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Accepting the Reality of Drug Addiction


There is no end to the fears that keep parents up at night. Commentator Jim Bildner had to face the worst of them.

Mr. JAMES BILDNER (Chairman, Literary Ventures Fund): My son died alone in his apartment from an overdose of drugs. He was 21 and he had been battling substance abuse since high school. Peter was full of promise. He grew up in a safe community with great schools and unlimited resources. A long way away from the kind of places most people think of when they think of drug abuse.

He left a sister and parents, and hundreds of friends and neighbors, who filled our local church on that cold snowy morning when we put him to rest. But like so many other parents, we missed the early warning signs: an empty beer bottle in the backyard; the smell of pot on his clothes; a pill in the laundry room we couldn't identify. We chalked them all up to adolescent behavior, but we were wrong.

Three years ago, I found Peter's LL Bean backpack, its contents scattered on the carpet. Inside was the Brooks Brothers tie we bought him for Christmas the year before. But now, it was cut in half and he was using it as a tourniquet. Just under his physic book were several bags of heroin and a bunch of new and used syringes.

You see, the path from innocence to heroin happened right before our eyes, and with a speed that was hard to imagine. One day it was pot, the next day a pill, and before we knew it there was a needle in our son's arm.

Our family's experience isn't unique. A 2005 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan showed that a significant number of teens use an illicit drug sometime that year: 16 percent of eighth-graders, 30 percent of 10th-graders and 38 percent of 12th-graders - exactly half of all students have tried an illicit drug by the time they finish high school. Do you think a 13-year-old can understand they're throwing their lives away with one decision?

Drug addiction can affect any American teen, regardless of education, race, or economic status. There are drugs in the backpack of kids who drive BMWs and in the pockets of kids who prostitute themselves to pay for their habits. When my son was alive, he told me I could drop him off in any city in any state, and he can find a bag of heroin within a 10-minute walk.

Before our son died, we spent days in parent programs listening to other parents, like us, still in denial, convinced their kids were somehow different. Reckless, maybe depressed, but addicts, no way. Too often, a few months later, we get a card in the mail from one of those parents telling us that their child had died. Now it's our turn to put that card in the mail.

I spoke to the detective who found my son. It's a problem too big to be fixed, sir. Try not to think about it, he said, as he gave me the number of the county morgue so I could tell them where to ship my son's body. But I can't keep from thinking about it. And we all should be thinking about it, because the folks behind drugs aren't afraid of anything. Not territorial borders, law enforcement interdiction, or even the so-called war on drugs.

The simple truth is, that in the short term, the only defense any kid has are parents who believe it can happen to their kid, that it could be anyone's son. This time it was mine.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Jim Bildner, Chairman of the Literary Ventures Fund in Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Bildner