Red Ribbon Week and Writing SWELL

The first Red Ribbon Week ever was in 1988. I was a high school senior and eager to attend the Red Ribbon Dance that San Clemente High School was putting on. The catch was that I had to sign a pledge to not use drugs or alcohol. For this, I would get a red ribbon to put on my wrist. The ribbon was my “ticket” to the dance.

Being an honest person to some extent, I decided to not sign the pledge because that would’ve been dishonest. Instead, I got a red ribbon and had a like-minded friend wrap it around my wrist. We proceeded to kick back some whiskey and beer, smoke some weed and head off to the dance. How ironic.

Today, Red Ribbon Week is everywhere, and so is the pledge. What has changed since 1988? I am not sure, but I do know that my defiance of sobriety during adolescence took me down a few dark paths that led to the experiences in my book, SWELL. If I had been a straight-and-narrow student and signed the pledge, I wouldn’t have the horrible memories that plague me to this day. Then again, I wouldn’t have the material I needed when I wrote about the descent of a good girl into alcoholism.

I am not proud that I turned to the bottle for comfort. It was a way to deal with heartbreak. Booze covered my pain and bathed me in a new image of strength, freedom, and vitality. At least that’s what I thought. It was easier to be strong while buzzing. To do amazing things like climb tall chain link fences and jump over barbed wire. Black out in liquor stores and end up with merchandise in my purse and have no memory of how it got there. Ending up in the back seat of a car and being taken advantage of. Yep, defying the Red Ribbon Week pledge took me places.

However, I was always the good girl. Excellence in manners and achieving good grades was what I did. Never defiant. Never talking back. Always a trouper. Amazing how all that can go to hell in a hand-basket with first love and first heartbreak. Now put a few layers of Chablis over that and you’ve got the recipe for teenage disaster. Not only did I come to depend on booze, but I took up smoking, too. So smart, but hey that was me in the 80s.

Several of the events in SWELL came from the back of my mind. The what-if part that likes to explore where something can go. I couldn’t stop wondering where things would have gone if I had done A or B. Certainly, many of the story components were either experienced by me or friends. But the raw undercurrent did not depend on whether something was actually true or not, because this kind of story is definitely true and experienced every day by many teens across the country. You, your friend, or your child might be one of them.

So how do we become so bad as teenagers? Because we have to grow. Eating apple pie and achieving a 4.0 GPA can help you go places, but it doesn’t mold you quite like being stuck under a stranger in a dark place, drunk and afraid. I do not advocate going through hell to come out the other side a princess. You might not get to that side at all.

Over the years, several people I’d known and partied with in school died in drunk driving accidents. Others came out the other side as lawyers, doctors, and parents. The guy that Christian is based on is very well-off. It looks like he came out the other side all good and clean, too. But I am certain that he, just like me and many others, know just how little a red ribbon around the wrist means when you don’t take something like drugs and alcohol seriously.


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