Taoists tell us that inaction is an action. I would disagree. I would say the action was in the choice to do nothing and that the inaction was just that, inaction, nothing more. Sometimes doing nothing is better. Sometimes it is best to twist the old adage around and say “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Workaholics, obsessive-compulsives, and people on the verge of a nervous breakdown would do well to start with doing nothing. Inaction has its place, sometimes. Programs aimed at preventing kids from doing drugs, drinking, and smoking tobacco isn’t one of those times, but you wouldn’t know it from the winning results of the local D.A.R.E. contest entered by my daughter, Amelia.
When she came home with her losing entry I listened to her disappointment and empathized. You win some, you lose some. That’s life. We moved on to homework and dinner. I walked her to school the next day and found the winning entries from the contest plastered all around the school foyer. Allow me to sum up what constitutes a winning slogan according to the judges-that-be: “DON’T!”
That’s it. Just “don’t.” Everywhere I looked it was “Don’t drink”, “Don’t smoke”, “Don’t start” and “Don’t do drugs.” No options, no choices, no alternatives, no one to look out for or look up to, nothing to do, and no where to go. In stark contrast to similar and more successful campaigns urging children on with things they can do to better their lives (“Eat healthy, be healthy”, “Stay in school”, and “Study with a buddy”), the ineffectiveness of anti-drug campaigns geared toward children is rivaled only by abstinence-only campaigns, another DON’T program that offers no options, choices, or alternatives.
While thinking of pictures and words for her poster, Amelia asked me how people get off drugs or quit smoking once they’ve started. At the ripe old age of twelve, she reasoned that whatever gets one off drugs could keep one from starting in the first place. I told her the best way to get off drugs was to enter a treatment program because they disallow drug use, they help people figure out why they started, and they help them deal with their feelings rather than relying on something to make the feelings go away. Life skills, I called them. Making changes in lifestyle like getting a new group of friends, hanging out in different places, getting a hobby, and setting reasonable goals can help those who are determined to get off and stay off drugs. Even tobacco users enrolled in programs are urged to pinpoint their weakest moments and redefine those moments. Weakest after dinner? Walk to a friend’s house who’s also trying to quit, go to the library, or visit the interesting new neighbor who doesn’t allow smoking in their house.
Amelia then wanted to know why people would start using if they could’ve done other things instead of starting. She proudly answered her own question with “peer pressure.” Good going, “Just say No!” camp, Amelia graduated from your program with a whopping one answer. I told her peer pressure was one of the reasons people start but that there were other more powerful reasons at work. If you feel like crap about your life and yourself and someone offers you a little powdered happiness, that might be hard to turn down. Got a parent or sibling who smacks you around? Doing poorly in school and getting called “stupid” all the time? Being bullied between classes? That powder is going to look pretty good. Got friends already doing it who look happier than you? It’s looking better. If your friends add to your temptation with a standard amount of peer pressure, it’s a good bet you’re going to at least try it. If you have enough negative feelings in your life, odds are you’re going to like what the drug does for you. It won’t take away the negative situations but it will take away the negative feelings. Never minding how negative it feels when the drug wears off, your lunch money or a covert visit to your mother’s purse will bring that wonderful feeling right back to you.
Amelia was taken aback by my feelings about the “Just say No!” slogan and wondered why I thought it was a bad thing not to do drugs. While pleased to be on the receiving end of my daughter’s inquisitiveness and willing to fill in the gaps created by her ever expanding awareness of the world, I was reminded of my disgust for the grown people in my life who had asked the same thing of me. Amelia is twelve, that’s her excuse. But what could be an adult’s excuse for asking such a retarded question? Moreover, she was enlightened by my answer whereas many of those grown people shrugged inside their pious little bubble ‘o self-righteousness, still insisting that doing nothing was better than doing drugs. Tom Lehrer knew better, having comedically warned parents of their children’s vulnerabilities in the lullaby “Old Dope Peddler”, released in 1959.
Just like the high of a drug, I told her, doing nothing only lasts so long. When it wears off you’re still faced with the same feelings and the same situation. Nothing has changed. What do you do now? The cycle is vicious and unending. Amelia’s expression looked similar to those of kids who have been told to “just say no” and then found themselves right back at square one. It was a look of lost hope.
Anyone who’s heard Eddie Izzard’s hilarious version of the Spanish Inquisition as carried out by the Church of England might have an easier time understanding the fallacy of “Just say No!”. Eddie offers one heretic after another the option of “cake or death”. There having been only three pieces of cake to begin with, the fourth heretic is told there is no more cake and cries out “So my choices are ‘or death?’” That’s funny stuff. But if you’re a kid facing a day of bullying and a nightly dinner theater of Abusers-R-Us, it’s not so funny to be thinking “So my choices are ‘or don’t?’”
Amelia’s look of despair became a distant gaze as often happens with those who feel trapped by their circumstances with no way out. I reminded her how people get themselves off drugs and stay off drugs — through action and change. Her gaze turned to a look of hope and determination. She wrote a few things down and then interviewed family, friends, and some of our neighbors for further suggestions. She made a list of all the things someone could do and ways to cope with feelings instead of doing drugs. I was so proud. Hers was a list of DO’s.
To veer slightly for just a moment, it’s worth noting the amazing effect a big person can have on a little person if they just give them choices instead of hammering them in the face with “No!” As small children, all my kids were stopped from going through the fun-filled garbage can and offered one of the “new” toys from the secret bin (this would be where I kept half their toys for months at a time and switched them out. What, I was poor and the kids had the memory and attention span of, you know, little kids). When a friend came over to play, they weren’t made to share their favorite stuffed animal and instead were told to pick three other toys they felt comfortable sharing because it was their choice — and this is the end of my veer.
So, what was Amelia’s entry? Using every color in her marker box, she filled the poster board with a rainbow of ideas, using the color gray for the words referencing drugs (here, in italics). She didn’t win the battle, er, the contest. But I have hopes that kids like her will grow up to be the adults who win this particular war.
Counseling, Collect cards, Create a toothpick tower, Care for a pet, Camp out in the living room, Candy, Cameras for picture-taking, Catch bugs, Clean, Crotchet, Crossword puzzles, Calligraphy, Correspond with a friend or relative, Cozy up to mom, Cuddle with a puppy, Curl up with a good book, Color a picture, Cast a fishing line, Clip the hedges, Cater a slumber party, Co-found a lemonade stand, Call a friend, Combine strawberries with whipped cream, Cooking, not cocaine
Hang around with people who care about you, Hang up pictures, Hopscotch, Hobbies, House of cards, Hide-n-seek, Hop over to the park, Homework, Hoot and Hollar, House a stray dog, Help others, Help yourself, Horseback riding, High-jumping, History, Hightail it to the comic book store, Hit a punching bag, Harmonize, Hint about what you want for your birthday, Herbal tea, Have an X-box party, Hold a banquet in Spiderman’s honor, not heroine
Discuss your troubles with someone you trust, Defend yourself, Define your dreams, Distance yourself from bad people, Drink water, Daily walks, Diagram sentences, Deal a deck of cards, Discover the library, Dig a hole and plant some seeds, Design your dream house, Dive into a swimming pool, Disguise yourself, Dance, not drugs
Make time for a friend, Make new friends, Move your room around, Make a sandwich, Makeover your room or locker or desk, Mail a letter, Make a pact with a friend to stick together when things get tough, Make your friends who lost at your videogame call you “daddy” (okay, I may have thrown that one in there myself for the big people reading this, you don’t know), March around the block with friends in a parade, Masquerade as your favorite superhero, Math, Meditation, not marijuana or meth
See a therapist, Sell things in a garage sale, Sit down to an activity you enjoy, Seed a garden, Studying, Stick with good people, State your ideas, Swing, Sing a song of sixpence or Sing whatever you like, Swat flies, Sample a new food, Swing dancing, Splash around in a puddle, Seed-spitting contest, Style your hair, Swim, Schedule a movie night watching comedies and cartoons with friends, not cigarettes
Talk to someone who cares about you, Tell someone who cares about you when you’re having trouble, Tiptoe, Tap dance, Take the dog for a walk, Topple a pile of rocks, Tickle, Tell your friends to meet you at your house for videogames, Toss a ball around with someone, Tell a story, Type a poem, Take a shower, Time yourself going to the store and back, Take care of yourself, Teach a littler kid something you know how to do like ride a bike or read, Test your balance, Twister, not tobacco
Attend classes and clubs and groups, Assemble a model, Apply for a volunteer job, Ask someone who cares about you for help with your homework and your problems, Arrange for a sleepover, Alter your path to school, Attach paperclips, Assign roles in a play for you and your friends to perform for other friends, Alternate between running backwards and forwards, Arts and crafts, not alcohol