There it was, in one of the volumes of my Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia: cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine is a drug. Therefore, cigarettes must be bad for you. I ran into Mom’s bedroom. She was on the phone, but that didn’t stop me from shoving the book into her lap. Apparently, Mom already knew cigarettes had nicotine. So, why would she smoke them? I wondered. I never liked cigarettes – I thought the smoke and ashes were unpleasant – but it never occurred to me that they might be harmful. I was only seven years old, but several adults I knew and trusted – Mom, my godmother, Grandma, my aunts – smoked, so I figured cigarettes must be okay. But, after reading about nicotine, I badgered Mom about quitting. A few months later, she did; it’s been more than a quarter century since I’ve seen Mom slide a thin, white cigarette out of a green Salem package before lighting it. I don’t know how much my badgering weighed into Mom’s decision to quit, but I do know Mom’s erstwhile habit turned me off from smoking anything for good.
I grew up in the “Just Say No!” generation, the first generation to get a comprehensive and vivid education about drugs, the effects they have on our bodies and brains and why they are hazardous to our health. “Crack Is Wack” posters were in the windows of storefronts in my neighborhood. Weekly Reader talked about the high school graduating class of 2000 – the group of kids three years younger than me – becoming the first generation of 17-year-olds who didn’t smoke cigarettes. There aren’t too many people around my age who hear “this is your brain on drugs” or “I learned it by watching you!” and don’t immediately hearken back to the non-stop anti-drug public service announcements of our youth. It was drilled into our heads: taking drugs leads to terrible things and, if someone offers us drugs, we are to say no.
When I look back on my childhood, I find the “if a stranger offers you drugs, you must say no” message in the myriad anti-drug PSAs to be the oddest. Who accepts anything from a stranger, let alone illegal drugs? I think most people would hesitate to take a stick of chewing gum from a random person on the street. Not to mention, most kids are taught at an early age not to talk to or take anything from strangers – we performed a skit revolving around that very theme during my kindergarten graduation ceremonies, right before we sang We Are The World – so I don’t think too many children would accept a crack rock or a marijuana cigarette from an adult they don’t know. Also, strangers trying to get kids to do drugs is a scenario that almost never happens. I was never offered drugs by strangers when I was a child and I don’t know of anyone I grew up with who was. And, I was raised in the Bronx, a place where illegal drugs aren’t hard to find.
We were warned about peer pressure when it comes to drugs; the friend, acquaintance or relative who uses drugs and offers them to us can be hard to resist, we were told. And, our educators were right about that. In middle school, a couple of my friends started smoking. By high school, I had several friends who smoked cigarettes and/or weed and I knew a few others who used ecstasy and heroin. In college, about half the parties I attended featured people smoking weed and a handful had people slipping off to the bathroom to partake in hallucinogens. But, never did someone make fun of me or imply I was not cool because I rejected their overtures to smoke a cigarette or to try an illegal drug, which is what we were led to believe as kids. I’m sure such pressure has been exerted on some, but my friends who did drugs respected the fact I didn’t. However, I found the pressure to try drugs to be implicit, rather than explicit. Seeing people you know and like doing drugs – and appearing to have a good time – makes experimenting with drugs very tempting, even if no one asks you directly to partake. I don’t think our educators focused enough on that implicit peer pressure when it comes to drugs. It’s easy to say we should avoid being friends with anyone who does drugs, and that seemed to make sense when we were kids; after all, everyone who does drugs must be a monster! But, as we get older, we learn not all drug abusers are monsters. We all have flaws and bad habits and, sometimes, the fact someone likes to do drugs doesn’t overshadow that person’s positives for us, even when it should.
When I look back, I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t try any drugs other than alcohol, despite ample opportunities. Because I despised Mom’s cigarette smoking, the idea of smoking anything didn’t appeal to me. The thought of using a needle or snorting something up my nose terrified me. Taking something orally, or through my skin, whose effects on me were unknown frightened me. But, I know plenty of others who expressed similar fears who still did drugs. The older I get, the more I realize anyone can become a drug addict; given the right circumstances, the right mixture of people and events, we could all succumb to drugs, especially when we’re in our very impressionable teens and early 20s. Of course, due to a variety of factors, some are more prone to drug abuse than others. The fact any of us could become addicts doesn’t excuse the behavior of those who do abuse drugs, but it’s helped me realize how fortunate I am. Some of my good fortune has to do with getting a proper education on the evils of drugs, growing up in a nurturing, mostly drug free environment (Dad smoked a tobacco pipe for many years, which I also disliked, even though the smoke from pipe tobacco smelled better to me than cigarette smoke), and living a life that, so far, has been free of any major trauma. But, luck has played a big role as well.
Now that I’m a parent, it’s frightening to think about my two-year-old daughter one day dealing with the same implicit peer pressure to try drugs that I faced. Will she be able to say no? I wonder. I plan on being very candid with her about drugs and the risks involved in taking them. I want her to be educated about the different types of peer pressure she will face. But, I also know that a lot of my daughter’s decisions will be out of my hands; all I can do is give her the information I think she needs to make intelligent and informed choices. Hopefully, she’ll make the right decisions and will have the strength to say no.Follow @raford3