Bill Williams (right) and his son, William Head Williams
Photo credit: Mike LoPriore
In 2012, Bill Williams and Margot Head lost their son Will to an overdose, after a long hard fight against his addiction. He was only 24 years old. Bill—a freelance director, writer, and acting teacher—began to use his writing talents to get past his sorrow and speak up about the many challenges families face when dealing with addiction—in his words, “to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.”
Since the early 1980s, teens have often been told to “just say no” to drugs. How effective is that message? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans in 2017, an increase of around 10 percent from 2016. That’s enough to fill a large football stadium. And a lot of those people probably heard “just say no” when they were growing up.
Why have adults been telling teens to say “no” in the first place? One reason is that the earlier in life a person first uses drugs, the greater the person’s risk of developing a drug problem. Most people who have a problem with drugs started using before age 18 and developed the problem by age 20.
So, adults are right to be concerned about teens using drugs. However, there are other ways to talk about the subject besides simply saying, “Don’t.”
The sad fact is that most of us are barely able to talk about addiction. It reminds me of how in the early 1960s, when I was a teen, we discussed cancer in hushed tones—if we discussed it at all. Shame and fear kept it under wraps. Since then, we’ve brought discussion of cancer into the light.
It’s time we do the same for what is properly called “substance use disorder.” Secrecy and silence are part of the problem. The shame surrounding addiction and those who suffer from it is so strong that parents, schools, and even whole communities can have a hard time talking about it openly.
We also should be involving you in the discussion about addiction. My lifelong experience as a teacher has made me profoundly aware of the potential of young people: your willingness to question, to challenge, to innovate—and, most importantly, to speak up. We adults are often unaware or even afraid of this potential in you.
But you know what? You can start that discussion; you can ask questions. YOU can be the leaders. That’s an important step to battling this epidemic. As they say in 12-step recovery groups, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” Try talking about substance use and addiction with your parents or teachers.
How would you do that?
If I had a one-on-one conversation on the subject with any of you reading this, I’d ask you, just like I ask adults, “What is your personal experience with substance use? How has it affected you and your family? Your friends?”
If you asked me these questions today, I'd tell you about my son's experience with drugs, its continuing effect on our family, and ultimately his untimely death. It might not be easy to talk about, but it would be necessary.
Maybe you could start a conversation by telling your parents—or another adult you trust—about those experiences of people your age (without naming names). Or, ask what your parents’ experiences have been.
You don’t have to wait for an adult to begin the discussion. We need you to speak up and speak out. Imagine what a stadium of 72,000 people could do if they started real discussions about change in the way we approach addiction. Time for kickoff.
Learn more about how drug use affects families.