Of all the truly great legacies left to us by the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, one of the truest, simplest, most enduring messages is the one that came from the campaign during those years of his wife, Nancy Reagan.
The validity and importance of her anti-drug campaign with the slogan "Just Say No" was brought home once again today with the overdose death of popular 1980's child movie star Corey Haim.
This death comes on the exact 22nd anniversary of the death of 1970's teen heart throb, musician Andy Gibb, the kid brother to the Bee Gees who also abused drugs. Haim was a child star and Gibb died during the very year that the First Lady was popularizing her vital message.
"Just Say No" is a simple slogan, and some of it's detractors have stated that it is not only simple, but that it is simplistic, even simple-minded. Of course these critics are always the same old liberal "I can do whatever I want with my body and who are you to tell me different" crowd. Funny thing is, when the Haim's and the Gibb's die of their excess, these folks are never heard from.
Everyone with half a brain on the planet earth knows that drugs are bad for you. They are addicting, they are debilitating, they destroy lives and families, they drive people to commit crimes, they kill. The cost of drug abuse comes in dollars and cents, both to the addict and to the community that must support the consequences of their actions, but also comes in wasted time and talent.
No one, not Nancy Reagan, not those in the early years of the full-on initial "Just Say No" campaign ever posited, as it's detractors have lied and still lie, that their only tactic was to tell kids to just say "No" but give them no educational information to back that up. The campaign was and in spirit is still about educating kids fully to the point where they are able and willing to say that "No" at the key moment.
I have had drug abuse and addiction within my own family. I have seen first-hand the ravages to a person's body and soul that come with this addiction. But while it is very true that drug addiction, like most other addictions to other substances such as alcohol, is a disease, the fact is that it is not only a disease. It is a choice.
People who come down with cancer and other diseases and illnesses do not usually choose them, or take actions that cause them. These illnesses are often hereditary, genetic in nature. Lifestyle decisions do affect most people, from the person who eats too many cheeseburgers over the years and develops heart disease to the person who smokes too many cigarettes and develops lung cancer. These too are choices.
The difference, however, and there is a difference, is that in the vast majority of the cases the drug abuser is a young person, usually one who is not like Haim or Gibb. It is usually one who has not even started out on life's journey, or barely so, and has not had an opportunity at career or educational or relational success. The choice, and it is a choice, to take the drugs wrecks that opportunity.
When a young person is lost to drug abuse, it is a loss to all of us. How many of those individuals could have made something positive out of their lives? How many could have cured our own illnesses, educated us, entertained us, defended us, protected us, been our leaders? The cost in dollars is significant, but the cost in lost human lives and opportunities for the addict and us all is staggering.
Now some will challenge that drug addiction, or addiction in general, can also be hereditary, and some will say that there is little or nothing that the addict could have done. I challenge that, having lived through it first hand. There is always another choice, another option, another direction. The addict chooses the negative, chooses the darkness. Again, it is a choice.
There always comes a time in every single addicts life where someone approaches them. It could be a friend, an acquaintance, a school classmate, a lover. But someone always approaches them for the very first time offering the drugs. Offering to share it, offering to show them how, offering it even for free that first time.
Every single addict has been told at some point prior to that moment that drugs are bad for them. It is simply too loud a message to ignore. It is taught in homes and schools and on the streets. The negative examples are all around them in the worst homes and neighborhoods. Family members and communities ravaged by the violence and decadence.
So at that pivotal moment, every addict has a choice. Some will say "You just can't expect a young kid to have the strength or courage" to do the right thing. Baloney. Kids find courage and strength in any number of situations when they want to do it. The simple fact is that the kid makes a conscious choice, usually knowing or having a good idea of the possible outcome, or at the very least the danger.
Often that kid makes that choice when, if they just stepped back and thought about it, they would realize all of the options that they have for a positive direction in life, options that could and likely would be ruined by saying the "Yes" to drugs. But out of the excuses of the pain and loneliness and lack of confidence that we all face during those teen angst years, some seek temporary comfort in bad decisions knowing full well that they are bad.
While it's fine to be sympathetic, supportive, hopeful and helpful to those close to us who become addicts, what is needed right now is not more embracing of the choices being made by addicts around us, but a return to reinforcing ever more strongly that simple message to kids of "Just Say No" in their lives. When that moment comes for them, they need to care more about their life, their family, their future than looking or acting 'cool' in front of some friend or some group.
Families need to understand as well that it is not their fault that their family member makes the choices that they make. You can be the strongest, most loving, most caring family in the world. You can provide solid educational opportunities for your children. You can give them a mostly positive, surely imperfect because you are only human yourself, but nurturing home and lifestyle.
In short, you can give them the foundation that they need to succeed. But you can buy no guaranteed insurance, you cannot make them say "No" at their own key moment.
"Just Say No" is as simple a message as there is out there. But it is an effective message. And the fact remains that no matter what some liberal or some addict might want to tell you, had Corey Haim and Andy Gibb simply just said "No" at the pivotal moments, they would be here today. Gibb would be a 52-year old popular entertainer, and Haim would likely have not lived the past decade and a half in depravity, wasting away his talents.
For my own life situation, I still deal with the effects of my family member's decision to give in and say "Yes" at the pivotal moments. That one first "Yes" turns into a habit, which turns into a compulsion, which turns into an addiction. At that point, yeah, it's a disease that you are going to have a hard time ever fully beating. But it didn't start out that way. You never had to go down that path in the first place.
While I pray for the miracle that would be even a reasonably positive life for my own addict, I also pray that no one else in my life makes the same choice, ever. I won't only pray, but I will pass along that message, to "Just Say No."
I pray that all of your children and grandchildren when faced with their own moment will have not only the courage and strength, but also the self-respect to embrace that simple idea, to simply "Just Say No."