the trim. “Hey mom,” he said, “I just wanted to say goodnight.”
“Goodnight, sweet boy,” I said. I’d been calling him that since he was born.
“Why do you think people start taking drugs?”
“It’s different for everyone,” I sighed. “I think people have to learn lessons for themselves, and sometimes doing things we shouldn’t do is the only way we can learn them.” He nodded like that made sense to him.
After my son went to bed, I lay there staring at the ceiling, hoping against hope that by sheer will I could prevent him from choosing chance over safety. But I can’t. All I can do is be there if he does.