Thursday, September 3, 2015

Overdose Awareness Day - A Father's Story

The following post was written for Phoenix House for Overdose Awareness Day, August 31st, 2015.  It appeared originally on the Phoenix House website.  It was also broadcast that evening on WJFF - Public Radio, Jeffersonville, NY - 90.5  FM.

It has been more than two and a half years since my son, William, succumbed to a heroin overdose.  His last time in the emergency room was certainly not the only time his addiction had brought him there.  Like Russian Roulette, risk of death is inherent in any heroin use, at any time.  William knew this, but simply being aware was not enough to save his life. This time, his disease fatally overcame his awareness.   
Today is International Overdose Awareness Day. Its goals are laudable— to raise awareness of the risks of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death. History has shown that public awareness toward stigmatized illnesses is an important step toward reducing fatalities.  And yet, when I asked several friends –mothers whose children have battled drug addiction, individuals in recovery – about their reaction to the day, some expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of dedicating one day to overdose awareness.    
As one person remarked “All these ‘days.’ … [Overdose] happens Every Single Day.”  She went on to tell me how she’d been brooding over New York City’s 12 unfortunate deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease—each one a tragic loss—and the intensity of the media coverage and the City’s response to the crisis. However appropriate the reaction was, when compared to the response to our opioid epidemic, which has claimed magnitudes more lives—“It speaks volumes, or rather shrieks volumes,” she said.

I share their skepticism of what a single day can do.  This is, for example, the third time Overdose Awareness Day has been recognized since William’s death, and I’ve never even known about the day, much less done anything about it, as active and aware as I consider myself to be.

To be sure, others I spoke with mentioned hope and the need to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction:  “Only when the uninformed public realizes that anyone can suffer with this disease, will the stigma lessen,” noted one.  Another wrote, “Fighting the stigma honors the memory of those who have died – but it also goes a long way in helping those who are still in the fight.  And fighting the stigma is a triumph even if one mind is changed.”

Yet another mother wrote:  “Of course, this is a time that we remember all the beautiful lives lost.  This day is also the perfect day to encourage those still struggling with the disease of addiction that there is hope, to celebrate those who have found recovery, to talk about recovery in general, and to share the good stories too, as they represent a huge source of hope, strength and support for so many.”

Those whose lives have been touched by addiction get it.  They understand how we need to confront addiction and how much work it will take. But what about our politicians?  What about our leaders?  Where are they?

I recently happened upon an essay by a high school classmate and good friend of mine, Professor Tom Van Nortwick.  Tom has just retired after a most distinguished career as a classics professor at Oberlin College.  In his essay, he mentions the plague of Athens in 429 B.C.  The Greek historian, Thucydides, a rare survivor of the illness, wrote about the sufferers.  As Tom translated in his essay:

Once stricken by the disease, victims lose all hope.  Those who go to take care of their friends are destroyed for their trouble; those left alone out of fear of infection die of neglect, desolate.  Wrapped in a cloak of illness, the social structure of Athens warps:  “For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would next happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law”(2.52).

Thucydides could just as easily have been writing about the suffering of our drug-afflicted and the disregard for them that has been the acceptable norm in our country for far too long, certainly both before and after the founding of Overdose Awareness Day.  When it comes to addiction, we as a country remain as ignorant, fearful, and reluctant to act as Athenians living in 429 B.C. were about the plague.

During that same year, Pericles, the great leader of Athens, spoke about the example of the democracy he led in Athens and of the power of the people to create change:
Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare than in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.  (2.40-41)

Where is our Pericles?  Where is the leader, or leaders, who will ask more of us, as individuals, and most importantly, as a society?  Where is the leader who will lead us in our battle that requires “exceptional grace and exceptional versatility?”

For me the best way to honor the day, to honor the dead, to honor the recovered, is to sound the call for a leader, to demand more of our leaders.  This year cannot be soon enough to begin long necessary change.  We need someone to recognize that vast numbers are dying daily. Someone who will make International Overdose Awareness Day the day that begins the end of all the Every Single Days. A day that is not one more drop in the bucket, but truly turns the tide.     


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Will's Willow

We’ve been ever so fortunate to own a home inside the Catskill State Park in upstate New York. The land surrounding our home is and will be by legislative decree,  “Forever Wild”.  One time when our son, William, was little, we began our trip back to New York City and William called out from his car seat, “Goodbye trees.”  William loved the house. He grew up there hiking, sledding, skating, biking, exploring, building snow forts and rafts, doing the things that make a boy happy. Certainly his time there with us gave no indication that William would say a final goodbye to trees and all else when heroin grabbed hold and took him from the world over two years ago.
At the end of May last year our family planted a tree in memory of William.  A young weeping willow now stands at the bottom of the meadow below our house.  His mother Margot and I, his sister, Elizabeth Hope, his then almost four-month old niece Josephine Hope, and her father, Johnny Anderes, all joined in the planting to remember and celebrate William.  I was able to give young Josephine her first ride on my garden tractor, cradling a bonneted baby in one hand, as I drove ever so carefully downhill to the planting site. That trip made Josephine the fourth generation in our family to ride that tractor.  William rode it as a baby and as a child, and learned how to operate it as a teenager.  It’s old, it’s worn, and it’s a memory machine. 
We’ll always be able to look down the hill and see “Will’s Willow.”  At least that is our intention.  Saplings, like children, need care and protection.  We provided plenty of rich soil and mulch when we put it in the ground.  We wrapped the young trunk to protect it from insects and small gnawing creatures.  We put up fencing to protect it from deer and any other large gnawing creatures.  Despite our best intentions, we can’t control everything.   Although we planted the tree where it would ordinarily get all the water it needs to meet its thirsty demands, an unusually dry summer caused us to worry.   The summer was followed by a brutally cold and snowy winter.  Nature wasted no time reminding us the willow shares the fragility of life with William.  By planting a new life in our midst we ran the risk of losing yet another life.   A life we’ve invested with extra meaning.  Many of the trees we’ve planted on our property have thrived.  Some have not. None of them have had a name attached, or even been chosen as a species for their particular significance.  We’re asking a weeping willow to both memorialize our son and somehow make our grief palpable.
Nature’s vicissitudes continued well into the spring in the Catskills.  There was snow three days in a row over the last weekend in April.  Waiting in New York City, the weekend gardener in me was getting itchy.  Practicality dictated it was too cold to begin anything in the garden and I remained in the city. The weather finally turned for the better the very first days of May.  I headed north, the brilliant green of new leaves along the Palisades Parkway slowly turning back to eager red buds as I drove further north.  Less forsythia, more daffodils.  The willows, however, are among the very first to show off their new spring garb.  All along the way, splotches of light yellowish green proclaimed willows happy and proud in the chilly new spring.

Those same splotches served to awaken a dormant anxiety in me.  Had Will’s Willow made it to this new spring?  Would I have to call Margot and Elizabeth and share bad news?  It was clear I was keenly invested in this tree, more so than I’d been aware.  By the end of my trip most everything was bare, especially my anxiety.  Only clusters of new daffodils promised more spring to come.  I drove in our driveway and headed not, as I usually do, to the house or the garden, but immediately down the slope to the lower meadow.  From the top of the hill the willow looked barren. Fretting, I continued on downhill.  To my great relief, the young branches were lined with small green buds, preparing to burst forth.  Spring comes late to our house, especially late this year, but Will’s Willow was on schedule.  I rushed back up to the house to phone the good news to Margot and Elizabeth.
Trees, like children, require faith and patience.  Especially when they’ve had to face trying times.  Sometimes even faith and patience aren’t enough.  It’s a tough lesson to learn.  It’s a tough lesson to remember. 
As I climbed back uphill from Will’s Willow I recalled a favorite line of mine from a poem by Richard Wilbur.  “And the found voice of his buried hands rose in the sparrowy air.”  Now on to the garden.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

Parity, Like Charity, Begins at Home

On May 14 my wife, Margot Head and I spoke at a Congressional briefing, "Parity 101 - Understanding the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Current State of Implementation.  My remarks follow below

Were I to have a one on one conversation about substance use disorder with any individual in this room, I’d ask, “What is your personal experience?  How has substance abuse affected you and your family?” Unfortunately, our family is closer to the norm than the anomaly.
There are lots of family stories out there. More than a few have come our way since we shared ours.  More than 2/3 of American families have been touched by addiction.  It is not inconceivable that 10% of us, the people in this room, as in the population at large, will have, do have, or have had a personal battle with this substance abuse.  20% of Americans live with mental illness.
A recent New Yorker cartoon portrayed a politician being interviewed outside the Capitol Building.  He’s saying, “I like to think we’re not so much anti-science as pro-myth.”  That needn’t be a politician.  It could be almost any American citizen.    
Before we can talk today about parity in terms of mental illness and substance use disorder we need to talk about judgment, fear, shame  - the stigma surrounding these diseases.  We need to confront the myth.   
For centuries, indeed most of human history, we have attempted to  name the unknown, the other, that which terrifies us.  An old prayer from the British Isles goes:   
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
The myth of the changeling is about the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf – or even a gypsy, being secretly exchanged in the middle of the night for a human child. The changeling would often grow sick or die.  This was a convenient, though not especially scientific explanation, for infants who die young from unexplained diseases, or suffer disabling disorders, including mental disorders, over a longer period of time.
Of course we don’t believe in such mythology in our time, unless you or someone in your family happens to believe in the Tooth Fairy.  A spirit who comes in the night and makes an exchange for at least part of a child.  We don’t pay much attention to such mythology, unless you happened to see a production of Peter Pan – Peter luring children from the nursery and taking them to Never Never Land. Old myths change shape and die hard.
In 1584 an English gentleman, Reginald Scot, attempted to describe witchcraft as irrational and un-Christian.  He wrote, in part:
“…But in our childhood our mothers maids have so… fraid us with:  spirits, witches, pans, dwarfes, imps, changelings, Incubus, and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows…
“…right grave writer’s report, that spirits most often…take the shape of women… and of beasts… of fowles, as crowes, night owles, and shreeke owles.”
Mr. Scot changed the minds of few.  All copies of his book were purportedly burned. The fright remains.  As Andrew Solomon wrote in his brilliant 2012 book Far From The Tree, “We live in xenophobic times, when legislation with majority support abrogates the rights of women, LBGT people, illegal immigrants, and the poor.”  At the end of the parade, behind even those disenfranchised groups, are the mentally ill…and bringing up the very rear, people with substance use disorder.

A recent Johns Hopkins research study indicates only 22 percent of respondents said they would be willing to work closely on a job with a person with drug addiction compared to 62 percent who said they would be willing to work with someone with mental illness. Sixty-four percent said that employers should be able to deny employment to people with a drug addiction compared to 25 percent with a mental illness. Forty-three percent were opposed to giving individuals addicted to drugs equivalent health insurance benefits to those afforded the public at-large, while only 21 percent were opposed to giving the same benefits to those with mental illness.  Respondents agreed on one question: Roughly three in 10 believe that recovery from either mental illness or drug addiction is impossible.

 We perpetuate the mythology in the way we speak of the afflicted.  Prejudice, hatred and stigma marinate in our language.  We freely call the sufferers:  lushes, alkies, disturbed, acid freaks, wastoids, boozers, juicers, scary, tweakers, coke whores, crack heads, winos, tipplers, nuts, loonies, pill poppers, speed freaks, people with a screw loose, mental  inebriates, drunkards, dope fiends, druggies, junkies, dipsomaniacs, psychonauts, dopers, freaks and retards.  We persist in trying to make what we fear disappear by naming it and shaming it. We prefer the myth of weak morality to the fact of disease.    
Only when we accept that mental illness and substance use disorder are brain diseases, treatable brain diseases, best engaged at their earliest manifestation.  Only when we realize that 23.5 million people, 10% of adults, are already “living life in recovery”.  Only when we truly believe that the value of addiction recovery far outweighs the $500 Billion spent each year on lost productivity, absenteeism, health care, social services and incarceration. Only then can we truly begin our conversation about parity.  Otherwise we continue to live in a dark past.
When we abandon the ancient, vestigial mythology; when we confront the myth; when we confront the stigma by confronting our language;  when we adopt a language of hope and possibility;  when we use the best science has to offer us to treat long stigmatized conditions, then we can talk of parity.  Parity in our nation, parity in our states, parity in our communities, parity in the voting booth, parity in our homes. 
Parity, like charity, begins at home.        


Thursday, March 26, 2015


Discussions about Substance Use Disorder in its various guises often include ideas about “Rock Bottom”. The notion being that sooner or later the afflicted have to experience a life altering eventoverdose, incarceration, getting kicked out of school, losing a job, getting kicked out of home, to name a fewthat shocks them into lasting change. Our family, too, heard this advice from multiple sources while our son, William, struggled with his use of heroin and we struggled to cope and understand.

The problem is this. The rocks at the bottom are strewn with dead bodies, including that of my son. Death is rock bottom. Anything else is just a serendipitous, albeit uncomfortable, landing on an outcropping on the way down. It may be a tough climb back. There may be other falls. But it’s not death.

I have recently come up with the idea of writing a letter to everyone who helped treat William along the tortuous descent to his rocky demise. I want to ask them whether his death has given them any cause to reflect upon his treatment. If so, what have they learned? Big ideas or tiny changes in practice? What change might they like to bring about so that others might not only avoid his fate, but actually entertain a productive lifelong recovery?

My suspicion is that very few, if any, have reflected much on William and his treatment. Given a lack of time or effort devoted to reflection, I suspect precious little, if anything, has been learned. I am talking about good, well-intentioned people who have dedicated their lives to important work. But is it work so trapped in orthodoxy of practice, work so mired in bureaucracy, that it leaves little time for introspection? How much are those who treat substance use disorder just like those they hope to cure, repeating the same behavior over and over? We ask addicts to look at what they do. We need to ask treatment providers to take a harder look at what they do. Or how about, just a look. 

Recovery is like a pinball machine. Up at the top somewhere, protected by bumpers and barriers is a target, prolonged recovery, hit sometimes by good luck, sometimes by good management. Your ball may land in a hole temporarily and then get spit back into play again. That’s Emergency Rooms or the court system. Points off for the court system. You might get lucky and hit a treatment gizmo that puts two balls in playone for substance use and one for mental health issues. Your ball may just get swallowed up for a while before reappearing somewhere by surprise. That’s insurance coverage. Or relapse. Points off. The ball may disappear down a hole until it pops up in the starting mechanism. You pull back, let go and start over. Inpatient or outpatient. Or relapse. Points deducted. Up toward the top are some flippers to keep you in play. Methadone. Suboxone. Side bumpers bounce you repeatedly into the center of the game. 12 Steps. DO NOT TILT! The lights flash, the bells go off and you do your best to tune out the frenzy in a game slanted downhill. Over time too many balls roll through that last set of flippers and disappear. Rock Bottom. Game Over.

So why don’t we tilt the table? Why don’t we take the whole game and flip it on its end so that all the balls roll toward WINNER!

I can hear someone calling me a bitter, unrepentant enabler right about now. Unwittingly, or even knowingly, maintaining the status quo. I’m tilting the table. Family members are hardly the only enablers, however quickly blame may come our way. When physicians, medical schools, therapists, Twelve Step programs, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, inpatient and outpatient treatment providers, politicians, judges, drug courts, police, schools and colleges take a good hard look at themselves and ask how they enable addiction, how their actions and ignorance perpetuate it, then we’ll have taken a step toward a solution. We can’t expect answers and solutions when we resist even asking the questions necessary to solve the problem. I’M FLIPPING THE GAME! Who’s joining me? 

Monday, February 16, 2015

50th - Number 1

My 50th high school reunion will be this June.  Along with other classmates we'll be assembling a collection of reminiscences about our lives then and our lives now.  Below is my first submission.  All you need to know is that Kent School is in the northwest corner of Connecticut and that I began there in 8th grade.

Sunday afternoon of Parents’ Weekend, in October of 1960, Second Form year, I kissed my parents, stoically waved goodbye, and watched our 1953 robin’s egg blue and white Buick Roadmaster roll out of the North Dorm parking lot and cross the bridge into Kent.  I ran back to the window at the end of the Middle Dorm South hallway where I could look out across the river, beyond the wide field with a single barn sitting in the middle of it, and wait for a last look at the Roadmaster making its way down Route 7, tears streaming down my face. 
It’s taken years to realize how lonely and unhappy I felt during much of my early time at Kent.  Back then I played into the notion that I wanted to go away, unaware of my own feelings or too afraid to speak up and tell my parents I’d rather be at home.  How could I speak up given the sacrifices they were making to give me the best education they could afford, to give me opportunities they’d never had?  Sacrifices that included driving that old Roadmaster into the ground, until one Christmas Eve after a midnight service it refused to go into reverse in a snowy church parking lot and mastered roads no more.
For me the forced purchase of a new car prompted great relief.  I could return to Kent after Christmas break secure that the antique Roadmaster was no longer fuel for taunts. My family would arrive at Kent in something new and shiny.  One less chink in my armor for tormentors to exploit.  My relief was short-lived.  Tormentors continued unabated with clever new and recycled old material. 
Third Form remains the absolute nadir of my existence on this planet.  Having endured the prior year where I arrived as the smallest boy in the school (4’ 11” and 87 lbs.) and shouldered the eponym Embryo (earned while scriming for food – thanks Perry Wroth!), as well as sharing sufferings, humiliations and deprivations with all my classmates, I naively believed a new era would dawn, relieved from bullying and oppression.  For me, Algo’s haze was never rent that year.  Rather, as I waded through Pilgrim’s Progress in English class learning about the Slough of Despond, I never fully connected to my own hurt, angry, lonely, up-to-chin-level deep slough.  Yes, there were French fries at a soccer banquet, a kind reward for being a ball boy.  Yes, there was Junior hockey.  Most everything else felt like a re-run of the initiation rite we’d withstood the year before.  The sky seemed always grey, my mood always blue, no matter what I might have tried to pretend outwardly.  I recall one teary meltdown in a German class after lunch.  I’d just gotten the worst grades I’d ever received in my life, far worse.  I have no idea what comment, what rebuke, what slight set me off, but there I was – in front of Bill Kurtz, in front of Steve Alpern, in front of George Harvey, in front of Herr Cartwright, in front of the WORLD crying out of control until I got to leave class to pull myself together in a Schoolhouse bathroom.
Fourth Form Year I returned late from a hockey practice in a rush to clean up for Friday night inspection. Peter Lewine and I began to argue over who should do what, or who hadn’t done what. Failing the inspection was imminent.  Words turned to wrestling.  I remember rolling around on the floor when a thumbtack (which should, of course. have been swept up) pierced my back.  Then more thrashing around and my leg kicking the large blue and yellow Triple S Stamps sign that decorated our room.  It rang like a gong and crashed to the floor.  The hullabaloo attracted our floor inspector, George Bourne.  Sadist that he was, he stood there and egged us on for his own entertainment, baiting us while knowing full well we were forfeiting any chance to pass the inspection.   He’d get the double pleasure of watching a fight and then stinging us hours. In short order Phil Davis, Senior Prefect, arrived to inspect.  One more time my eyes welled to overflowing, as I couldn’t hold back my frustration while trying to reason with adolescent authority.  No luck.  But I’d begun the practice of speaking up and taking care of myself. These were neither tears of self-pity nor remorse, but pent up passion and rage breaking through.
Some of the worst moments of my life were at Kent.  How could they not have been, given adolescence?  I recently listened to a TED talk by the writer and lecturer, Andrew Solomon, about how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.  Solomon has led me to ponder how I, or we, may have forged meaning over the past fifty years from our experience at Kent.  He mentions avoidance and endurance, two tactics I employed generously in navigating my early Kent years.  Solomon says, “Avoidance and endurance can be the entryway to forging meaning.   After you’ve forged meaning you need to incorporate that meaning into a new identity.    You need to take the traumas and make them a part of who you’ve come to be, and you need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt. “
Fifty years later we are clearly, and blessedly, not the same people.  I speculate on what Kent made out of us, and what we made out of Kent.  Never a chemistry student, I struggle to understand the molten amalgam that helped form us, may have galvanized us in some way, and created bonds between us.     
A little over two years ago Kent would bring me to tears again.  Our son, William, died of a heroin overdose.  I arrived early at the church where his memorial service was held.  As people began arriving, I found myself walking down the aisle to greet them, touched over and over by the outpouring of support.  My trips up and down the aisle became a reunion.  Classmates going to great lengths, in distance traveled, inconvenience put aside, or both, to be with us.  In a way life had come full circle.  A boy separated from his family. Only now I was the father, missing that boy so very sorely.  
As I rose to deliver a eulogy for William, there they were.  Dear friends.  Lifelong friends.  Kent friends, providing the comfort necessary to carry on.  We’d been through so much together, beginning with our dawn at Kent and on into the fullness of our lives.  As I began perhaps the most difficult task of my life, celebrating my son’s far too short life, there was no better support, no finer evidence of the better selves we’ve become than the compassionate faces letting me know how much they were there for me.      


Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Baby and The Bathwater

In late January Johann Hari wrote a piece on The Huffington Post titled The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered and It Is Not What  You Think.  Almost immediately several friends contacted me to see what I thought about it. Not a great deal, in short.  I fumed and fussed a bit, but didn’t write about it until I saw this essay by a friend of mine, David Cooke. Go here both to read David’s essay and to learn about his good work through 100 Pedals.  While you’re at it check out his podcasts.  I’m proud to say I was a guest of his recently.
Dave’s writing moved me to learn about Mr. Hari’s work and to respond to Dave.  There is a fair amount of reading involved here.  The original Hari piece.  Some well thought out responses by Dave and Peg O’Connor, plus my response to Dave below.  I think it’s worth your time as we continue to sort out what substance use disorder is, how it should be treated, and its impact on individuals and their families. 

 My response:

I am responding to Dave Cooke, a man I admire and consider a friend.  We’ve shared similar, if not congruent, journeys with our sons.  I write here to Dave, but also to others who have read any or all of the essays and articles mentioned.  I am NOT; repeat NOT attempting to start an argument with Dave here. 
If I understand Dave correctly, or Peg O’Connor, or Dr. Drew, their message in response to the Hari essay is “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Hari makes useful and valid points.  Unfortunately the title of his piece is ill conceived.  By stating that  “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered…” he both oversimplifies and misleads.  
As a father who has lost a son to heroin addiction, I can vouch from personal experience to the complexity of the disease.  No sooner had Hari’s article appeared in The Huffington Post than I had friends asking for my opinion of what Hari had to say.  In turn, I corresponded with more friends and family about the article.  One, Barry Walsh wrote the following, which I thinks explains nicely how Hari oversimplifies.  Barry wrote me:  Anything as complex as addiction is multi variate. People like simple solutions - especially the press because it's always move on to the next story... Some people have brains that are especially vulnerable to addiction and then there are all the psychological and environmental contributors. As a therapist for 40 years I've found people are more complex than rats ... Thank god...”
The key to what Barry is saying, as do Dave and Peg O’Connor is that addiction is multi variate.  Neither the cause nor the treatment for each and every individual is as simple or easy as we might like to make them.  My son has been dead for over two years and our family still wrestles with identifying the various causes and actions that led to his overdose death.  We’ll never know it all, but our attempt to gain clarity might help others.  We do know there are things he could have done differently and things he had no control over.  The same goes for his parents and those who treated him along the way.  We might gain easy satisfaction in assigning blame.  We do better to find out what we can learn from a personal tragedy, a tragedy becoming all the more common in other households in this country.   
Unfortunately the bathwater with Mr. Hari’s baby is murky.  He makes it difficult to spot the baby and hang on to it.  What do I mean?  He is a sloppy journalist.  An easy trip to Wikipedia yields this:  Johann Eduard Hari (born 21 January 1979) is a British writer and journalist who wrote columns for The Independent (London) and The Huffington Post and made contributions to other publications. In 2011, he was suspended from The Independent after charges of plagiarism. He was also accused of making improper edits to several of his critics' Wikipedia pages under a pseudonym. [2][3] The news led to his returning his 2008 Orwell Prize[4] and later was a contributing factor in his leaving The Independent.”  We all make mistakes, and Mr. Hari has worked hard publicly at atoning for his.  He says as much on the website for his new book Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs.  In particular he and his publisher go to great lengths to document all his sources properly.
That said, I believe he is making some new mistakes.  The Rat Park experiments were conducted and published in the late 1970’s.  To suggest “the likely cause of addition has been discovered” leads readers to perhaps believe that the discovery is fresh, not work done 35 or more years ago. The Wikipedia entry for Rat Park includes the following:  “The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander, Coambs, and Hadaway's first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978. The paper's publication initially attracted no response. [4] Within a few years, Simon Fraser University withdrew Rat Park's funding.”  To extrapolate from work done with rats decades ago to the likely cause of addiction is a leap of gigantic proportion.
Mr. Hari sidesteps mainstream science.  Or current science.  On his own website he refers to Bruce Alexander and Gabor Mate, both of whom he cites in his article, as “dissident scientists.”  Nora Volkow, the current head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) rejected his request for an interview.  I’d like to know more about that story.  I think it is safe to say that NIDA’s research over the span of time since the Rat Park experiments is exponentially wider and more sophisticated than the evidence Hari marshals to support his claim. There are many places to hear Nora Volkow speak on addiction science.  She recently spoke before the U.S. Senate Forum on Addiction and Collateral Damage.  Go here:
Hari does attempt to incorporate NIDA into his argument by consulting Robert DuPont, the first director of NIDA.  DuPont is a medical doctor, a psychiatrist.  He served from at NIDA from 1972 to 1978 and was also the second White House Drug Czar from 1973 to 1977 under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.  It was President Nixon who launched the War on Drugs, shortly before DuPont became Drug Czar.  It is also worth noting that much of the brain imaging capability now being used to help understand addiction either did not exist or was in its infancy during DuPont’s tenure. I have no idea how conversant Dr. DuPont is with current NIDA research or how wedded he may be to the prevailing ideas of his time.  It would be helpful to have some clarity in this regard.    
On his book’s website Mr. Hari states:  “I would be very happy to include the response of the current head of NIDA to these theories, alongside those of the previous head that are described here. I am keen to offer the fullest possible response, and to explore all sides of this really important debate about what causes addiction.”  I submit that the greatest failing of his article, and indeed his book, is that he has failed in his exploration or, at the least, jumped too quickly to a conclusion.  If we throw out the bathwater, we might want to give this baby a clean rinse. 


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Kingfisher Project

The Kingfisher Project is a community information and radio project based at public radio station, WJFF, Jeffersonville, NY, 90.5 fm.  The project was established in 2014 to honor the life of a young woman, Rebecca Pisall, 20, who was shot and killed on June 20, 2014, due to her addiction to heroin.  For more on The Kingfisher Project, go here:

Radio segments produced for the Kingfisher Project are part of the Making Waves public affairs program which airs 8 to 9 p.m. Mondays on WJFF. I was honored to be a part of the January 26th program, which included my presentation to the U.S. Senate Forum on Addiction and Collateral Consequences. 

The January 26th segment was titled “The Stigma Is Deadly.” It is a half hour long. To hear the episode, to support WJFF, and most important, to help launch the fledgling Kingfisher Project, listen to the episode here:

Thanks.  We WILL prevail.