Students, as you begin your new school year, I'd like to offer you and your parents some advice from my years in the classroom.
Let me start with Sept. 11, 2001. It was the day terrorists attacked our country, but it was also my first day as a teacher. I had just been hired by a private school in New York City. I walked into my new middle-school classroom for the first time, about an hour before the first plane hit the North Tower.
Needless to say, I didn't get to do much teaching that day. Moreover, the horrors unleashed on New York by terrorists were a precursor to my personal horrors.CartoonMatt Davies' latest cartoon: Bill and Donald's bindersCommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
You see, while I was teaching by day, by night I was drinking uncontrollably, snorting cocaine, having unprotected sex and doing the things you have been warned against. I was out of control. I was sick. But it wasn't just something in my genes that made me do these things. I made bad choices and I allowed them to take over my life.
Despite being in an alcoholic fog most days, I managed to teach. There are former students -- now young adults -- who still fondly remember their English teacher, Ms. Smith.
I hit bottom in 2009 -- after a two-day bender in Montauk. I struggled to get sober for 2 years after that incident. My sobriety date is Sept. 11, 2011 -- 10 years after my first day in the classroom.
I'm not proud of having led a double life. In retrospect, I'm amazed that I could function but grateful to be sober for four years.
I don't need to tell you that drinking until the point you black out and waking up not knowing where you are, who you are with and how you got there is poor decision-making. I also don't need to tell you that the best advice is to "just say no." On one level that's true, but we all know it's not always practical advice for either parents or kids.
Some people can drink alcohol and smoke marijuana in moderation. How do you know whether that's you or not? You don't. I didn't. I was 12 when I first got drunk -- and went from a few sips of beer to keg stands and cocaine by the time I graduated high school. I traded in school trips abroad and running for student government for hangovers and failing grades. I lost the choice to say no the first time that liquor touched my lips.
As one who couldn't "just say no" and cannot "just have one," I can tell you what lies down that road. Addiction is furiously unforgiving. It'll rob you of your adolescence, poison your 20s and take you hostage in your 30s. For years, you'll wonder what's wrong with you. You'll feel troubled, tormented and alone. Instead of coping, you'll create permanent solutions to temporary problems. You'll hurt others, but you'll hurt yourself the most.
Parents, put the lunchboxes and car pools aside for a moment, and talk with your children about drugs, alcohol, addiction. Be honest. Break the habits before they begin. The last thing you should have to do is talk through these issues while trying to find the best rehab program for your child.
Kids, understand that alcohol and drugs can affect anyone anywhere -- including suburban school districts like the ones I attended on Long Island and like the ones impacted by spikes in abuse of alcohol, prescription medication and heroin.
Many of the recent drug-related deaths on Long Island were high school and college students. They were in classrooms like any other. Maybe they had to sit and listen to someone give them a similar lecture. Maybe they didn't pay attention.
I hope you will.
A native of Floral Park, Lisa Smith is writing a memoir about her decade-long battle with addiction while teaching middle school in New York City.