“I’m feeling sad today,” I said when I sat down for dinner tonight with my four children. James is out of town. The baby banged a spoon on the side of her wooden highchair. Hesperus fidgeted. Etani made train tracks in his rice. Athena looked concerned.
“Oh no,” Hesperus said. “But we were just talking about him yesterday.”
“I didn’t know that he had died,” I said.
“Why did he die?” Etani asked.
“He died because he took drugs and they made his body and his brain sick.” I said. “A lot of people think drugs are cool. They think it’s fun to take drugs. But if you take too much drugs can kill you.”
“We know that already, Mom,” Hesperus said, still looking sad.
“But what if your friends pressure you to try them?” I said. I had everyone’s full attention now, except the baby’s. She flung the spoon onto the floor and smeared her hands in the cap to the tahini.
“I know,” Etani shouted, standing on his chair. “I’ll just say you’re a stupid head!”
“Etani shut up!” Hesperus said.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s practice.”
“I WANT TO GO FIRST!” Etani roared.
“Okay, I’ll be your really good friend, who you really like. Pretend I’m Finn. ‘Hey, Etani, check this out. I have some cool mushrooms here. Guess what, if you eat them, they make you feel really good. Want to come over to my house and try them with me?!’”
Etani hesitated, caught up in the game. I could tell that he DID want to say yes. That he wanted to be THE FIRST person to sign up to try the mushrooms.
“Hey dude, no,” he said, almost weakly. “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe I’ll try them tomorrow.”
Athena waved her hand. “Can I go next?”
“Okay. Pretend I’m W. Hey Athena! Want to come with us and try this stuff I got? It’s called LSD! Look! You are so artistic, Athena, and it makes you even more creative so I know you’ll like it.”
“W.,” Athena interrupted. “LSD is a drug. It will not make me more creative. Drugs are illegal. Drugs are bad for your brain. I do NOT want to try that.”
“Oh come on, don’t be a spoil sport. They’re not really bad, that’s just what your mom wants you to think.” Etani giggled. Athena, who’s nine, looked dead serious.
“I know they really are bad W. I don’t want to do drugs.”
We stopped playing pretend for a minute. “You know,” I told my kids. “I had a lot of friends in high school and college who did a lot of drugs.”
“You did?” Hesperus said.
“I did. I didn’t feel mad at them. I didn’t ever do drugs with them. But it made me really sad that they were doing so many drugs. Usually you do drugs because you want to escape from your real life, because things aren’t going the way you want them to, or because you feel unhappy and you’re trying to feel better…”
“Mommy, I want a turn,” Hesperus said.
“Okay. I’ll be your friend C. ‘Hey Hesperus, I’m feeling really sad today.’”
“You are?” My daughter asked sympathetically. “What’s wrong?”
“My mom and dad are fighting again and I’m just really depressed.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“But, hey, listen. My older brother gave me these pills. He said if I take them they’ll make me really really happy. Want to come over to my house after school? We can try them together.”
“C,” Hesperus said. “Those are drugs.”
“No they’re not! I would never do drugs. They’re medicine. They’re like aspirin or something.”
“No,” Hesperus said, her voice very serious. “They aren’t medicine, they’re drugs. You can become addicted if you try them. They won’t really make you happy. They might make you feel good for a little while but they’re actually really bad for you and they’ll hurt your brain.”
“But Hesperus everyone’s trying them. A. and H. told me they took some and–”
“A. and H. shouldn’t have done that,” Hesperus countered. “And just because they did doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“Good job,” I said, coming out of character. “Etani, I think the way Hesperus and Athena responded might be more effective than telling your friend, ‘Dude, maybe tomorrow.’”
Etani giggled. He’s only six. “But Mom, I don’t know what drugs look like!” he said. “So I’ll probably want to try them because I won’t know what they are.”
This wasn’t our first conversation about drugs and it won’t be our last. Too soon my children will be experiencing the kind of peer pressure we were role-playing, too soon they’ll be making their own decisions. As much as I am desperate to keep them safe, I know I can’t stop them from hurting themselves. But I can try to do everything I can to keep them grounded and to empower them to make good decisions when I’m not around to intercede.