Dear Lincoln, you are only an infant as I write this. It might seem premature to start doling out any kind of advice at all, never mind advice about the serious issue of recreational drug use. Not only is the topic R-rated, but anything I speak aloud probably comes across as unintelligible babel anyway, and anything I write has interest to you only insofar as you can put in your mouth the paper on which I write it.
I write this for you to read on your sixteenth birthday. I could wait until then to write this letter and start this conversation. But I cannot help thinking about the nefarious temptations that drugs may present to you in life. I cannot help feeling compelled to put pen to paper and start articulating my concerns now so that I am ready when it comes time to have a conversation about drugs. I will probably write other notes before you turn sixteen. Given how information spreads and mutates at lightning speed across the Internet and social media in the age in which we live, it may be that the dreadful temptations of drugs are on your mind before you ever reach the tender age of sweet sixteen. But as I sit watching you explore shapes and textures and colors around you, putting anything within reach in your mouth, I am struck by how curiosity exerts a strong pull on a brain being wired in the purity and innocence of infant youth. It is a wonder to watch, but it also sets me on a brood contemplating one of my greatest fears—that your curiosity may not always serve you well. Right now, the danger is that you put your hand on a burning stove, or put your dirty diaper in your mouth. But there may come a time when a peer offers you a drug, and you will be tempted to try it.
You will have to make up your own mind in your life. I can love you. I can teach you. I can provide for your basic material needs. I can’t, however, make up your mind for you when you go out into the world on your own. I can tell you with the conviction of a father who loves you, and with the conviction of a son whose father learned too late in life that drugs are bad news, that drugs will destroy your life. I can’t, however, control your impulse to try something as seemingly harmless as a cigarette or a marijuana joint. I can only do my utmost to emphasize the insidious path that a cigarette or joint can set you on. It’s not just lung cancer. It’s not just memory loss or the way a joint can stimulate your imagination while making you too lazy to act on imagination—as the Porter in Macbeth says about alcohol’s effect on lust, ‘provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance’. These are only the first steps to addiction. So-called gateway drugs. Sure, not everyone who smokes dies of lung cancer, and not everyone who take a few drags from a doobie ends up having to stack up on munchies and Netflix queues and set aside a weekend every month to go on a weed binge like Ken Erdedy in Infinite Jest. The results of giving into the initial temptation are as variegated as the lifestyles and predilections of those who give into the temptation.
But addiction is in our family. Many of my uncles and aunts—your great-uncles and great-aunts—have struggled with drug or alcohol addiction. My father and mother also. I’ve seen first-hand how drugs impact mood, motivation, decision-making, and lifestyle. While the severity of effects has varied across family members, and while some have recovered better than others, and while drugs are not the only factor in how they turned out in life, it is worth observing that one feature they all share is that they have only meager government assistance to shelter them from a merciless abandonment to living on the streets in cold and hunger. They’re poor, broken, and old. There’s no going back on their bad decisions. They’re busted. People can go sober, but they never fully recover from going down that path. It eats away the brain. It stifles ambition. It takes away freedom. It hollows you out. It puts you in a place where those who know you and love you will see you as a burden to be avoided, as a hopeless case, as a moocher who comes around solely to bum a few dollars until the next SSI check, or even worse, to steal checks, money, or property they can pawn to feed their habit.
I fully appreciate that the effects differ for different people, and that outcomes in life are a function of many variables besides the decision to take or not take drugs. But drugs exert an uncommonly strong influence, and the effects they have can make you a persona non grata among the people you know and love. There was a time in my life when certain uncles and aunts were categorically not to be trusted, and most certainly not to be welcomed. In retrospect, only one aunt has proved irredeemable. Most others have ‘recovered’. They are congenial, remorseful, sometimes embittered, or simply resigned to the consequences of their addictions. Most have been able to reign in their addictions, but the devil in their ear is ever-present. One uncle never sips a drop of alcohol because he fears if he has one glass, he’ll have thirty, and when that happens, finances which are already precarious become desperate and unmanageable; moreover, his wife locks up his painkiller prescriptions lest he abuse his prescription and take more than his prescribed dose. Another uncle who has COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases) from a lifetime of smoking has managed to keep his alcohol consumption down to one or two cans a day despite wrestling with anxiety and depression. This gives much-needed reprieve to another uncle (his brother) who lives with him and who himself has a shake in his hands whenever I see him, which I can only surmise originates from his own past habits and who-knows-what-other-addictions afflict him.
I could go on and on about how drug addiction has decimated members of our family through the years. PCP, heroin, Valium, painkillers, alcohol, marijuana. All have clamped their vise on the volition of aunts, uncles, mother, and father from the time they were young and vulnerable to the temptations of peers. None of them has come out of it with a steady job, stable lifestyle, manageable finances, or healthy brain. Many have pulled back from the brink and resurrected themselves into some fragment of a normal life, but that life gets by on SSI checks that hardly last half a month, brains that operate at a fraction of the capacity they once had, and living in a run-down apartment with a TV that shows only the nightly news and reruns of M*A*S*H to keep them entertained, while they maybe sleep on a beat-up sofa retrieved from a junkyard, reflecting on a life that was once so full of promise. They are broken, busted, and full of what I can only guess is an insufferable remorse over opportunities they have lost to the ravages of time spent in the clutch of drugs, agonizing over times when family and friends were ever-wary of spending any time with them out of fear or impatience, and knowing that family and friends were right to avoid their company.
Addiction has no conscience. It has no will. It knows only the hunger. It knows only the itch. It knows only the urge to take another hit. Cocaine. Heroin. Painkillers. Weed. It doesn’t matter the drug. Once you’re hooked, you will do anything to appease the hunger, to scratch the itch, to get a hit. Steal from family. Steal from strangers. Sell your body. Live out on the streets. Shack up with doped-out zombies in dilapidated camps under bridges or in condemned buildings or in unsheltered alleys.
Yes, the risks are probabilistic. It might seem like you can have a taste, and then just put it aside and walk away. Maybe. But addiction runs hard in this family. It’s probably in you. So it’s up to you to recognize that the probabilities are not in your favor and that it is better not to take even one step down that path. Your mother and I wish for you to be happy, healthy, independent, empathetic, and capable of making your own good decisions. You will not go about in the world unharmed. There will be failures. There will be disappointments. There will be heartbreaks. There will be obstacles and challenges. But drugs are a whole other abyss of failure. They will give you no succor. They are false gods and false promises. Success in life is a function of many things, but it is most dependent on your own strength, your own will, and your own choices. Drugs will strip away your strength, will, and ability to choose. You will become a slave. Dirty. Broken. Desperate. Bitter. Dead.
That is not a fate I would wish on anyone, but especially not for the daughter I love more and more every day. Not a fate I can even imagine for the baby girl I watch at this moment, on her play mat, crawling, grasping little gadgets and toys, puzzling over objects in front of her, screeching and cooing. So pure and innocent and contented. Sleeping like it’s all dreams and no nightmares. Indulging curiosity under the watchful and helpful guidance of a mother and father who love her. To think that drugs could sneak in and exploit your curiosity, lure you away from the promises of life ahead of you, is unbearable.
There is currently much discussion about whether parents should allow their teen-agers to watch the Netflix series ‘13 Reasons Why’ about a girl who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she did it. The series includes graphic depictions of rape and suicide, and many believe it is inappropriate for their teen-agers to watch. But I’ve never been high on censorship. Of course, your mother and I are trying to minimize your screen time before the age of two, and we won’t be allowing you to watch pornography any time soon. But when it comes to a less trivial and more poignant controversy like whether you should be allowed to watch ‘13 Reasons Why’, the bottom line is, one way or another, if the prospect of watching the series is compelling enough to you, you will be old enough and smart enough at sixteen to find a way to watch it. That is the powerful allure of temptation. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘the only way to resist temptation is to yield to it’. What I hope, however, is that you read not only that one line in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the whole novel, in which a reader learns about the portrait in which resides Dorian Gray’s heart of darkness, the wretched ugliness of an aging Dorian Gray that encapsulates a lifetime of moral corruption. Pure censorship usually fails in its intent, because the temptation is too great when it is unaccompanied by an honest conversation about the full extent of what temptation entails.
That is why I want to initiate conversations about drugs. The old corny cliché tells you to just say no. I agree. But a mandate per se is not enough to stave off temptation. You must know why it is best to say no, and once you do, I can only hope that, when you can make up your own mind, you decide to just say no.
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