This week is National Red Ribbon Week, an alcohol/tobacco/other drug prevention awareness campaign observed annually in October in the United States. For my kids, what it really means is a week to dress up five different ways, depending on the day's "theme". Team Up Against Drugs means wear your favorite jersey (because we're in Texas A LOT of Stars, Rangers, and Cowboys show up...not on my kids of course, we're Cheeseheads to the core). On another RRW day it's "We're too bright for drugs"...so wear neon. Another favorite..."Don't Let Drugs Find You"....don your camouflage.
When I asked my middle-schoolers if they'd actually learned anything about drugs yet this week (admittedly, it's only Wednesday afternoon), one responded, "No, it's just a week to dress weird." "Oh yah, they talked about a drug during morning announcements." When asked which drug was talked about today, the response, "I don't remember, something that started with an "M" I think." The other one said, "I couldn't really hear the announcements today."
The tragedy about Red Ribbon Week is that kids, by middle school, need to be educated about drugs (including/especially alcohol use). And not just "don't do it, it's bad for you"....all kids need open communication about the effects drugs can have on the mind and body, as well as an understanding of how quickly they can become dependent on illegal substances which should include an age appropriate video about how the brain works.
It's just that simple.
A friend of mine, who found out the hardest way possible that death by overdose happens to loved ones everyday, started a weekly support and education group for teens and parents in our town after her son's untimely death. The organization is named after his favorite saying, WTF (Winning The Fight!), Kathy O'Keefe has spent more than a handful of years working tirelessly to educate our community, support hurting parents at all hours of the day and night, and (maybe the toughest part of her work) helping to decrease the stigma of drug abuse for families today. You can check the site out here, it is filled with GREAT information and insight on the topic of drugs themselves as well as the disease of addiction.
As the mother of a child whose addiction to alcohol took them both to places no family wants to go to, I am well aware parents don't want to talk about this issue unless it smacks them upside the head. And then they are usually in panic mode...I know this, because I have lived it.
In looking back at my parenting before I was baptized into the dangers of alcohol and drug use among teenagers, I'd have done a few things differently...I share them with you today in the hopes that something I write will speak to you before you have to take the walk I took in 2008.
- I would have worked harder at communicating with my son's father. Because he went between two very different home environments, and because it was challenging for me to have any (including those most important) discussions with his dad, neither one of us had a clue about the extent of our son's emotional needs, his use of substances to self-medicate, and as things progressed, often his physical whereabouts.
- Instead of being scared of the idea of drug use in teenagers with my first child, I would have gotten educated on AT LEAST what to look for, what smells should raise red flags, what items from the house might be weird to have disappearing, where kids tend to "hide" their stuff, and what to do if I encountered any of these things.
- Though I did not have any control over the relationship between my son and his father, I would have worked harder at spending more time with my son individually (he has four younger siblings). I would have found the time to create a stronger personal connection with my son and learn about who he was, rather than create expectations about who I thought he should be (or what I needed him to be).
- I would have believed my husband when he told me (repeatedly) there was alcohol missing from our cabinet.
- And, while this last one is hardest to admit, but necessary and something I think about even to this day...I would have modeled the use of alcohol more responsibly. I have had a glass of wine at 9:30 p.m. every night (sans pregnancy) for the past thirty years (yes, really)...some nights the glass has been larger than others. Though my son never experienced me drinking and driving, I know there were a few nights when my husband and I came home from being out with friends that I am sure he could tell I was less than 100%. Like, much less. Over the years my intake has definitely decreased, but modeling responsible use of alcohol is something really important to think about (whether your kids are in the room or not).
As a nation we continue to see drug abuse/overdose everyday, no matter if they are celebrities, politicians, or regular-everyday people. While on the surface it may look like we use these substances in the name of recreation, or to enhance the taste of a meal, or for "celebratory" purposes...many people (young and old) who begin using mind-altering substances slip into use to quell feelings they don't want to feel, and/or to avoid, or to confront, situations that are too uncomfortable without the hazy barrier.
My greatest wish for Red Ribbon Week is that it would move from what it is now, to an effort that includes the parents, the school, the community as a whole, with the idea that we can't even hope to change what we don't acknowledge.