I was in ninth grade when I had my first drink and tried my first drug. A few weeks before that bottle of Andre champagne came to my lips, my high school had had an anti-drug assembly.
A uniformed deputy sheriff led the assembly; he gave a slide presentation about street drugs and alcohol. He showed us slides of gruesome accidents and black and white mug shots of drug dealers sentenced to prison. “It’s not worth what could happen,” he said. He used the catch phrase then becoming popular: “Just say no.”
The photos of the car accidents scared me. I was worried by the stories of kids sent to juvie for years. It didn’t stop me from getting high and drunk less than a month later though.
There are some kids for whom fear is a useful tool. Tell them once that drugs and alcohol can mess up their lives, and they’ll believe you. Of course, these are the same kids whose natural caution would probably keep them safe without the warnings.
For future addicts and alcoholics, trying to scare us doesn’t work. The disease is much more powerful than that.
What I didn’t hear, and what I wish I had heard, is that drugs and alcohol can make you feel really good. I wish I’d heard that they could take away the pain. I wish I’d heard they could send confidence and well-being shooting through your entire body. And I wish that I’d heard that those good feelings would never last, and would instead be replaced by despair and desperation.
“Just say no” didn’t speak to the hurt inside my friends or myself. What we needed was a message that explained addiction and acknowledged how much pain we were in, how hard it was to be young and how powerful the temptation to use could be. We needed a message that offered strong alternatives to using.
And above all, we needed to hear the message that there was hope and joy even for people who were tempted to use, or already using. We needed to see people who, in the words of the Big Book, absolutely insisted on enjoying life without getting drunk or high. We needed less of what to say “no” to, and more of something to which we could give a hopeful and enthusiastic “yes.”