My daughter's eighth grade science class was just finishing up a unit on drug abuse when I learned the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from an apparent heroin overdose.
Each student was given a drug to write about, which required research on how those drugs are abused and the potential consequences of abuse. As the mother of a soon-to-be high school student, I was pleased that the kids in her class were getting a more in-depth exposure to the consequences of drug abuse of all types, including the sometimes less talked about prescription drug problem, rather than just the all too familiar admonition we give our kids to "Just say no."
But as I was thinking about Hoffman and his addiction issues, which so many people had assumed he'd beaten after 20-plus years of being clean, I wondered how good of a job we do of incorporating discussions about addiction into the "why drugs are bad for you" lessons we teach our children.
From the discussions we've had with our 14-year-old, I know that at this point in her life she is genuinely puzzled as to why in the world anyone would consider abusing any of the substances they've learned about -- marijuana, cocaine, pills, heroin and more -- if they are aware that an overdose, or the wrong combination of drugs in smaller amounts, could kill them. But is it possible to get our kids to truly understand that when it comes to addiction, users have little or no control without the right support? Or that no matter how they think about drugs today, they, too, could become addicts? Our daughter's science teacher confirmed to me that the class has talked about what addiction is, but is a definition ever really enough to get our teens to truly understand the stark and possibly deadly realities of addiction?
Even if we get our kids to listen, a recent study about whether adolescent brains are more susceptible to addiction suggests that "there is substantial evidence that adolescents engage in dangerous activities, including drug abuse, despite knowing and understanding the risks involved," and that, sadly, the developing teen brain might actually be "pre-wired" for behavior that could lead to addiction.
So while the recent news about Hoffman is horrible, I hoped that I could use it as one of those famed parental "teaching moments." Maybe, I thought, the unfolding news reports about a successful adult with a family and everything to look forward to in the world, and who had been clean for so long, would get her focused on addiction as a dangerous reality, rather than just an abstract concept.
Unless there is a family history of addiction, there is no way to know which of us is susceptible to becoming an addict. And with teens being notorious for not being the best practitioners of self-control, how do we find a way to get our kids to internalize the real dangers of going down that rabbit hole?
According to the authors of that same study about adolescent brains, "A provocative statement would argue that science should better see the adult world with adolescent eyes, rather than seeing the adolescent world using an adult watch." With that thought in mind, maybe the answer is to get her talking about how Hoffman, and others like him, became addicts in the first place. During the filming of the movie Charlie Wilson's War, Hoffman told Aaron Sorkin that if one of them died from a drug overdose, he hoped that it could be used as a lesson to keep others from suffering the same fate.
It might be a tall order to get adults to see the world through the eyes of their adolescents as they talk with them about stories like Hoffman's. But if we can use the lessons of Hoffman's addiction to keep just a handful of teens alive, it will be worth the effort.
Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist and author of the book Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. She is also the publisher of the The Broad Side. You can find her on Twitter at @jlcbamberger.