Tuesday, November 15, 2016
A month ago I read an article in The New York Times by Michael Paulson, ‘Hamilton’ and Heartache: Living the Unimaginable. It told the story of Oskar Eustis, director of the Public Theater in New York City, who lost his sixteen-year-old-son Jack two years ago. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/theater/oskar-eustis-public-theater.html Part of the article read:
“An MP3 arrived by email, hours after Jack’s death. It came from Lin-Manuel Miranda, a new arrival to the Public fold. It was a demo recording of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the song from “Hamilton” describing Alexander Hamilton, and his wife, Eliza, as they grieve the death of their 19-year-old son, Philip:
‘There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down.’
“There is nothing you can say,’ Mr. Miranda recalled thinking. “And yet, I had a song about this. So I wrote to him saying, ‘If this is useful, then lean on it, and, if not, delete this email.’”
“Mr. Eustis and his wife found it useful. “Every line of ‘Quiet Uptown’ feels like it’s exactly correct to my experience,” Mr. Eustis said. “It was the only music we listened to for a long time, and we listened to it every day, and it became a key thing for the two of us.”
Earlier this fall my wife, Margot, and I had the sublime opportunity go to “Hamilton”. We’d listened to the recording beforehand to familiarize ourselves with the show. We remained unprepared, however, as “It’s Quiet Uptown” and the performance surrounding it moved us to tears. Like Alexander Hamilton, like Oskar Eustis, we have experienced “the suffering too terrible to name”, the death of our son, William just after he turned 24. We’ve had to “push away the unimaginable”, we know the just wanting to “swim down.” I reacted the way Oskar Eustis and his wife did, listening to the same music every day, listening to it for a long time.
In the early afternoon of December 2nd, 2012, Margot, our daughter Elizabeth Hope, and I were squeezed into a small hospital room around the bedside of our son and brother William. We’d spent the prior six weeks at his bedside, hoping for a miracle recovery; a brain deprived of oxygen after his heart had stopped beating for too long. His heartbeat was restored by EMS personnel. Over the course of those six weeks, however, his damaged brain continued to wither. His heart labored on as other body systems began to suffer from the stress they’d endured. The end imminent, William was on morphine to guarantee he would suffer no pain. The irony that a morphine derivative, heroin, had initially caused William’s heart to stop beating long enough to set off the sequence which would end with his imminent death was not lost on us.
We held William, caressed him and kissed him until he left us. Moments later Elizabeth pulled out her cell phone, laid it near William’s head and played a song. We’d played lots of music for William during those six weeks, especially anything by his favorite, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Sometimes we’d sung to him, including “Happy Birthday” on November 18th, toward the end of the ordeal, as he turned 24. The song was new to me, Antony and the Johnsons' “Thank You For Your Love.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-Xdm5yS6PY I heard it and asked Elizabeth who the artist was and if she would play it again. When we arrived home I found the song on You Tube and began playing it repeatedly. I explored a bit and came across Antony’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will”. Instantly an old favorite, Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” compelled me. I listened to it over and over and over, lying in bed with my laptop, listening first to a gravelly Leonard Cohen himself singing it, then testing the renditions of all the artists I could find. Sampling them all to distinguish comforting subtleties. Listening obsessively, interrupted only by sporadic returns to “Thank You For Your Love.” Ultimately soothed by repetitions of K.D. Laing’s rich offering, my ritual continued in the two weeks leading up to William’s memorial service. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_NpxTWbovE I have no memory of when the rite tapered off. I do know that I come back to the music when I need to, even finding something about the hateful embrace of heroin in all of Cohen’s lyric, most especially: “… love is not a victory march. It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.”
Oskar Eustis’s description of his experience had, and has, a visceral similarity. “For me, the beautiful thing about ‘Quiet Uptown’ is, it serves a ritualistic function — it takes us into the grief, and then it takes us out of it,” Mr. Eustis said. “And there’s nothing, there’s no other ritual that I know of, that can do that for me.”
For me the music takes me back to that moment when hope for William flickered, even though I knew he was gone. Death arrived before hope’s exit. As Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “We push away what we can never understand, we push away the unimaginable.” Somehow the chance to say, “Thank you for your love,” the celebration inherent in the word “Hallelujah” gets me into and out of, or at least a bit further removed from, the grief that is always a part of me.
For four years now a prolonged six-week anniversary of events darkens even more the fall season of gathering darkness. This year the struggle and the ritual have been heightened by Leonard Cohen’s death. “Hallelujah” has sprung forth from Kate McKinnon, a children’s choir, Facebook posts in honor of Leonard Cohen. Is it quiet now where we live uptown on New York’s Upper West Side? At the least, perhaps calmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnificently comprehending song and an unknown, now discovered bond with Oskar Eustis.
This November 18th there will be a “Hallelujah” for our lost boy/man, as Elizabeth, Margot, and I continue “working through the unimaginable”, sorely missing our moment to sing “Happy Birthday” to William.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
I sent the following letter to Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live. In April SNL aired an offensive parody of a commercial for a product called "Heroin AM". I wrote Mr. Michaels and informed him of my displeasure at the time. I received no response. I will continue to pursue him until such time as I receive a proper response. Here is the letter I wrote for International Overdose Awareness Day.
William H. Williams
220 West 98th Street
New York, NY 10025
August 31, 2016
Mr. Lorne Michaels
Saturday Night Live
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112
Dear Mr. Michaels:
On April 17th of this year I wrote to you expressing my dismay over SNL’s ill conceived “Heroin AM” satire. Here is the link to what I posted on my blog to help refresh your memory:
I was not alone in my disappointment, as you must be aware. My friend Marcia Lee Taylor, President and CEO of Partnership for Drug Free Kids wrote you, along with many others, including numerous readers of my blog. That blog piece continues to attract attention daily. As of this writing, there have been 21,685 hits. Clearly you struck a raw nerve. Nor has the pain subsided.
Why do I write you now? August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. It seems an appropriate day to remind you that the epidemic, which kills 129 Americans daily, has not diminished. If anything, it gets worse.
As I’ve reflected with friends wiser than I on my initial letter to you, I’ve tried to come up with a more positive message. I was struck by something Ms. Taylor wrote you: “…we don’t need parodies, we need solutions and resources. We need influencers like you, who have worked side by side with people affected by addiction, to join us in insisting that attention be paid, and resources devoted to preventing and healing this disease.”
In honor of your SNL colleagues who have succumbed to addiction, in honor of my son William, I ask that you and I find a time when we might meet to discuss solutions and resources. I write in the hope that together we might help direct the proper and necessary attention to preventing and healing this disease.
Without such attention the disease and the epidemic will not go away. Please understand that my goal is to be positive and productive; the time for me to scold you is past. The time to act is before us. I can be patient. I am persistent. You need to know I’ve spoken before three Congressional committees, once before a U. S. Senate Addiction Forum, and addressed scientists and administrators at the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the invitation of its director, Dr. Nora Volkow. In addition I’ve spoken to community groups and schools. I will not rest until we have effected change in the battle against this disease. I will not rest until I have had a chance to engage you in this endeavor.
I am happy to come to you at a time and place most convenient for you. I look forward to your response. Said response would be the best personal outcome I could imagine as a result of International Overdose Awareness Day.
Cc: Stephen B. Burke
Marcia Lee Taylor
Monday, August 8, 2016
Friday, May 20, 2016
Margot and I spent this past Wednesday and Thursday traveling to Washington, DC to testify before the House Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic: Families Impacted by Addiction, led by Congresswoman Ann Custer, NH and Frank Guinta, NH. Wednesday night we went to a reception for the 129 families we joined in DC for CARA Family Day. We got a chance to talk with Sens. Kelly Ayotte of NH, Amy Klobuchar of MN, and Rep. Tim Ryan of OH. All have been longtime sponsors and leaders in moving CARA along. Thursday we participated in the CARA Family Day. We began with a morning press conference outside the Capitol and had a chance to talk with Sen. Rob Portman of OH and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of TX. We were interviewed by DC Patch http://bit.ly/25dMiO8, met with aides to New York Senators Schumer and Gillebrand and Congressman Nadler. Thanks to our friend Carol McDaid we had lunch with Dr. Oz, giving us an opportunity to share our story and help educate him some more about addiction. We then taped an interview for the Addiction Policy Forum. We were accompanied for much of this by the most capable and wonderful Courtney Hunter of the Partnership for Drug Free Kids. CARA will continue to need everyone's attention and support if it is to pass and BE APPROPRIATELY FUNDED. Stay tuned everyone. The entire event was put together by Jessica Nickel and Casey Elliott of the Addiction Policy Forum, a remarkable achievement. They were the most important leaders we came across during our two days.
Friday, April 29, 2016
William L. White is a hero of mine. His site is always a wealth of information. A while back Bill published an essay of mine, "Pinball" in which I wrote about my son lost to heroin: "I have recently come up with the idea of writing a letter to everyone who helped treat William along the tortuous descent to his....[death]. 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?"
It seems to me more calls to clinical humility are in order. Here' a good start. Thank you Bill and thank you Chris Budnick.
It seems to me more calls to clinical humility are in order. Here' a good start. Thank you Bill and thank you Chris Budnick.
Sunday, April 17, 2016
I sent the following response to Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live after they aired a “commercial” for “Heroin AM”. Should you be so inclined his e-mail address is below.
Dear Mr. Michaels:
The young man pictured below is my son, William. He might have found your Heroin AM "advertisement" funny. We'll never know. Unfortunately, he was not alive last night to view SNL. This picture was taken on October 20th, 2012. It was taken four days after his insurance company, Emblem Health and their utilization review provider, ValueOptions denied him the in-patient detoxification services he requested. THERE'S SOME COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU! He accidentally overdosed and spent the next six weeks hospitalized before we made our decision to remove him from life support, because he would spend the rest of his life in a persistent vegetative state. THERE'S SOME COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU! Like thousands of other grieving parents his mother and I have had to cope with the loss of our son. THERE'S SOME COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU! As advocates in the fight against substance use disorder, his mother and I have spoken to two Congressional committees, a U. S. Senate Forum on Addiction, and at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. THERE'S SOME COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU! You can go here to watch what we had to say at the Senate Forum. It's had just above 5,400 views. http://bit.ly/1zgE7O3 MAYBE THERE WILL BE USEFUL COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU THERE. Not the SIZE audience SNL gets, I grant you, but we're working on it.
While we work on increasing the awareness of our audience to the heroin and opioid epidemic that confronts this country; while we alert our audience to the fact that opioids and heroin kill 129 people daily - more than die in automobile accidents; while we remind people that nearly 10% of the population at large (including your staff, your performers, and your audience) has had, has, or will suffer from substance use disorder; we promise to do our best to diminish your audience. MAYBE THERE WILL BE USEFUL COMIC MATERIAL FOR YOU IN THAT!! I'm sure your advertisers will see the humor in it!
We will do our best to encourage the 23 million people in long term recovery to boycott both your show, your advertisers, and your network. We will do our best to encourage the 23 million people currently suffering from substance use disorder to boycott your show, your advertisers, and your network. We will do our best to encourage the millions of family members affected by this disease to boycott your show, your advertisers, and your network. YOU CAN CHUCKLE ABOUT THAT. We're not.
Consider my television permanently turned off to your show. Kindly inform your sponsors I will no longer be purchasing their products. Know that I WILL be encouraging anyone I can reach to do the same. When we say WILL at our house we remember a lost boy named Will and we take action. Unless, of course, you try some new material and air an apology. Allow me to suggest a sincere and well thought out public service announcement. Perhaps something your network could air. Should you do so, let me know. I'll be happy to watch.
Feel free to share your thoughts with Mr. Michaels at: email@example.com