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This Is Your Brain on Drugs

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"This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" -- Script for PSA by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1987

This ad was part of a campaign to eliminate (yeah, right...) the use of illegal drugs in America. A strung-out guy holds up an egg. Then he shows you a frying pan. He cracks the egg, drops it on the hot pan, and tells you that's what your brain looks like on drugs.

The ad is widely considered to be one of the most memorable in history -- except, of course, for those who were too stoned to remember it. It was also terribly simplistic, often parodied, and at times taken way too seriously. (It was criticized by the American Egg Board because they didn't want people to think that eggs were bad.)

The ad ended by simply asking: "Any questions?" The implication was that there shouldn't be any. Brain + Drugs = Fried Egg. End of story.

Not for me. I had a lot of questions. The equation just didn't add up. I was 35 and had done more than my share of drugs (as had many of my friends). How had I managed to get married, have a child, and earn a decent living with a brain that resembled a fried egg? Didn't the fact that the egg was "sunny side up" send a bit of a mixed message? Did they mean all drugs? Were they really scrambling marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin into one scary-sounding huevos rancheros?

Perhaps, that's why the version of the ad that came out 10 years later -- in which an actress goes wild with a similar frying pan, smashing everything in the kitchen including the sink -- focuses only on heroin. It explains how that particular drug can destroy your relationships, livelihood, and self-respect, as well as your body. A claim that would seem to be backed by ample evidence -- statistically and on the street. Even Keith Richards acknowledges those are likely results of heroin addiction, although he managed to do quite well for himself for a few years while in the throes of it.

Those fried egg ads are just the most famous examples of how society has tried to fight drug use and abuse -- particularly among kids -- by making it sound incredibly scary. It is scary. By the time you -- yeah, I'm talking to you... there in the back row... texting away -- when, that is if, you manage to graduate high school, there's a good chance you'll know kids whose lives have been really screwed up by drugs: classes flunked, friendships torn up, promising sports careers abandoned. And, yes, in some cases, lives ended.

Still, you probably know a lot of other kids who drink or do drugs with some regularity and still graduate with honors. You may very well be one of them. You also probably know a lot of "upstanding" grownups who admit to serious indulgence as kids. Some of whom are your teachers.

So, even though you've been bombarded with statistics since 6th grade, there's still that disconnect. While the numbers may have given you pause, given the choice between statistics and what you've seen with your own eyes, the eyes have it. Besides, like most kids (and many grownups), you figure you can beat the odds.

I think society is doing kids a disservice when it simply tries to scare them into sobriety instead of making sure they have access to clear, concise information about how legal and illegal chemicals can affect their chemistry from head to toe.

That kind of knowledge can be very empowering -- whether you're deciding whether to join your friends in the parking lot after school or, just as importantly, talking to your doctor about why he or she is giving you that particular prescription drug for your depression, anxiety, or ADHD.

I never took a chemistry or biology course in my life, but I've managed to slog my way through enough basic information about brain chemistry to hold my own in these discussions. If I can do it, so can you.

In addition to the potential health benefits, it's really fun to be able to ask an unsuspecting adult important questions like: "What's the half life of this drug?" and "When does it achieve a steady state?" Both of which explain a lot about when you might start feeling the effects and why, if you have to stop taking it, you need to wean yourself off slowly.

Even if you're still at an age when it's up to your parent or guardian to give so-called informed consent, it's still your body. I don't know if what you're ingesting means your brain will end up fried, scrambled, or emerge unscathed. But, ultimately, you're the one who's going to have to live with it.

Knowledge really can be power. And, in that spirit, here are some of the websites I've found that do the best job of explaining drugs and brain chemistry in language us normal kids can understand. No matter age we are.

Any questions?

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

Some Places to Learn the Basics
eMedExpert (A comparison of the different SSRIs.)
Enchanted Learning (As with all complex topics, children's books and websites are the best place to start your research... and often to end it.)
McManamy, John: McMan's Depression and Bipolar Web. (A comprehensive blog that combines really good information with memoir.)
Pharmacology Corner (Some very helpful short video lectures.)
Poore, Jerod: Crazy Meds (The essential layperson's guide to prescription drugs.)
Also, here's a short presentation I did at the University of Vermont called, "The Wit & Wisdom of Neurotransmitters."

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