By KEVIN NEVERS
Addiction is a difficult enough concept for most people to grasp, those who
rarely drink or don’t smoke, who can take or leave that first cup of coffee
in the morning.
For children who’ve never been dependent on anything in their lives but the
love of family or friends, addiction may be an impossible concept to grasp.
How, then, do we teach children about the dangers of experimenting with
drugs, when the compulsiveness of addiction is as alien to their experience
as the failing eyesight and creaking joints of old age?
Pat Bankston, an anatomist at the Northwest Center for Medical Education at
Indiana University and a member of the Community Action Drug Coalition,
grappled with that question in a recent interview with the Chesterton
Tribune. As Bankston noted, the problem is not simply an inability to
conceptualize addiction. Children already think of themselves as
invulnerable and immortal. But they also think of themselves as unique, he
said, and lack the wisdom or the willingness to learn from the examples of
their peers. And they’re both skeptical and resentful of any interdict which
would seem to limit their freedom at the very moment in their lives when
they’re first truly tasting it.
Begin, Bankston ventured, with the growing body of evidence which indicates
that drugs actually reconfigure the biochemical structure of the brain, and
turn samplers into addicts by duplicating—“especially in the deep nuclei” of
the brain—the pleasures associated with the most basic human appetites.
Eating, for instance, is “wired in as something that’s pleasurable,” he
said, “and the effect of these drugs is evidently to mimic that pleasure.
That’s why we enjoy these drugs so much, and more and more evidence suggests
that the neurons, the cells, are permanently altered by these substances.”
Children need to understand that the mere application of mind over
matter—will power—may not be enough to dodge an addiction to
methamphetamine, say, or beat one to heroin, precisely because addiction
represents the triumph of matter over the mind.
“Everything we do has an effect on the brain,” Bankston said. “That’s what
memory is. These drugs have an effect that’s immediate and very pleasurable.
And it’s that pleasurable part of it that makes these drugs very, very
dangerous, because the brain is wired to repeat pleasurable events and to
seek them out.”
Anti-drug educators—from teachers and coaches to parents and pastors—need to
hit children where they live, Bankston said, and where they live, when
they’re 12 and 13 and 14, is on the doorstep of a brave new world predicated
on their autonomy. By experimenting with drugs they risk exchanging their
freshly-cut apron strings for a biochemical ball and chain which will deny
them liberty and volition alike, the freedom to choose their future. “They
love their new-found freedom. And the truth is, when you are an addict, you
lose every bit of that freedom. Not only do you lose freedom to the drug,
you lose freedom to the world. The court system is going to get you. The
prosecutorial system is going to get you. Your parents are going to get you.
The drug dealers are going to get you. You have no freedom whatsoever. You
are a zombie to the world and you have no free will whatsoever. Maybe that
message: Do you want to be free? Do you want to be in control of your
Anti-drug educators also need to be honest with children, Bankston said: all
drugs are not created equal. The process by which addictions to nicotine and
methamphetamine root themselves in the brain may be similar, but their acute
effects on a person’s health and well-being are vastly different. “A message
that might work—and I don’t know if it’s ever been tried—is to say, ‘Look,
life is dangerous. And you can’t tell how your body is going to interact
with these things.’ Kids are going to experiment. The question is what
they’re going to experiment with. And experimenting with these kinds of
drugs could result in your suicide, could be the equivalent of suicide. And
maybe that message would get across to them. I don’t think they know, I
don’t think even their parents know, how the brain loves these drugs so
Bankston believes accordingly that zero-tolerance drug policies in
schools—which make no distinction between alcohol and heroin, for
instance—may be counterproductive. “They tend to put things that are not
good but not so bad, like coffee or cigarette smoking, in the same
categories as these other drugs,” he said. “Pharmacologically they are
similar but the effects on society are different.” Yet if children have been
taught from grade school that alcohol is bad in the same way that heroin is
bad, and then they see their own parents indulging in a can of beer or glass
of wine at dinner, they may draw exactly the wrong conclusion about the
acceptability and tolerability of heroin. “They’re looking to see if people
are preaching at them, are hypocrites. They’re looking for phonies.”
Bankston is by no means advocating a loosening of drug laws. Nicotine
remains an illegal substance for juveniles, he said, as alcohol does for
minors, and society has an absolute interest in denying them to children.
But the brain wants what it wants, and children need to learn, early and
often, that their brains are only too vulnerable to the biochemical urgency
of some drugs. “I’ve never tried cocaine. But from other people’s
description of it, it’s just too good for this life. It’s probably too good
for people to tolerate.”