Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Friends Of Recovery - New York

At the invitation of Stephanie Campbell, head of Friends of Recovery- New York, I had the chance to speak at their Stand Up for Recovery Day Rally, March 6, 2018 in Albany, NewYork.  Thank you Stephanie.  My remarks follow below:

Allow me to congratulate and celebrate those of you in recovery here today.  Our son, William, cannot be with us this morning to share his recovery story.  I’ll do my best in his stead– offering my two cents worth in three minutes. 
   
In October of 2012 William went with his bag packed to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan.  William had been injecting heroin, using benzodiazepines purchased on the street, and consuming alcohol.  Aware and afraid he might die, he asked to be admitted to inpatient detox.  His insurers, Emblem Health and their Utilization Review provider, Value Options, quickly determined that inpatient detox was “not medically necessary.”

William is not here to share his recovery story today, because there is no recovery story.  Four days after he was denied treatment William accidentally overdosed.  His heart stopped beating. He was revived by an EMS team and hospitalized for six weeks, by which time it was clear that grievous damage was done.  Deprived of oxygen for too long, William’s brain had withered to a point of no recovery. He was removed from life support and died in our arms.

Laws exist which ought to have prevented William’s denial of treatment. Unfortunately we have yet to achieve full implementation of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 nearly a decade after President Bush signed it into law.  The Act requires insurers to treat illnesses of the brain, such as depression and addiction, the same way they treat illnesses of the body, such as diabetes and cancer.  In the State of New York Timothy’s Law, permanently passed by the state legislature in 2009, requires similar parity. Yet insurers continue to ignore these laws, or scheme to avoid the responsibility imposed upon them by the law. Dodge, delay, and deny is a prescription for profit, not for treatment.   

In 2014 New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement, an Assurance of Discontinuance, with Emblem Health for wrongly denying mental health and substance abuse treatment for thousands of New York members. A similar settlement with Value Options was reached in 2015.  These are but two of several such settlements reached by the Attorney General with insurers in the past few years.

Our family has an ongoing lawsuit against Emblem Health and Value Options due to their denial of treatment for William.  I tell you this, because as Friends of Recovery it is incumbent upon us all to be the foes of any and all who would deny recovery. All of us must engage in ways large and small to demand and ensure compliance that results in treatment and recovery for all. No one should have to hold their dying child.    

We are faced with the difficult process of changing hearts and minds.  That means talking to minds that have no heart, talking to hearts that have no mind, and talking to those who have neither but believe they have the best of both. It can be daunting.  We must not back off.

In our common battle with addiction our biggest obstacle is a wall.  It is the wall of stigma that confines us and blocks the path toward long overdue change.  It is a wall constructed of bigotry, discrimination, judgment, ignorance, shame, and fear, bound by the mortar of greed.  It is our responsibility to sound a clarion call, over and over, louder and louder, longer and longer, until – like the Biblical Joshua – we bring that wall tumbling down.  Tumbling down to reveal an enlightened path of compassion on the other side, a path that becomes a road to recovery for all.  Sound the call, loud and clear.  We WILL prevail.  We WILL





Sunday, February 25, 2018

Back to the Future?

In 1968 Trinity School, a private school in Manhattan, broke ground on its new Hawley Wing.  According to Trinity archives The New Hawley Wing brochure detailed sixteen modern classrooms, four science labratories (sic), seven music practice cubicles, and new research library, and a language labratory (sic). The brochure left out one interesting detail.  In the basement of the Hawley Wing was an approximately 75-foot long, 20-foot wide room.  On one side and one end the walls were formed by the cement foundation.  Cinderblock completed the remainder of the room.  The room was designed as a rifle range.  All through the end of the 20th century and well into the 21st a fuse box outside the long room provided evidence of the range.  Two circuit breakers remained clearly marked over the years with their original intent, “Rifle Range”.  When last I checked in 2008 this evidence of the range remained intact.
I have no idea whether any shots were ever fired there.  Apocryphal or not, I recall hearing that the social upheaval of the late sixties and early seventies helped set about the dissolution of the school’s rifle team, leaving the “range” available for other purposes.  When I arrived at the school in 1981 that meant an office or two and either a costume closet or a percussion rehearsal room.  The space has been repurposed numerous times, enough so that memory fails.
Sometime in the seventies an enterprising student engaged in a semester-long senior project undertook to convert part of the space into a black box theater, what became known as The Basement Theater.  It had a playing space of 20 feet by 22 feet, approximating Shakespeare’s Globe.  For decades it housed productions directed by faculty and students, as well as classes in theater, public speaking, and various other activities.  Most years it witnessed at least three or four productions at minimum.  Joan of Arc, Lizzie Borden, and Princess Diana have all done a turn in the Basement.  We waited for Godot.   
The creation of the Basement Theater was part and parcel of a roughly forty-year period of theater flourishing at Trinity.  There were musicals, an annual musical Cabaret, several faculty directed main stage and Basement productions each year, an annual student directed Shakespeare production, student directed one-act plays, student directed independent studies, and theater courses as electives in the curriculum.  It was possible for students to take a different theater class every year from seventh grade through graduation.  Trinity had a well-earned reputation for its excellent and diverse theater program. 
There is a legacy from this program still alive.  Alumni working in all aspects of theater and film:  actors, writers, directors, composers, producers, stage managers, teachers, managing arts organizations, board members, donor/supporters, (and apologies for any other capacities I’ve overlooked). 
There are times when the program received enthusiastic administrative support. Even at its height, those of us who taught and directed had to defend the value of the arts to administrators, faculty colleagues, and the community at large.  There was always a lurking concern that too much theater might make it harder to enter the Holy Trinity of Yale, Harvard and Princeton.  There were, alas, times when administrators were indifferent, inept, or intrusive.  Decisions to make cuts in the program caused the loss of courses in the curriculum, affected the number of productions taking place each year, and ultimately student participation.
More recently it was determined that the space that was probably home to over a hundred productions over the years was no longer needed as a theater space.  The small, intimate space where so many classes in creativity, where so many student actors learned what it was like to work close to an audience, where alumni would return for nostalgic visits at reunions, is now filled with exercise equipment, presided over by the physical education department.  It reflects a change in what Trinity and our society as a whole values. 
Now, as a society, we are faced with a proposal from our president that schools will be safer places if teachers are armed.   One hopes that saner minds will rule the day at Trinity.  One fantasizes that as we slide backwards, arming ourselves against our fears, that the onetime Basement Theater will be repurposed again, back to its origins.  Take out the barbells and the treadmills. What better use for the place than as a range where faculty can hone their marksmanship skills in house.  Range to artistic sanctuary to range.  Let’s hope the pendulum never swings in that wide an arc.      
           

 


Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Nobody builds walls better than me."

On December 6th and 7th I was at an Opioid Symposium sponsored by the Health and Human Services Department.  Its title was “Connecting Data to Save Lives.” The Symposium was followed by a Code-A-Thon, a 24 hour event which brought teams of select invitees from all over the United States to develop data-driven solutions to the opioid epidemic using big data, machine learning, and technology. The Code-a-Thon teams participating in the overnight event searched for ways to improve access to treatment and recovery services and for ways to better identify at-risk populations for early and effective intervention using a huge database provided by HHS.  In short, they were using evidence and science-based methodology to help improve outcomes for an epidemic that threatens a vulnerable population of our citizenry. Learn more about the event here:


The Center for Disease Control is a part of the Health and Human Services Department.  I am baffled by the Trump administration’s ban on the CDC using the words or phrases “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”

According to the Washington Post, senior CDC officials gave policy analysts the list of words during a meeting Thursday in Atlanta and told them they could not use those exact terms in any official documents being prepared for the 2019 budget being put together next year.


“Nobody builds walls better than me.” – President Donald J. Trump

In the past year I’ve written and said in more than one speech, “…in our common battle with addiction our biggest obstacle is a wall. It is the wall of stigma that hems us in and blocks the path toward long overdue change. It is a wall constructed of bigotry, discrimination, judgment, ignorance, shame, and fear. It is our responsibility to sound a clarion call, over and over, louder and louder, longer and longer, until – like the Biblical Joshua – we bring that wall tumbling down. Tumbling down to reveal an enlightened path of compassion on the other side, a path that becomes a road to recovery for all.”

Despite all the talk from the White House the President has done far more to reinforce the wall of stigma than he has to build a path of compassion. He is a disease out of control.  There are good people in government who want to make lives better.  People working to make lives better.  I’ve seen them in action.  There are clearly talented, willing citizens who want to assist.  We cannot, must not, let an ill- tempered, ill-advised braggart divide us or separate us from those who would help us heal.         



Friday, December 1, 2017

2017 Activity Summary


We’re proud to share what we done in the past year to honor the mission of the Where There’s A Will Fund. The Fund made its first distributions this past year.  Four groups we have  worked with closely were the beneficiaries.  Go to their websites to learn more about their good work. 

Addiction Policy Forum 
                                  
                       
Facing Addiction
                                               
          
Friends of Recovery  - New York


Partnership for Drug-Free Kids 
                       


We continue to work on our own:

Testimony
Margot and Bill joint testimony before Congressional Committee on Combating the Opioid Epidemic 2/28/17    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DVJrcZvqlQ&t=6s

Writing
Margot’s Letter to the Editor of The New York Times  http://nyti.ms/2xpa1QT

Two essays published in Addiction Unscripted
An essay in The Episcopal New Yorker
An essay in Motherwell - http://bit.ly/2xFS5gn
An essay on Partnership for Drug Free Kids Parent Blog  11/10/17

Partnership for Drug Free Kids Parent Blog 
5/11 – “The Insurance and Treatment System Failed This Family.
                Now They’re On A Mission To Help Others.”
6/13 – “9 Stories of 9 Inspiring Dads”

Speaking
International Overdose Awareness Day/Fed Up Rally
Morningside Park – Hurleyville, NY  8/31/17

Rachel Carson High School, New York City  10/11/17
Sponsored by the ’Mentor Foundation

Radio

Guest spots on WJFF 90.5, Jeffersonville, New York

Theater/Improv/Play Workshops

BIGVision - 3/17 & 10/17



Partnership for Drug-Free Kids - Staff Workshop 11/29/17

Conference

HHS/Medicine X Opioid Design-a-thon Workshop - Presenter and Participant
Washington DC 12/5,6,7/17

http://opioidsymposium.org

Awards

Addiction Policy Forum
Bill recognized as a “2017 Advocate of The Year”

Caron – Greater New York Service Awards
An “Unsung Hero Award”

Caron's generous citation read: “Bill Williams is a father who lost his son to addiction, but his loss has driven him to passionately help others in need of hope and understanding. Since the death of his 24-year-old son, William, Bill works tirelessly to fight the stigma associated with substance use disorder by sharing his story to help others and speak to the desperate need for change. Current laws and societal patterns obstruct the recovery process for many, and Bill has worked with lawmakers, medical professionals, law enforcement, addiction researchers, community organizers and lobbyists to fight for change. He works with the Addiction Policy forum and Friends of Recovery New York to help bring about imperative changes in law. Bill also teaches theater and improv classes for BIGVISION, showing those recovering from addiction that they can find meaning, release and calm through the fun and joy acting and improv provides. His essays have appeared in publications for the New York Times, “Nora’s Blog,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, The Partnership for Drug Free Kids, Phoenix House, Freedom Institute, Medium, and Addiction Unscripted.com. Bill is an inspiration to all, showing how grief and loss can be transformed to benefit the lives of others.”





Saturday, September 30, 2017

FORE!

“So, Mr. Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of North America. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.”

Those words could be from the parent of a child with substance use disorder in Manchester, New Hampshire; Louisville, Kentucky; Akron, Ohio; or so many other places in our country where millions need government action.  The pockets of this country where our former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the commission headed by Chris Christie have each outlined, redundantly, paths forward in the fight against the opioid epidemic that takes 144 American lives daily.

Instead they are the words of San Juan’s brave, heroic, mayor and leader, Carmen Yulin Cruz.  Not only has he failed to implement relief in a timely and effective fashion, our president prefers Twitter to chastise another politician, a Puerto Rican, a woman who has spoken truth to his power. 

Mayor Cruz said, “…when it comes to saving lives we are all part of one community of shared values.”  She was, alas, wrong.  Some of our citizens live on islands.  Islands surrounded by lots and lots of water, or lots and lots of stigma. Islands whose shared values have not reached the shore of Trumpland. 
Is Mr. Trump part of our community of shared values?  Is he preparing even overdue action for what lies ahead while he plays golf in Bedminster, New Jersey (a state that lost 1901 lives to opioids last year) today?

What lies ahead for these and other crises?  Fore! 



Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Drug Epidemic - Where Are We Headed?


4/15/17

I came across the following interactive graphic in the New York Times’The Upshot” today.  Since 1990, the number of Americans who have died every year from drug overdoses has increased by more than 500 percent. In 2015, more Americans died from drug overdoses than from car accidents and gun homicides combined. When the statistics for more recent years become available indications are they will be worse.

I did a “tour” of every county I’ve lived in over the course of my life.  The statistics are horrifying.  The percentage of deaths in the 15-44 age group due to drug overdoses in 2015 in:

New York
       Nassau County 32%
       Manhattan 17%
       Sullivan 41%
       Ulster 23%
Pennsylvania
       Luzerne 30%
New Jersey
       Somerset 25%
Connecticut
       Litchfield 40%
Maine
       Cumberland 33%
Massachusetts
       Suffolk 32%
New Hampshire
       Hillsborough 46%

I shouldn’t be surprised, but nonetheless, I find the numbers in rural counties particularly alarming.
To do your own tour or to get a sense of the drug epidemic in this country go here:
 


  

  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Children of the Opioid Epidemic

At a small dinner party just recently a friend told us about her brother, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist in the Midwest.  Things have gotten so out of hand there that children requiring care because substance use renders their parents incompetent aren’t being placed directly into foster care.  A clogged, sluggish system only reviews placement options once a week.  In the meantime the children are given “shelter” in psychiatric wards.  Your guess is as good as mine as to which environment is safer: at home with addicted parents incapable of properly caring for them or in a ward amidst minds awry from causes other than drugs.  To compound this lose/lose situation, the children in temporary placement occupy beds needed for children who genuinely require treatment in a psychiatric ward. 

Lose/lose/lose.

I’ve been mulling this situation over ever since I first heard about it.  Today I saw an editorial in The New York Times - Children of the Opioid Epidemic.  You can find it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/opinion/young-victims-of-the-opioid-epidemic.html

While going online to locate the Times editorial I came across an earlier Wall Street Journal article, “The Children of the Opioid Crisis,” written by Jeanne Whalen on December 15th.  That reporting brought me full circle back to the Midwest.  You can find that excellent reporting here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-children-of-the-opioid-crisis-1481816178

The Journal article told, yet again, the story of police apprehending overdosed parents in Ohio parked in their car while their young boy was in the back seat.  My friend Jessica Nickel, the awe-inspiring leader of the Addiction Policy Forum, had written an essay about that boy.  For her the story was too close to home.   http://www.addictionpolicy.org/single-post/2016/10/05/The-Boy-in-the-Back-Seat 

Today there is one small, tragic, change of fact in Jessica’s story.  Back in October when she wrote, the statistic was 129 deaths a day due to drug overdoses. More current figures show that the number has risen to 144 a day! Worse, that number is likely to continue to rise before we see a decline.
  
As the addiction epidemic mounts it is clear that we not only have to act on   prevention, first responders, treatment, recovery, law enforcement and the judicial process.  We have to pay prompt and dedicated attention to the recovery of children affected by this crisis.  A compelling component of our recovery as a society is staring us in the face.  The Times reminds us, “There was a big spike in foster care cases during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.  The government was far too slow to act then, and it is in danger of being dangerously behind the curve again.”