“When the Time is Right” (to Discuss Substance Abuse)
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with a very enthusiastic group of freshmen at a local high school regarding my personal experiences with substance abuse. What started as a seemingly mundane and carefree tale soon descended into the painful and frightening reality of the horrible places where drugs and alcohol can lead. As is often the case, the students who seemed disinterested at the beginning of my presentation were eventually locked in, eyes widening as each consequence became more serious than the last. By the end, even the ones who had been laughing and joking during the first few minutes were paying close attention. In fact, during the Q&A session after the presentation, two of the best questions came from students who had initially been rolling their eyes when they heard that someone was there to speak with them about substance abuse.
Interestingly enough, the two questions both centered around my 10 month old daughter, whom I mention near the conclusion of my story. I found the questions to reflect a surprising amount of wisdom and forethought from people so young. They were, “Does the idea of your daughter someday using drugs and alcohol frighten you,” and “Are you going to talk to your daughter about the things you did?” The answer to both questions, in short, was a resounding “yes.”
As I told the students, the idea of my daughter someday going down the same destructive path I chose terrifies me. In fact, I told them that it is difficult for me to think of something that concerns me more. Having seen firsthand how quickly substance abuse can progress, and having lived through the hell that is addiction, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to equip my daughter to make better decisions than the ones I made. A large part of that commitment is reflected in my answer to the second question.
After answering “yes” to the second question, I elaborated. I explained that, when it comes to preventing negative decisions like the ones I made, communication is the most powerful tool available. However, communication is something that works best when done proactively and not reactively.
I don’t want to wait for there to be an incident or crisis in my daughter’s life for me to bring up the subject of substance abuse. I don’t want to delay the conversation because it might be an uncomfortable topic. I don’t want to get caught up in the idea of “when the time is right,” waiting for perfect moments to present themselves. If I do that, I am going to be waiting too long. As a father who is committed to his daughter’s wellbeing and happiness, I need to seek out those moments. I need to create those opportunities. If necessary, I need to plan those moments, perhaps years in advance.
Granted, different discussions will come at different stages. What I discuss with my daughter will be age-appropriate. There are details I will tell her at 16 that would be far too much for her to bear, or perhaps even understand, at the age of eight. I will also make sure that the types of consequences I choose to discuss will resonate with someone her age. But I will make sure that I am not delaying anything based on it being “uncomfortable,” or “inconvenient,” or me shying away from the truth. If I am to use the experience and wisdom I have gained to help others, I need to be unflinchingly candid about what I did and what happened because of it, without ever glamorizing my past substance abuse. When it comes to a life-and-death topic such as substance abuse, my personal pride should be the least of my concerns.
This approach isn’t limited to substance abuse. Between my personal experience and the things I have learned during my time at notMYkid, I’m planning on applying the same concept to the topics of bullying, unhealthy relationships, depression, self-injury, eating disorders, and internet safety as well. Not only am I going to be proactive about discussing all these topics with my daughter, but I am going to make it clear to her that she can approach me about these topics, or any others, at any time. While there will be rules and structure in our house, I’m going to make it clear to her that she can feel free to talk to me about anything at any time, without fear of condemnation, anger, or judgment. These are all rather intense topics, however the discussion surrounding them doesn’t need to be one full of doom and gloom. Done correctly, it can be a very loving, uplifting, and positive experience.
If you’re reading this and you have children, I encourage you to take to heart the things I’ve said. Discussing weighty topics such as these can indeed be uncomfortable and time consuming. However, the alternative to communication and prevention can be far more uncomfortable, even devastating. This is an excellent opportunity to form a plan, put it into action, and see it through. Perhaps, instead of saying, “when the time is right,” we should be saying, “the time is right now.”