Buffy, "aspirin," Mr. Yuk, and Just Say No
Buffy, the little sister on Family Affair, was the first person I'd ever heard of who took drugs and died. I was about four or five and I was fond of watching reruns of Family Affair and The Brady Bunch in the afternoons with my sister when she came home from school. I remember my mother telling me--quite matter-of-factly--that Buffy was actually a teenager and that she had recently died from "taking drugs." This blew my mind because I couldn't quite wrap my head around the notion that a). the pig-tailed little girl on TV who talked to her doll wasn't really a little girl anymore (the concept of "reruns" was a bit advanced for me); b.) that she had taken something called "drugs" (or "pills" I think my mom had said--which in my head translated to "aspirin,"--the only pills I knew of); and c.) she was dead. That last realization was particularly weird: the idea that someone could be alive on TV and dead in real life was freaky! I was confused but morbidly intrigued by the whole thing and enthusiastically repeated this information to my little neighborhood friends, all of whom were familiar with Buffy and Family Affair. They seemed equally fascinated and perplexed by the whole thing as I was.
When I was in first grade, a policeman came to talk to my class about all the dangerous things in our homes; like the bleach under the kitchen sink and the paint thinner in the garage and the polish our mothers used to make the living room furniture shiny. We were sent home with a whole shitload of Mr. Yuk stickers to plaster on anything that could be ingested by ignorant little kids (or curious older ones), like the Windex in the bathroom that resembled blue Kool-Aid.
I never got that far with the Mr. Yuk stickers; my mom neatly affixed one Mr. Yuk sticker to the kitchen phone--it had the number of the national Poison Control Center on it--but confiscated the rest of them after I thought it would be funny to stick Mr. Yuk faces on every toilet in the house. (My mother, who had to scrub off the stickers with lighter fluid, was not amused. I'm sure I got grounded for that one.)
I also remember an anti-drug talk of sorts by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, following some ancient filmstrip about safety in the household. She told us that, although our parents might have bottles of aspirin and other pills around the house that looked like candy, we were never ever ever EVER to eat them, no matter how tasty they appeared. I was like, DUH, everyone knows you'll die if you take medicine when you're not really sick. That's how my parents explained it to me anyway, and it just seemed like common sense. And I was already well aware that aspirin most definitely did NOT taste like candy, because I had to take chewable children's aspirin whenever I got sick, and they tasted like the inside of a dog's butt (or how I imagined one would taste, anyway).
But then Mrs. Baker told us something odd: she said that if any "older kids" ever told us that sniffing glue would make us "feel good" to never do it because--you guessed it--it would also make us get sick and die. This was new information to me. I knew what glue smelled like, we had the real stuff at home--Elmer's Glue--not that weak paste they made you use at school that wouldn't even stick to itself. I was surprised that I'd managed to inadvertently inhale glue dozens of times at home while doing construction paper crafts, and I had yet to get sick and die. I realize now Mrs. Baker was talking about the heavier industrial model airplane type of glue, stuff that I wouldn't have had at home anyway. But--as insane as it sounds--the exaggerated danger of what I assumed was Elmer's Glue may have sown the first seeds of doubt that drugs and other chemicals wouldn't really make me get sick and die. That it was just something people said to scare you.
Not that I had any interest in experimenting at the time. When I was around eight years old, I remember watching a TV documentary about the 1960's with my mom while she braided my hair. They were showing clips of some hippie woman singing in a rough, raspy voice, all bluesy and intense and shaking. "That's Janis Joplin," my mom told me. "She was a famous singer when I was younger." I frowned at the bell-bottomed figure on the screen who was flailing around and contorting her face like she was having some sort of embarrassing fit. "What's wrong with her?" I asked. "Oh, she got into drugs," my mom replied. I tsked, shaking my head. "She looks dumb enough to do them." I'm pretty sure at this time that I still thought "drugs" = "pills", and although I had figured out by then that there were stronger pills around than just aspirin, I still thought you had to be an absolute moron to take them. How could taking "pills" do anything more than make you well when you were sick? And what was so great about them that people--not just kids, I mean, some actual grown-ups--would take them? Seriously, how could you NOT know you weren't supposed to do that, dummies?
Ahh, childhood. When everything is either smart or dumb, good or bad, black or white. If only life really were that simple.
Rainbows, unicorns, butterflies, and sunshine.
Then suddenly it was 1983, and Nancy Reagan did a guest appearance on Diff'rent Strokes to speak to the youth of America about the dangers of drugs and to tell us all to "Just Say No!" Yep, that really happened, and I saw it when it aired. And yeah, it was as lame as it sounds now.
The most fucked up thing about this picture?
The old people are still alive, the young ones are dead.
So in fourth grade a group of high school kids visited my class to perform some anti-drug skits and hand out green "Just Say NO!" stickers for us to put on our book bags and Trapper Keepers. The high school kids--some of whom had actually (holy shit) tried drugs, back when they didn't know any better, of course---told us about marijuana joints, which were like cigarettes only much worse because you'd get addicted to them and die. We learned about a white powder called cocaine that people laid out in lines and snorted up their noses (why would anyone do that? Snorting stuff up your nose hurts! My mom had to pretty much tie me down to get nose drops in me whenever I had a cold). And we learned about this stuff called heroin, which made me almost puke because you did it by tying a belt around your arm to make your veins bulge out (EWWWW!!!) then sticking a needle into your arm and injecting it into your bloodstream. I was appalled. What kind of sick shit was that? You REALLY had to be stupid to want to give yourself shots, as far as I was concerned. But, the high school kids assured us, one day some of us--maybe even someone right there in that classroom--might be tempted through peer pressure into smoking, snorting, or shooting one of the very drugs they talked about that day and we needed to be prepared. That was A-okay: you didn't need to tell me twice not to stick myself with needles. I got it. Just Say NO!
Oh Nancy. You would have been
so proud of the fourth grade Me.
Of course, now it seems ironic. If my childhood self knew what sort of trouble I'd be getting into in my adult years, she'd be appalled. I can imagine her lecturing me:
Smoking? Ewww, cigarettes are nasty! Everyone knows those things kill you.Drinking? That's icky. Beer tastes gross and wine smells like farts.And pills? Really? That's the first thing you learn NOT to do. Don't you remember what happened to Buffy?
For those of you who don't know, I've been in recovery for several months. I've given up my two favorite things: pills and booze. I no longer abuse prescription drugs (Xanax and Percocet were my favorites, with an occasional Ambien thrown in for good measure) and I've quit drinking. It's taken me a few tries to get it right, but I can truthfully say now that I am sober for the first time in a long, long time.
I just hope I've made the old me proud. She's a bit naive, but her heart's in the right place.