Karen Osborne

When I was a teenager, I had a huge crush on a handsome young actor named River Phoenix. He was the Harry Styles of his day: cute, talented and going places.

By the time Phoenix turned 20, he’d worked with legendary directors and actors. His pictures were in all the teen magazines we bought every week. If he’d lived, he would have undoubtedly been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Sadly, that was not to be. On Oct. 31, 1993, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose on the sidewalk in front of a Los Angeles nightclub. All the promise he held was gone in an instant.

The event marked my first major realization that drug addiction, left unchecked, will kill even the best of us.

I thought of my crush on River Phoenix when I heard about the recent death of 31-year-old actor Cory Monteith. He was one of the stars of the popular show “Glee” and he died in July of a drug overdose in a Vancouver hotel, shortly after leaving rehab. Monteith and River Phoenix shared the same secret life. They struggled with drug addiction and fame in the face of having to keep up a positive facade.

Some ask how people who seem to “have it all” could throw it all away on drugs. But they don’t understand the living hell of addiction. No matter what pop songs say and movies show, there is no safe drug. There is no fun drug. Drugs create a dependency in your body from the first moment you take them. Once you’ve started down that path, it’s hard to turn back, even if you desperately want to stop.

The disease of addiction causes changes in the “reward center” part of the brain that controls our survival instinct. This makes sure we feel good when we eat, drink and connect with others. Drugs hijack that instinct and instead tell us that the drug is the most important thing. That’s the reason an addict will keep trying to score a hit even though his or her life is at stake.

Addiction is not a moral failing — it’s a disease that kills, just like cancer, heart disease and stroke. But unlike cancer, you can prevent it by not exposing yourself to addictive substances from the start.

If you are offered drugs, I encourage you to think about Cory Monteith, as well as River Phoenix, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who struggle with addiction. The highs aren’t worth the lows that follow.

If you have a friend or family member struggling with addiction, understand that they may have little control over the disease, even if they say they’re OK or that they can stop at any time.

Luckily, there are numerous resources out there for teens trying to deal with addiction and for the friends who support them. A lot of these programs are geared to the specific needs of young people. Talk to a trusted adult, call a hotline, ask your doctor or someone in an organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Alateen.

Seek help so that you and others can live to your full potential in life.